"Terrifying and sad" is how 25-year-old Katerina Clark describes the three years she spent as a teenager hiding the fact she was gay because she was scared of being judged, a fear so great she attempted to take her own life.

When she did find the courage to finally be open about her sexuality and identity, she was bullied, told she would go to hell for being gay, called f****t and more "horrific names", and had "no one to turn to", finding little support in the community for young LGBTI people.

Driven by the fact she didn't want other LGBTI people to have the same negative experiences she did in coming out, she has just started an LGBTI student support desk in Toi Ohomai where she is in her final year of social studies. She's hoping to join the police and continue her work to support the LGBTI community in her career.

"I don't want anyone to experience what I did ... having no one to turn to, being alone and scared of being who you are because we are so afraid of society and the heart-breaking things people say and do."

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Born and adopted from Russia — "one of the most homophobic countries in the world" — at just 3 years old to a family from Waihi, Clark says she has faced many challenges in her life but none so great as the fear of coming out in a society not accepting of who she was.

As a child, Clark said it was sometimes a challenge not knowing her origins.

"People who are adopted have this hole in their heart, of something missing. That feeling of not knowing. It's a bit like trying to find an answer to a question and you never get the answer — it annoys you and sits with you."

Clark attended a religious school in Tauranga for seven years, which she said factored in her fear of coming out.

She did not do so until she was 21, an age she says is "old age".

"Nowadays we have 14, even 10-year-olds coming out, which is great that they feel comfortable and proud to do that. I think I was so sheltered not just at home but also at school. When you're being brought up in a heteronormative society being gay is a sin, then you're less likely to come out, right?"

She says she doesn't know when she first understood her sexuality and had no one to talk to about her feelings.

"I think there were always signs there in my childhood. I was a tomboy. I seemed to always get on well with boys and play sport but was never really attracted to them. I think you just come to an age and time when you're like, this is who I am. For me, it was questioning 'what is this? I don't understand'."

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In the wider Tauranga community, she found there was a huge lack of support for LGBTI people. Photo / Andrew Warner
In the wider Tauranga community, she found there was a huge lack of support for LGBTI people. Photo / Andrew Warner

While her family were very supportive, she says in the wider Tauranga community, she found there was a huge lack of support for LGBTI people.

"All I wanted was to have someone I could turn to and ask for help. I needed to talk to someone who was gay. Who knew what I was going through, who could answer my confusing questions."

She took the matter in her own hands, partnering up with Rainbow Youth to create Tauranga Pryde LGBTI Youth Group in early 2014.

She later moved on and started to work towards bringing colour to the Toi Ohomai campus.

She worked on researching the LGBTI community and last year for the Toi Ohomai board of trustees to read why LGBTI support was needed on the campus.

"I literally had to go and get books out, read about the history of Pride so I could have an understanding of what my community went through to gain our rights in society."

When she took the idea of the support desk to the campus bosses, they said yes straight away.

The culmination of this is the new LGBTI student support desk placed in the Upper Atea building at the Windermere campus.

All I want to do is create a comfortable environment for all LGBTI students where they can feel accepted, be proud of who they are and get the support that they need.

"This support desk is a way for students to access ongoing help and advice regarding sexuality and gender. Rainbow Corner brings no judgment as it is a friendly and safe environment surrounded by supportive Toi Ohomai staff.

"Flyers, information, giveaways are all available for all students but mainly for students who identify as LGBTI. A question box with a form is there also for students to ask anything they like and further support will come to them. Helpline, Outline support is also visible for them to call. I am based at the desk when I am on campus and happy to speak with students whenever they want. It's just really a way of the campus saying, 'we support you'. And me saying 'be proud of who you are!'"

She says students come up and have a chat, grab some free stuff, or might want to talk about how they are feeling.

"All I want to do is create a comfortable environment for all LGBTI students where they can feel accepted, be proud of who they are and get the support that they need."

As well as her advocacy work on campus, Clark is well on her way to getting her degree in social work, despite sometimes struggling academically.

"I was never the smart kid at school, I'm still not. I have always struggled with maths and English so university has challenged my mind and soul. I think we all learn differently, I learn through doing and interacting with people. I enjoy being out in the community and learning that way, and I am good with people, but not so much writing about it."

She is a woman who clearly excels in is her ability to connect with others from all walks of life and be a confident advocate for the LGBTI community, a long way from the teenager who was so afraid she wouldn't be accepted for who she was that she was suicidal.

"Now when I go around speaking to people or presenting workshops I talk about this experience as a way to paint a picture for people see how scary it can get even for someone like me who is proud and out now. I was very vulnerable, I believed I was going to hell for being gay, I believed society hated me. So I tried to take my own life. From this moment after months of counselling, I started to change my way of thinking, I started to open up to people and eventually told people I was gay. All I needed was someone to just listen to me and say it is okay to be gay. There is nothing wrong with you."

Clark's attendance of a religious school in Tauranga played a factor in her fear of coming out. Photo / Andrew Warner
Clark's attendance of a religious school in Tauranga played a factor in her fear of coming out. Photo / Andrew Warner

Having support groups or a mentor would have really helped her.

"Reflecting back now I would say I just wished so bad that I could have spoken to someone who was gay. I just wanted to ask questions, what does this all mean? Simple as that.

"Other people need the same as what I needed, someone to look up to and talk to. We have so many questions going through our minds and if you are sheltered or are being told gay is not okay then you need as much support as you can get. Someone who will listen to you, someone who is proud of who they are therefore that will make you feel proud of who you are."

Clark says she thinks New Zealand is changing to become a more diverse society but there is still "a lot of work to go".

She cites an example of the police — who she says are really great at showing diversity.

"They did up a police car in rainbow colours for Pride which was really exciting to see. However the comments on the Facebook posts about it were terrible. It upsets me because I think of someone who is coming to terms with who they are - they see this post and think it's great, but then they read the comments and go in hiding again, not feeling safe to come out to their family or friends."

Lack of empathy and understanding is often a driver for homophobia.

"I feel a lot of people lack knowledge, that's it. That's why it's so important when I speak to groups I get across the emotions a person feels when they are coming to terms with who they are. The fact that someone could take their own life because they don't feel supported or that they are getting hated on. People tend to use the word 'gay' as in insult. I just laugh now because it doesn't insult me anymore."

She says the Bay has come a long way since 2014 when she first came out.

"Since then I've had a lot of support from people, such as journalists, the District Health Board, city council and MP Todd Muller. My work was recognised by the Government when I won two youth awards and then a local hero medal at New Zealander of the Year. So I think it had come a very long way. The police have been so interactive with me and the LGBTI community. We have our very own diversity liaison officers whom I have had many discussions with. I am very proud of Tauranga and how people have become more accepting of LGBTI people and the support groups."

She thinks initiatives such as Auckland Pride, or New Zealand companies who strive for Rainbow Tick accreditation, are beneficial to both LGBTI and non-LGBTI people.

"It is showing that we are one, we support all people. We are an organisation that shows no judgment, and we have love for diversity. This shows that there is acceptance for all people."

She is determined to continue her work to reach more LGTBI people, using her own experiences to show them "they are not alone."

"I've faced bullying, I've faced discrimination, I've faced suicide and survived. I don't want to see anyone go through that just because they don't feel safe, proud, or supported. There is a lot of support out there now and a lot of people wanting to help.

Her next step, she hopes is joining the police force.

"I want to make at least one person's coming out experience a positive one. We should all feel safe and feel accepted. I want to say for anyone who's reading this who is sitting alone, hiding, coming to terms with who they are, I want you to know that you are loved, you are supported by many people out in the community. I care about you, I understand how terrifying it is but this is why I have created support networks so you can reach out and get the support you need. Even if it's just a question or you want to talk, make sure you reach out and ask. You are worth the time and the effort.

"Be proud of who you are."

If you need help

If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.

Or if you need to talk to someone else:

• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865, or 0508 TAUTOKO (available 24/7)
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (Monday-Friday, 1pm-10pm. Saturday-Sunday, 3pm-10pm)
• Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• Samaritans: 0800 726 666