Friends of Dorothy Part 2: The Power of One

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Mt Isa: friends and allies can be found everywhere, if you look

In Part 1 Daniel spoke of Dorothy, the President of an organisation representing parents committees that make everyday decisions across NSW schools. She wanted to know how we could work together better. Daniel says there are lots of LGBT and LGBT allies in such mainstream organisations, and we need to find them, link them together, and work with them. Today he explains how important allies have been to him in his career as an anti-homophobia educator..

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I knew Dorothy’s approach well.  It was people like her that helped me early on in my LGBT career.  You see, I have a confession to make: I was a teenage victim.  I could barely talk to one person, let alone spend the next half of my life talking in front of people for a living.

It was not until I started volunteering at a gay and lesbian youth support project that I would come out from under my cloak of victimhood and learn how to interact more healthily with the world.  Instead of getting angry, frustrated or impatient with my slightly anxious and probably annoying self-depreciation, a small group of individuals patiently coaxed me out.

Interestingly it was mostly heterosexual people who did the coaxing.  On my first trip to a now-defunct Melbourne LGBT organisation, I was told that supporting LGBT young people in Geelong would be like “pushing sh*t up hill”, that they couldn’t and wouldn’t help and wished the project “all the best”.  Prominent LGBT education activists, when told I wanted to do something in local Geelong schools were adamant:

“Look a lot of people who know what they are already working on this.  It’s going to be addressed very soon.  Its great you want to do something but quite clearly no school is going to let YOU through its doors….And this is NEVER going to happen in Catholic schools, forget it”

I was told to wait for the education department to implement policy. They would do so, 11 years later.  I was told to wait for an inclusive sexual health resource called Catching On.  It was launched 7 years later.  I was told to wait for more experienced workers to find a solution.  Most were focused on other things.  But the young people I worked with did not have the luxury of time to wait.  I decided not to wait.

So how did this shy, introverted victim end up successfully piloting a formally-evaluated challenging-homophobia program, Pride & Prejudice, now in its third edition, in a country all-boys Catholic school?   How did I manage that when the LGBT educational mafia at the time couldn’t get in themselves?

I had a great deal of help.  One day a quietly spoken youth worker I admired encouraged me to apply for a national young leaders program.  Despite my victim-esque assertions that I’d never be accepted, she convinced me to apply anyway.

Shortly after I found myself at a national leadership gathering on the outskirts of Sydney.  One hundred “young leaders” from across Australia came together for four days.  I spent most of the time hiding in the corner, given that most of the people there were sickeningly successful small business owners (in that new field IT) or young executives from companies like BHP or IBM.  I kept to myself most of the time, wondering how I’d snuck in.

I took the approach, much as I do now, of only speaking when I was spoken to.  If asked I would explain to people my support of a group of gay and lesbian young people in my hometown of Geelong and my hope to improve their everyday lives in local schools.  I was honest that I didn’t know how it would happen.

On the final day in the final session, “young leaders” were invited to stand and reflect on what they learnt and intended to do.  Loathing public speaking because it drew attention to myself, I sat listening to young leader after young leader stand and share.  I was clear that I was not going to stand.

Then he stood.  “John”, one of the oldest of the young leaders rose and started to speak.  I looked forward to what he had to say after a discussion two days before.  Between sessions I was sitting on the floor by a window soaking up the warmth of the afternoon sun.  Alone.  Happily.

John would come and sit on the floor with me.  Slightly annoyed that my solitude was broken, I relaxed and began talking about my work in Geelong.  John sat and listened, yet an unexpected thing happened.  Slowly people sat down and listened in on our discussion.  Before long a significant group of young leaders were sitting listening to me as I talked about my hopes to work in Geelong schools and why.

Now in the final session John began.  He said how much he appreciated the opportunity to attend the leadership gathering and thanked everyone who had shared their reflections.

“But I’m interested in hearing from someone who hasn’t shared yet…I talked to this young man the other day and since then I haven’t been able to stop thinking about what he said…I think he is going to do great things and I’m interested in what he has to say…”

I watched John and, like everyone else, was wondering who he was talking about.  After all, everyone else had stood and talked only about themselves.

“And that person is [turning to look at me and hence focusing 99 young leaders’ attention on me] Daniel…”

Damn you.

For the record I stood and spoke, yet I couldn’t tell you what I said.  Whether it was good or bad I’ll never know.  I suspect it would have been somewhere in between.  I remember sitting a little stunned and receiving a round of applause.

Before getting on the bus for the long drive back to Sydney airport John approached me and gave me a handwritten note.  Paraphrased it went something like this:

“Dear Daniel, I believe that you are doing a very special thing.  One day you will be a leader of 100s of people. [John]…”

I never saw or heard from John again, yet I’ve never forgotten his belief in an intensely shy, awkward and self-doubting young man.  A victim.

What I needed was the Dorothy approach: not for anyone to “do things for me”, but instead help to do more of what was necessary.  Therefore it’s easier to understand why I take the Dorothy approach when I recognise that someone is not yet capable or aware.  The same can, and does, apply to LGBT organisations.

In what can be easily lost in a social media-dominated world, it pays to invest and nurture people in real everyday life.  Sometimes a Facebook status update, a tweet or a meme doesn’t quite cut it.  And yes, investment in the everyday offline world costs.

Recently a socially-minded graphic designer explained to me his concept of community.

“That’s the thing about community, you have to invest something in it for it to be a community.  If you don’t, it doesn’t exist.”

If there are members of the LGBT communities who believe we play the victim card too often, then my first question is simple: how much have they been investing themselves lately?  Are they taking the approach of everyday victim-transformers like Dorothy and John and refusing to do anything for “us” and instead helping us to do more of what’s necessary?

If we are to somehow begin to curb the statistics and stories of the experiences of LGBT young people, evidence that is clearly now beyond debate, then we’ll need a great deal more help to get on with it.  Naturally some will accuse individuals, organisations and community leaders of playing the victim card.  Not surprisingly these same observers often just happen to have won the genetic and social lottery, and through a lifelong investment of those winnings have transcended any less than desirable behavior around them.

If people have been lucky enough to “win” and not face the abuse and harassment that most do or have, then I’d hope they’d spend more of their time investing in their communities and helping rather than assuming they know what cards and hands are being played.

Daniel drove round Australia on his ‘Beyond That’s So Gay Tour’, aka ‘Challenging Homophobia One Cuppa At A Time’, calling in each week to Doug Pollard’s show on LGBT radio station Joy 94.9 to report on what he discovered. Podcasts are each about 10-15 minutes long.

CLICK A LINK TO DOWNLOAD THE PODCAST

AdelaideAcross the Nullabor , Perth Geraldton Broome Darwin Alice Springs , Alice 2 , Mt Isa , Mt Isa 2 , Cairns Townsville , Mackay Brisbane Gold CoastGold Coast 2 , Lismore , Sydney Newcastle Bathhurst Broken Hill , Broken Hill 2 , Mildura Ballarat Warnambool , and the Final Wrap

Plus an extended interview with Daniel about his life and work (40mins), with a transcript here.

 

 

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About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)