Parker McRitchie always knew he was different.
"When I was four, I used to go around telling everyone I was a boy and I was very adamant about it," Parker told me, as we sat beneath a giant rainbow flag, hanging conspicuously in the Ballarat library.
"But it was only when I was about 10 or 11 that it properly clicked that I wasn't a girl - well, fully at least."
From the outset, there was an air of unparalleled pluckiness about Parker - he presented as a person capable of responding to all manner of thorny questions with an informed alacrity, intelligence and maturity that belied his 13 years.
Anatomically assigned female at birth, but identifying as neither female nor wholly male in life, Parker said he shifted somewhere along the rich continuum underlying that binary divide.
"I came out to my family two years ago, when I was around 11," Parker said, matter-of-factly.
On the face of it, it sounded as though Parker had, remarkably, experienced little in the way of hurt as he trekked that unyielding divide between who one is as opposed to who society says one is.
But it soon transpired he had met with problems of acceptance socially and at school. And, added to that, his parents' initial reaction was to gloss over his transness, dismissing it as "just a phase" or a symptom of normal youth confusion.
This, he says, was "hugely isolating".
"They - they went, I think, through denial," Parker said.
"But eventually they did come around and ever since they have been my number one supporter - I'm very lucky and grateful to have that in my life."
The problem, Parker said, was that family support - as crucial as it was - was not enough, at least not in a world coloured by preconceived binary norms, where any deviation from the natural order of things can readily be reduced to a "phase" or, worse, an unnatural aberration.
"But I finally have peace," Parker told me, referencing the pioneering Speak Ballarat youth group to which he joined just last month.
"You need to know that being closeted and not having that community is not a small thing - it can be terrifying and lonely.
"As great as my family is, they're not able to understand my transness in ways that others can. [Without Speak], I'd still be at home, feeling very sad and alone."
Speak Ballarat, it bears emphasising, is a force for change. In the recent state budget, it was allocated $3.2 million over three years to set up and trial a safe space unit - or rainbow hub - for LGBTIQ+ youth.
The hub, by design, will ensure young people have ready access to the varied social, emotional and health supports they need, including life-changing referral services.
Drawing on their own trans experience, Sage Akouri, who is co-founder and chief executive of Speak, said the rainbow hub was a long time coming.
"The strength of this safe and affirming space is that it will be developed in consultation with young people, not for young people," Sage said, adding that, had it been around even a decade ago, it would have spared them a great deal of trauma.
"Knowing that I could have seen other young people going through similar things would have alleviated a lot of the trauma I experienced of being alone and feeling like there was something wrong with me."
It's a view shared by Conner Lewry, who is 22 but looks younger - something he cheekily put down to testosterone therapy.
"This will definitely save lives," he said.
From a young age, Conner grappled with the acute pain, fear and anxiety that comes with gender dysphoria. Profound loneliness, he said, - that feeling of mental anguish, distended - is a spectre which he suspects haunts all trans and gender diverse people.
"When I first came out at 15, I didn't have much of a community," he said.
"But even once I had that community, I was still in a really dark headspace. You're almost questioning your reality - like, 'who am I?"
"I think the difference, here, is I probably would have stayed questioning my identity [were it not] for the support I had."
Even when trans people do manage to overcome the deep-seated fear that commonly attaches to coming out, Conner said, many still lacked fluency or understanding as to "what being trans looked like".
Part of the problem, he explained, was they felt imprisoned by patriarchal gender stereotypes, meaning - in the case of a trans man, for instance - if they didn't present in a sufficiently masculine manner, this would somehow invalidate their identity in the eyes of others.
"I knew I wasn't a girl, but for a period of time I thought I couldn't be a man because I was too feminine or wasn't interested in sports," he said.
"It was only through meeting other trans people that those stereotypes were destroyed.
"There were trans women who were still woodcrafters or mechanics and trans men who liked sewing. I realised that I can still like what I like, regardless of my gender identity."
Therein, he said, lies the power of the rainbow hub to irrevocably alter people's lives for the better.
It's a sentiment shared by KL Joy, 52, who said a readiness to discuss issues around gender or sexuality simply wasn't possible when they were young.
"My youth was impacted by the knowledge of AIDS meaning sex equals death - those ads shaped my young adulthood," KL said.
"I guess when I was coming into myself, a safe place didn't really exist. The understanding was that gay people were dirty or unclean - there was a lot of deep shame about it."
In recent years, however, KL has embarked on what they termed their "gender revolution", embracing - for the first time - the full panorama of their identity.
What altered KL's mindset, prompting them to come out as trans later in life, was the immovable sense of security and community they felt living in Ballarat - something KL attributes to the elemental leadership exhibited by mayor Daniel Moloney and Cr Belinda Coates.
"The community here in Ballarat is mighty, just mighty," KL said.
"Here we are, sitting under a rainbow flag - when I first saw that flag, I knew this was a place where I could be me."
Reflecting on what it meant to finally come out as trans, KL paused before answering, "it was like coming home", they said.
"I've always identified as queer - but there's never been a more comfortable me than there has been in the last three years."
On any view, it was a powerfully resonant moment of self-reflection; a rare moment of triumph marked only by the tragedy that KL's selfhood was for so long fractured by what society deemed normal, valid and acceptable.
"My dad, who was my hero, never got to see me as I am now," KL said, adding that while they'd had a bit of a "rough road, he had come around in the end."
"And I guess for me there's that deep sadness, but I hope that he's seeing me now."
Distilled, the different and continuing journeys of Parker, Conner, Sage and KL show the power of acceptance and personal autonomy.
And while all have identified as different for much of their lives, the hope is initiatives like the rainbow hub alter that - that gender non-conformity is one day afforded the same banal normalness we assign to cisgender people.
The hope, in other words, is that what society deems 'normal' or 'ordinary' one day - and one day soon - will properly, and irrevocably, accommodate the full incandescent beauty of all people.
As Conner put it, "I just want it to get better and better until [the trans and wider rainbow community] is accepted as ordinary."
Readers seeking crisis support can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 and Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.
If you are seeing this message you are a loyal digital subscriber to The Courier, as we made this story available only to subscribers. Thank you very much for your support and allowing us to continue telling Ballarat's story. We appreciate your support of journalism in our great city.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.