Back in the mid-1990s, Daniel Witthaus was supporting young gay and lesbian locals in his hometown of Geelong and one thing became very clear: when you’re gay, high school is hell and homophobia is far too prevalent. So Witthaus piloted a program challenging homophobia in an all-boys Catholic school that was, for him, surprisingly successful, and that developed into an educational package for teachers called Pride & Prejudice.
This package also proved to be very successful at reducing homo-aggressive behaviour, something no other project or program had been able to do, so it was a natural progression for that package and the stories Witthaus was hearing to be turned into a book, and in 2010, Beyond 'That's So Gay': Challenging Homophobia in Australian Schools was published.
“Essentially, I got sick of answering the same questions!” says Witthaus. “By writing a book I could provide everything any teacher could ever want to know to challenge everyday homophobia, assess where their school community readiness to challenge homophobia at all levels and to outline a practical, relevant action plan about where to go from there.”
Along with the book came the Beyond ‘That’s So Gay’ tour, something that Witthaus came up with while at a European conference discussing LGBT education. He was asked whether Australia was homophobic, and what he would do to change that. There was the notion, because of the exposure the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras received, that Australia was Gay Utopia.
“Without much thought I said, ‘I’d jump in a truck, drive around the country talking to LGBT people about their lives and share the strategies and resources that have worked over the last 10 years.’ If I’m honest, I was quite shocked at the time with how clear my idea was and how easily it rolled off my tongue. I’d not even been aware that it had been forming itself quietly, somewhere in my unconscious. I knew one thing: the idea excited me.”
So, for 266 days in 2010, and on a smell of an oily rag, Witthaus (in his openly gay car, ‘Bruce’) travelled around regional, rural and remote Australia. “I didn’t want my tour to just be about collecting stories and focusing on unchallenged homophobia," he says. "This was not about homophobia itself, it was about challenging it. I wanted to offer resources, training and strategies to whoever put their hand up. It seemed like a natural progression, even if it felt bold, audacious and overwhelming.”
Witthaus has taken a further step and set up NICHE, the National Institute for Challenging Homophobia Education. “It’s a gathering place for people, ideas and resources, part-LGBTI think-tank, part-Centre of Excellence and part-operational organisation. It's clear that all the big issues for LGBTI people, like marriage equality and homophobic school bullying, have the need to challenge homophobia in common. NICHE will to map what’s happening, what’s working and what’s not. We need to get better at doing this, because more broadly we lack sophistication and depth.”
Of course, that’s not enough for Witthaus; he’s been writing a second book, After Priscilla, and is hoping to find a publisher very soon. He's also following his passion for tennis, training to compete in the Out Games in Antwerp later this year.
But as far as last words go, Witthaus has this to say: “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. So how can it be seemingly better? The answer lies in an increase in LGBTI-friendliness. There have never been higher levels of LGBTI-friendliness across the country. But unless that 'friendliness' translates to some action – a demonstration of LGBTI-supportiveness – then LGBTI people don’t benefit.”
NICHE was launched in January 2013. Daniel continues to make Beyond 'That's So Gay' daytrips.
Daniel's tips for kids getting bullied at school
1. Reframe the homophobia
Young LGBTI people are much better off when they see the actual bully as the problem and not themselves. If a young person believes that they somehow deserve it, or there is nothing that can be done, then it's bad news for their everyday health and well-being.
2. Build a group of five supportive people
If they come from different parts of the young person's life, then all the better, such as family, school, friends, sport and work.
3. Find out more from experts
There are plenty of people to call (Kids Help ine, for example) or places to find out more online (ReachOut). This is important if someone doesn't feel safe or supported by anyone at their school. There are people out there who care, even if it doesn't always feel like it.
4. Talk about it with supportive people
Not talking about the bullying is not great for everyday quality of life.
5. Suggest your school gets challenging homophobia resources that work, such as a copy of Beyond 'That's So Gay'
Many schools around the country reported they had made a change after they received feedback from LGBTI students. It's worth a try, even if anonymously.
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