For Thomas Hunter the Pilbara has been the backdrop to many defining stages of his life — of carefree fun and family support, but also of uncertainty and misgivings and perhaps most importantly a realisation of independence.

Today, Thomas is comfortable and confident in the person he is but that was not always the case.

Growing up as a gay Indigenous man, he recognised that he was “a minority within a minority” living in one of the greatest mining regions in the world, with its stereotypical reputation for hard-working, hard-living miners.

Thomas, like many members of his family including his mother and father, was born at the old Hedland Hospital in Sutherland Street.

The hospital, overlooking the Spoilbank Marina, was closed in 2010 – replaced by the Hedland Health Campus.

But for Thomas it was the site of many childhood memories.

“My grandmother worked at the old hospital in the kitchen and was living in the hospital quarters that were right next door,” Thomas said. “We got to watch the ships roll in and go walking on the reef. Everyone knew everyone and we rode our bikes everywhere.”

Port Hedland was home for a time, but the family moved regularly to accommodate the working arrangements of his mother who was employed by the Department of Child Protection, now within the Department of Communities.

It was during one of these postings that the family moved to Karratha. One of Thomas’ brothers was born there, his sister and another brother were born in Perth.

“I’m the oldest and the best looking,” he said of his siblings.

The transient nature of family life, added to Thomas’ own travels, meant that he has left and then returned to Port Hedland many times.

‘It’s where I feel most grounded, I still have a lot of family here,” he said. “I’m not built for the city lifestyle and Hedland has such a good family environment.

“I have friends who have moved here within the last couple of years, and they have said the same thing.

“It’s one of those towns where it’s comfortable, it’s laid back, you are not having to rush; everyone knows each other and says hello in the shop.

“You can catch up and have a quiet drink or a cup of coffee easily.

“It’s very much that sense of community.”

Thomas and husband Henley have been in Port Hedland for the past three years.

The couple, who have been together for five years and married for three, moved to Port Hedland from Perth in search of better employment opportunities.

Henley now works for FMG and Thomas for IBN Corporation as a field officer assisting members of the Yinhawangka, Nyiyaprli and Banyjima communities, with mental health, health, and drug and alcohol Issues.

Before returning to Port Hedland, Thomas studied for a Certificate IV in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Primary Health Care Practice through the Marr Moditj Training Aboriginal Corporation.

“As an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health practitioner I can do anything a nurse can do, but with specific reference to Indigenous clients,” he said.

Thomas said he was about 18 and working in Dampier when he found a sense of independence and “being comfortable in my own skin; being the flamboyant person that I am now instead of having to hide behind a façade”.

“In my mind I was so scared about what people thought of me, about basing their opinions on me being gay rather than who I am,” he said.

That loud and proud personality shines through in drag queen Ayleesha Tryed, an entertainer Thomas created to enter a competition in Broome.

“Ayleesha has been around for four years. I entered the Broome Kimberley Queen competition during Mardi Gras weekend in 2018.

“They were looking for entrants and I thought I’d do it for a laugh. If I didn’t win then ‘At least she tried’, which is where the name came from.

“I didn’t win, but I went back the next year with a vengeance and won the crown in 2019.

“Since then, Ayleesha has developed into a completely different person to when she started; louder and prouder.

“Being Indigenous, growing up in small towns like Karratha and Port Hedland I didn’t see a large representation of who I am today, a proud gay Indigenous man.

“It was mining focused, playing football, and going fishing and here’s me playing with Barbie Dolls. I definitely didn’t fit in.

“My family knew from a very young age, and I suppose as anyone would at the time you deny it and try to hide it.

“So, with Ayleesha I wanted to identify for young people. My motto is to be true to who you are, whether that’s a gay person or a drag queen.”

Ayleesha performs throughout the Pilbara and was part of Australia’s first Drag Expo in Melbourne.

“It was great to see so many Queer Entertainers in one place,” Thomas said.

“Ayleesha has shows coming up so check on her socials to see if she will be in a town near you. Tickets are a hot commodity around here and sell out in 30 minutes. You’ll find her on Facebook and Instagram.”

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