Gay rights advocate and education activist Daniel Witthaus is an extraordinary man with an extraordinary mission to eliminate homophobia in Australia. This passionate Victorian from Geelong is about to embark on an incredible 38 week journey all around rural Australia, taking his anti-homophobia training, called Beyond That’s So Gay’, to schools, organizations and individuals. Daniel will be documenting his journey for Same Same giving us all a genuine snapshot of what life is really like if you’re a queer and living in the country. We catch up with him just days before his amazing journey begins.
Daniel, tell us a bit about your activist past and how you got involved with LGBT issues in Education.
I was born and raised in Geelong, Victoria, and that is where I started volunteering for a gay and lesbian youth support project in 1996 (the GASP! Project). I think they thought I was only there to find a boyfriend and were a bit surprised that I was still there 6 months later helping out with unglamorous tasks.
Hearing the stories of the young people who attended GASP! I was convinced, like many before me and since, that something needed to be done in schools. With the help of some mentors and the support of many others I piloted my first challenging homophobia program in an all-boys Catholic school. The success of that and the development of an educational package for teachers, Pride & Prejudice, laid the foundation for years of working with students and teachers.
On the basis of my work in Australian schools I was asked to start working on LGBT education projects in developing countries. Really I could not say no.
What inspired you to write Beyond ‘That Is So Gay’? What is the book exactly?
For many years I had noticed people getting very engaged and excited when I told stories of the work I did with young people and teachers. That was when I decided to make storytelling the basis for a lot of my training. It’s something I call edu-tainment.
When I realized that teachers needed more than the Pride & Prejudice education package to actually support sexual diversity and challenge homophobia in their classrooms, I started putting together ideas on what I could write about that teachers did not already have.
The book is everything a teacher or health professional would need to know to challenge homophobia in their own school. It takes teachers on a journey, assuming they know nothing about the topic, from pre-awareness through to action. Rather than being dry and formal, I’ve attempted to make it practical and full of stories and examples that people can relate to. In that sense non-teachers have found it useful reading for their own lives.
You’re about to embark on an incredible journey around rural Australia. What’s it all about and why are you doing it?
The beginning of my work and much of it since has been in regional Australia. In 2000 I became involved with the Human Rights Commission’s Outlink project, a national network for LGBT young people and their service providers. I worked with Rodney Croome and others in an attempt to continue his pioneering work, yet without ongoing funding the network folded despite its promising beginnings.
A decade later I decided a repeat and expansion of Outlink was long overdue. I knew that I could give it my best shot and re-start an important conversation: the experience of LGBT people in regional Australia.
What are some of the things you are doing differently to the Beyond ‘That’s So Gay’ tour that Rodney Croome did a decade ago?
What Rodney did so well was to collect the experiences of LGBT young people, as well as the examples of what services were doing so well to support them. Rodney found that regional, rural and remote areas desperately needed training and resources. So in addition to getting a snapshot of what modern day life is like for LGBT people in regional Australia, I can provide skills, strategies and resources for teachers and health professionals based on my experience here in Australia and overseas. I’m also learning from Rodney’s experiences and working closely with state and territory partners to make sure LGBT people are linked in with the best services.
Are you doing this tour by yourself? If not, who else is going along with you?
I was planning to go alone, however I had a very generous offer from one of my best friends (from over the last 15 years). I was talking about the project between films at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival and my friend offered to assist me. I explained that I could probably not afford to get myself around the country, let alone pay for an assistant. It was then that he told me if I made sure he was fed and sheltered for the year he would give up work and get in the truck with me. Given he could not be a better candidate for an assistant I had to say yes. He’ll help keep me sane.
Who is funding this project? How is it all being paid for?
The Beyond ‘That’s So Gay’ Tour is a combination of self-funding, in-kind support and donations. Being auspiced by Uniting Care-Cutting Edge means that all donations are tax deductible. We’ve had some success with a Challenge Homophobia One Tank Of Fuel At A Time campaign, where people donate money to go towards fuel costs. Motafrenz, the gay motoring group, have been particularly generous in this. Every little bit helps.
Another big help has been people offering accommodation in the places where we will be visiting on the tour itinerary as well as access to free or cheap venues for training. Then there are other things like meals and use of gyms/pools which will mean that I’m well-fed and exercised! Last night someone donated a blow-up mattress… and now we are looking for a couple of swags.
Attending training will also help generate income for the tour so that we can make it all around Australia.
You’re doing this journey a particular way – starting in the West Coast first. Why did you decide to do things this way?
There are two main reasons for launching the tour in Geelong, my hometown, and going west.
Firstly, traditionally the east coast of Australia has really dominated any national LGBT conversations. It is a conscious decision to go South and Western Australia then the Northern Territory first. I want to hear what they have to say first and see how they respond to this work given the history of their LGBT work in regional areas.
Secondly I was keen to wear shorts and a t-shirt everywhere I went which means that I’ll be up north during winter and down south during the warmer months.
Are you in a relationship?
The amount that I travel for work has always made it a challenge to be ‘boyfriended’. Someone has to really understand that I’m not coming home every night and that I’m not good with co-dependence. Having said that I am in a relationship… with this national challenging homophobia tour! There is honestly not a great deal of time, space or emotional energy for anything else which is kind of strange, yet a necessity. I’m sure that the tour will let me see other people if the situation arises, but I’m committed to giving it my all – after all it’s only 9 months.
So, 38 weeks is a long time to be on the road, and you are bound to get a little antsy. How are you going to handle not having sex?
Believe me it doesn’t take me long to get a “little antsy”. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t daydreaming every now and then about rolling in the hay with a farm boy in overalls… and several other cheap gay in the bush stereotypes and scenarios. However I imagine I’ll find myself working harder than I usually do and working out a lot! It’s funny that some of my friends have suggested that they will “fly in” to various locations to do their bit for the tour [laughs] I’m sure I’ll survive.
You’ll have a blog, radio interviews and you’ll be keeping a video diary of your tour for Same Same. What sort of stuff will you feature in that content? What are you looking for?
I’ll be trying to give people an idea about what I’m experiencing on the road. So I’ll be talking about the places I visit, the people I find there and how that’s impacting on me. There will be feedback on how training and other events are playing themselves out. People can be sure I’ll be sharing my observations and anything that I find especially funny or disturbing.
I’m looking for people who want to share their story about what life is really like for them in regional Australia, even if they have moved away or are moving back. I’m looking for the good, the bad and the ugly. If people know anyone who could help or who might be able to contribute their experiences, then please get them to take a look at the website and drop us an e-mail.
Daniel Witthaus will be challenging homophobia in a town near you as he embarks on his ‘Beyond ‘That’s So Gay’ tour on from February 22nd till November 12th 2010.
Stay tuned to Same Same for his exclusive video diaries and keep up to date with his amazing journey at his website www.thatssogay.com.au