My NICHE Agenda – Daniel Witthaus

Daniel Witthaus & Bruce Ford challenging homophobia in rural Oz: Bruce is the one with the wheels

Daniel Witthaus & Bruce Ford challenging homophobia in rural Oz: Bruce is the one with wheels

“It’s about bloody time…”

Australia, regional, rural and remote areas have spoken.  Those communities regularly say it is “about bloody time” that they are included in conversations about how best to support and include lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people.

For the last few years, I’ve traveled to every nook and cranny of this country, sometimes more than once, to have conversations with everyday people – LGBTI and not.

Officially, the Beyond ‘That’s So Gay’ Tour of regional, rural and remote Australia concluded, after 266 consecutive days at the end of 2010.  Unofficially it never stopped.  Attempting to be less Priscilla Queen Of The Desert and more the Leyland Brothers – google if the reference is lost on you, giggle if you remember only too well – I set out to ‘challenge homophobia one cuppa at a time’.

When I left Geelong in February, many feared that locals would run me out of towns with pitchforks, that my openly gay truck (Bruce Ford) or myself would be harmed and/or that no-one would talk to me.  What happened instead was that I was warmly welcomed in most places I visited (and often encouraged to stay on or return), that I came through unscathed (and Bruce too) and that the overwhelming majority of people, when asked, talked to me.  In fact I never exhausted my list of potential cuppas in any location.  Yes ANY location.  Yes, even Mt Isa, Kalgoorlie and Broken Hill.  Oh, and remote Indigenous communities too.  I always left knowing that I could have had more fruitful cuppas.

After two years of revisiting country communities, 18 months of developing and delivering workshops for Australian Marriage Equality and 6 months in Berlin writing the manuscript for my second book, After Priscilla, I am more clear than ever about my gay agenda.

On Sunday 20th January this year, I launched a blueprint for my updated gay agenda: the National Institute for Challenging Homophobia Education (NICHE).   A gathering place for people, ideas and resources, NICHE is part-LGBTI think-tank, part-Centre of Excellence and part-operational organisation.

Rather than focusing on the issue of the day, such as marriage equality, homophobic bullying or ageing, NICHE is about stepping back to map what’s happening, what’s working and what’s not.  All have challenging homophobia in common; failing to do that well, means a certain stall in progress.

The focus of NICHE, and unashamedly so, is ‘outside the LGBTI bubble’: regional, rural and remote Australia.  Outer metropolitan areas have been included, given they often mimic regional Australia in many ways.  ‘Homophobia’ is chosen over other terms merely as a practicality, even though I acknowledge and understand the academic and intellectual concerns: regardless of semantics, people across the country have ‘homophobia’ already in their vocabulary, and this has been used effectively as a starting point for a great many conversations; 100s and 100s of cuppas in fact.

On the smell of an oily rag, meaning currently I have only my own resources for the first year, I have announced some ambitious projects for NICHE: donating my time for one week in five non-metro communities; mapping country communities’ LGBTI Inclusiveness; building a library of LGBTI stories from regional, rural and remote areas; a world-first LGBTI TED event and a National Challenging Homophobia Roundtable.

This last point is classic NICHE.  Rather than go to each and every mainstream and philanthropic organisation, we need to get them all in the same room to highlight what is and isn’t being done, who is and isn’t putting their resources where their mouth is and to look at leveraging their powers for the greater LGBTI good.

Ambitious and a tad audacious, I grant you, however these are all designed to collect evidence and build on what’s working well.  Still, my gay agenda has an end game beyond first-year projects.

At a casual glance, things are better these days.  Yet scratch that LGBTI surface and we find that it’s only better for those who are resourced, supported and linked in.

I’ve actually had people get frustrated and angry with me when I say this.  Their sense is that things are better for them these days and those around them.  So how can it be seemingly better, yet the research evidence still points to LGBTI people, young and old, experiencing similar levels of abuse and harassment as they did over a decade earlier?

The answer lies in an increase in LGBTI-friendliness (i.e. where people are much more likely to be friendly to LGBTI people than not; a kind of ‘potential’).  There have never been higher levels of LGBTI-friendliness in every pocket of Australia.  Yet unless that ‘potential’ translates to some action – a noticeable, meaningful demonstration of LGBTI-supportiveness – then LGBTI people don’t benefit.

In my work around male family violence prevention there is a great deal of emphasis on violence-supporting attitudes and behaviours, and how everyday men can make a difference through challenging and interrupting others.  Research shows that 90% of men feel uncomfortable with the way that men around them treat and talk about women, yet when you look at the percentage of men that actually act on this discomfort, it’s almost zero.

The same can be said about the conversion of LGBTI-friendliness to LGBTI-supportiveness: a lot less happens than we would like to think.  Sadly it tends to only be when we like that LGBTI person, and when it’s convenient and easy.  That’s not progress.

One way to remedy this is to resource, support and encourage more everyday people to challenge everyday homophobia.  And there is a great deal at stake.

Not only can we support and retain LGBTI young people in country communities, we can also grant them their wish.  I had the chance to ask them across the country, “What are your hopes for the future?”  Time and again LGBTI young people were clear: to be able to hold the hand of their partners in public without fear, concern or anxiety of something happening to them or the one they love.  They are telling us that most of them do not live in an Australia where that is possible.

After completing the 38-week Beyond ‘That’s So Gay’ Tour, and re-visiting regional, rural and remote Australia I still don’t have all of the answers, but many of them can be found face-to-face over a cuppa outside of the city centres.  It’s something we can do immediately.  Believe me, we need to.  It’s overdue.

We owe it to our LGBTI brothers and sisters, who have built the sturdy foundation we all now stand on, not to miss this opportunity.  We currently lack the broader sophistication and depth required to challenge homophobia at a national level right through to everyday interactions.

We owe it to the current and future generation of young LGBTI people to get better now, not later.  We don’t need to overestimate the power of homophobia and underestimate how we, and those around us, will respond when we face it, as I wrote about in my first book, Beyond ‘That’s So Gay’.

Finally we owe it to ourselves not to take progress for granted.  We deserve better.  We don’t have to apologise for that.  NICHE won’t.


Read what Daniel on working with allies in Friends of Dorothy Part 1, and Friends of Dorothy Part 2.

Podcasts of Daniel’s reports on his ‘Beyond That’s So Gay Tour’, calling in each week to Doug Pollard’s show on Joy 94.9

AdelaideAcross the NullaborPerthGeraldtonBroomeDarwinAlice SpringsAlice 2Mt IsaMt Isa 2CairnsTownsvilleMackayBrisbaneGold CoastGold Coast 2LismoreSydneyNewcastleBathhurstBroken HillBroken Hill 2MilduraBallaratWarnambool, Final Wrap

An extended interview with Daniel about his life and work, with transcript.

About the author

Daniel developed the ‘Pride & Prejudice’ educational package, allowing all secondary school teachers to challenge homophobia in their own classrooms. ‘Pride & Prejudice’ became the only educational program in the world to pass rigorous psychological testing; in six weeks it improved student attitudes toward gay men and lesbians. In February 2010, Hawker Brownlow Education launched Daniel’s first book, Beyond ‘That’s So Gay’: Challenging homophobia in Australian schools. Daniel also completed a 38-week national challenging tour of regional and rural Australia, Beyond ‘That’s So Gay’.