Once upon a time, in a land far far away, there lived a monster – a Chimaera that fed on the hatred, fear and ignorance of men. So vile was this creature that the people of the land feared holding hands or kissing out in the open, displays of their love attracting disgust and hostility. Its victims would call it by the name of ‘Homophobia’.
One day a hero emerged, wielding stories and cups of tea in his battle against this dread. He would go where no other hero would dare travel, where they all told him it would be dangerous or impossible. He would fight the good fight.
And on the 20th of January, our hero launched the National Institute for Challenging Homophobia Education (NICHE), where, if you catch him in a cheery mood, he will tell you that they train ‘ninjas’ to join him in this seemingly never-ending battle.
Daniel Witthaus, the knight in shining armour of our tale, agreed to speak with Lot’s Wife and tell us more about his experiences. Welcomed into his cosy castle with a cuppa in hand, I was ready to talk to one of the top Lesbian Gay Bi Trans Intersex (LGBTI) people to watch this year.
So, Daniel, if you had to go door-to-door and sell cookies for NICHE, how would you describe it to people?
NICHE is best described in three parts. It’s park think-tank, part centre for excellence and part operational organisation (creating projects and offering training). Ultimately it’s a gathering point for ideas, resources and people, particularly aimed at combating homophobia in regional, rural and remote areas.
What’s the situation with Homophobia in Australia? Are people aware it exists, or do they live in blissful ignorance that this country is far beyond things such as this?
In Australia, homophobia is worse than most people think it is, yet a lot easier to challenge and interrupt as well. People have a belief that things are better these days, however, unless you are supported and linked to LGBTI organisations then your experience is likely to be like that of 10- 15 years ago. Homophobia in Australia isn’t as bad as it is in the US because we are not as religious, for example.
You are much more likely to be chased down and killed in America, in Australia you are more likely to be yelled at and have your head kicked in. Homophobia here lacks the venom. Research tells us that 75% of LGBTI young people will experience homophobia in their everyday lives. Of the other 25% a majority will say they don’t experience it because no one knows that they are LGBTI. Having worked internationally I can say that homophobia is very diverse across continents and oceans. In Poland, for example, the homophobia that educators were facing from parents and teachers was very similar to the outer- metropolitan areas of Melbourne. But the political and social landscape was much more oppressive.
Talk to me about cities – civilized, cultured, modern. Any problems there?
Cities can be broken up in middle city and inner suburbs, and outer-metropolitan areas. Outer – metropolitan areas mimic rural areas: isolated, they don’t have the same visibility as inner city areas. With the inner city areas it isn’t that there is no homophobia, just that it is expressed in different ways. Rural areas are much more likely to acknowledge homophobia, whilst inner city areas create the image that the situation is much better without questioning the real situation. They don’t like to take blame. I did a challenging homophobia programme in a progressive metropolitan school, formally evaluated by Deakin University. I was told beforehand that they do not have homophobia in their school (and thus it would be pointless for me to go there). In the pre-testing for homophobic attitude, students in the school had similar levels of homophobia to any other school across Australia.
I’m just going to throw you words and let you talk, whilst I nod and pretend that I, of course, know all of this. Next word: Universities. Go!
Universities are small communities. You have lots of different students from lots of different places: so there isn’t as a strong sense of community as with other social environments. What that means is that there is the potential for homophobia, because people are less connected; universities and young people entering the workforce for the first time are new areas of research. Young people, unless confident, will experience homophobia. It is a high risk time for young people to experience homophobia.
Do you think Universities are doing enough to combat homophobia?
Well, there are generally queer groups on campus – both a blessing and a curse. It’s true that they are very good for people included in the group. However, they are very political and highly visible: so many young students do not take part because it is too much. More generally, universities are doing more and more – the ALLY Network is a good example – operating across a number of universities. It all boils down to the size of the university and the course: engineering, or more traditionally male dominated courses, people report more homophobia than for example teaching and nursing. There is definitely not enough LGBTI content within courses – it is almost invisible.
So, I have this obsession with international students – might be because I have a victim complex. You know? they pay more fees, they’re all fresh of the boat, how is it for them?
Studies show that international students are much more at risk of STI’s. They come to a new country, many attempt to explore their sexuality because they are away from their family – and from a much more oppressive environment towards sex and homosexuality. Struggling with a new culture and language, it can mean that there are power inbalances between them and their partners which leads to a whole load of shit. Australia does have its issues with racism, and within the LGBTI there is sexual racism as well.
Without international students, the Australian universities system would crash. There is a preference for international (fee-paying) students. It is an incredible opportunity for these students, however, to take all of their fees and chuck them in a fucking room somewhere, thinking all they do is go to supermarkets and classes is really naïve. In general, universities do not do enough. There is not enough support for international students in general. Partly, there is an assumption that particular cultures and religions will not have sex – especially the gay kind. Nobody acknowledges the fact that they are sexual beings, in an environment in which they can let loose.
I used to do an annual presentation to the Monash Education Students in their final year: the last lecture I did was the day after the
Monash shooting. Monash isn’t doing enough, by all means.
One lesson a year is not enough.
Before we go, can you give a few pieces of advice?
To universities: to audit all of their courses and their support services to look at what’s happening for LGBTI students and staff,how LGBTI specific content is being addressed or not, and what is being done to bridge the gaps.
To non-LGBTI people: More people than ever are LGBTI friendly. However, most straight people do not act on these good intentions. One of the best things that they can do is demonstrate their LGBTI support, particularity by not saying “that’s so gay” and challenging the people around them when they do use it.
For people in the LGBTI: It is clear that the best thing that can happen for any LGBTI person is to have a close group of supportive people around. The magic number is 5 – they do not have to be LGBTI themselves, and can be housemates, classmates or university staff. Research says that difference between thriving and surviving is not only this group, but also how they experience homophobia – some experience it personally, and as their fault, others see it as the problem of the homophobic person.
The pen, just for a moment, lay down to rest as our part in the story came to an end. And all I truly wish is to be able to say “and they lived happily ever after”. Yet there is still much to be done, on our part and on everyone’s part, until, as Daniel says, people can hold the hands of the ones that they love without fear. Unlike every story, we are all part of it, and, little by little, we can bring that happy ending close.