Most young, urbane gay men wouldn’t choose to spend a week in a rural town getting to know the locals at the pub, a dairy farm and a sawmill.
They certainly wouldn’t if they’d previously experienced homophobia in that town, but that’s exactly what comedians Rhys Nicholson and Joel Creasey decided to do in Colac.
In 2011, Melbourne-based Creasey toured to Colac (a blue-collar town just about 90 minutes west of Melbourne) with the Melbourne International Comedy Festival roadshow. While he was performing, an audience member shouted homophobic slurs at him. Two months later, he returned for an event organised by Dynamic (Diverse Youth Networking Against Discrimination In Colac), after which he was accosted on the street by a group of teenagers threatening violence, and he was chased to his car. The incident caused a minor local media furore, with the then Mayor of Colac defending the city against accusations of homophobia.
So last year, Creasey decided to head back to Colac and “investigate”, with fellow a gay comedian, 24-year-old Rhys Nicholson, and a documentary film crew to shoot Gaycrashers, the first episode in ABC’s Opening Shot documentary series.
Nicholson grew up in Newcastle, which he says is similar in several ways to Colac, so Creasey took him along assuming he’d know what to expect. But Nicholson said the experience didn’t quite match those expectations.
“Joel and I went there a bit judgey – that’s the word we’re using,” he says, admitting that even now he has to be careful not to be too disparaging about Colac in interviews. “We were maybe a bit heterophobic. We didn’t expect it to be a bloodbath or anything, but I think we both went there with expectations of what we thought it was going to be, and it was not that.”
At the start of their trip, Creasey and Nicholson meet the new Colac Mayor, Lyn Russell, who welcomes them into the town and admits that smaller towns often need a while to “catch up”. Then the pair travel around the town, trying to sell 700 tickets to their upcoming show.
The documentary is your typical “fish-out-of-water” scenario, with Creasey and Nicholson getting to know the town in their skinny leg trousers and bow ties. In the end, as you’d expect, the people of Colac and the young comedians bond over their similarities in a classic “we’re not so different, you and I” situation.
Most of the people they met along the way were very welcoming, but Nicholson says there was a lot of suspicion surrounding their visit.
“I can totally see how it would have looked to them,” he says. “They probably saw us coming in, trying to ‘out’ their town, ironically, as a horrible place. Once they realised that we weren’t there to ruin their lives, it was fine. Every town has their shit, and people are just trying to do their best.”
But some attitudes still shocked the pair. In one pub, a woman who seemed fun, open and accepting asked them if being gay was “a long-term thing or just a flash in the pan”. She questioned them: “So you’re looking at – ‘I’ll turn 50 and I’m still going to be gay’?”
“That was the weirdest,” says Nicholson. “We’d been hanging out with that lady for like, three hours, and she was kind of awesome. What she said was a genuine shock. In no way was she homophobic in an aggressive way. In fact, she wasn’t homophobic, she just didn’t understand it.”
Nicholson and Creasey both have extensive experience in touring regional areas around the country and say that it’s easy for people who live their lives in Australia’s cities to misunderstand or have false impressions as to what goes on outside of the cities.
“We’ve got in our heads that everywhere outside Sydney and Melbourne is backwards,” Nicholson said. “I’ve done a few months touring, going to places like Toowoomba and Katoomba. I always expect to be the one booed off stage, and it’s always the nicest reaction. I think we have this expectation that Australia is still f***ed. And we are, in a lot of ways, but it’s getting better.”
Despite the Colac community’s passionate denial of homophobia, there are a fair few instances captured on film in Gaycrashers, including several where comments are shouted from moving vehicles. But when it came to one-on-one conversations, the majority of people they met were perfectly hospitable and happy to talk about sexuality.
So what were Nicholson and Creasey hoping to achieve with the documentary? They wanted to learn more about the attitudes that exist in Colac and the homophobia Creasey had encountered, but they also wanted to use the best tool at their disposal – comedy – to loosen people up and open up conversations with people they wouldn’t necessarily associate with otherwise.
“As subjective as comedy is, I think it’s universal – everyone is able to laugh at something,” Nicholson says. “It’s definitely a good tool. It’s not the answer, obviously. There are a lot of comedians in the world that think it is and that they’re going to change the world. Russell Brand – you’re not. But it can be useful in getting to that kind of stuff. I certainly hope so, or else I’m wasting my life.”
Gaycrashers airs on ABC2 tonight (November 10) at 9.30pm.
This article was first published on The Daily Review.
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