At the turn of the tide (Published by DNA magazine in Australia, August 2010)

August 4, 2010 in Articles by thomasadmin

Coffs harbour’s coastout festival is going to have everything: sun, surf, dance parties and – last but by no means least – it’s going to annoy the hell out of the local religious nuts. Story by nick cook. (Published by DNA magazine in Australia, August 2010)

I stand with my toes at the dark line between wet and dry sand that marks the edge of the pacific Ocean, watching the young, wetsuit-clad blond carry his board out of the water. he looks about 16 or so and i’m keen to get his opinion on the topic that’s had the northern new south Wales town of Coffs harbour talking for months – the gay and lesbian beach festival that will be held here in October.
“i’m not gay,” he snaps when i’m halfway through my question, giving me a wary look as if he suspects i’m propositioning him. i try again, explaining to him what CoastOut is – a three-day carnival that will bring gays and lesbians to Coffs harbour for a range of events including surfing, an ocean swim and iron man/woman challenges – but this time i get even shorter shrift. “Yeah, i’ve got a problem with that,” he says and stalks away down Diggers Beach before i can get him to elaborate any further.
there could be no better summary of the need for a festival like CoastOut. surf culture remains a surprising outpost of homophobia [see Surf’s Out in Dna #125], to the point that there are no openly gay men on the professional circuit and very few of the surfers we contacted were willing to speak to us. not long ago it was thought there might actually be no gay surfers, but that idea was blown out of the water this year by the creation of a website, gaysurfers.net, that finally gave some idea of just how many there really are. they signed up in their hundreds and now, for the first time in australian history, they’ll get the chance to come together at Coffs. the significance of the event cannot be overstated, nor its potential. if CoastOut is a success it could bring gay surfers together in a way they never have been before and become the foundation for their own solid community.
not that todd Buttery knew any of that when he first came up with the idea.
todd grew up in Coffs harbour but left when he was 19 and has spent the last 15 years rotating between the gay scenes of the major cities, first in Brisbane, then sydney and Melbourne. he returned home last year and was looking to put his pR and advertising experience to good use when inspiration struck. “i looked around me and the weather was superb, the beaches were magic and it just hit me. Why isn’t there a beach festival, an event where we can all get together by the ocean and have fun?”
as serendipity would have it, at almost the exact same time Coffs harbour Council was looking for something along those very lines, following a visit from the tourism minister during which he encouraged them to establish a signature event that would boost the region’s profile and draw more visitors. there was a poll in the local newspaper and when Councillor Denise Knight’s suggestion of putting in a bid for the gay games came in at number four out of 15, todd saw his opportunity. he gave her a call and very quickly won her over with the idea, which she and her ally Councillor Kerry hines took before the rest of council for their stamp of approval. “it’s going to bring something to the town we haven’t had before,” Kerry says. “Before it’s been sporting teams coming and pissing up and causing trouble, whereas the homosexual community is renowned for being passive and peaceful and creative. how could it not be a plus?”
i’m speaking to them at a function todd has put on to thank all those who have helped him so far. the trendy art gallery is only just big enough to hold all the people and there’s a buzz of excited anticipation in the air. One of todd’s friends, a DJ, is in charge of the music and another, Mark – a straight guy who nevertheless looks very good in a vest with no shirt underneath – is serving drinks.
When todd gets up to make his speech they show him the respect you get in a smaller community: that which is hidden beneath several layers of crude jokes. however, they do listen to him and as the night goes on it becomes ever more clear that he is the driving force behind this event. When he pauses for breath Vicki Laugs – a good-natured and high- spirited lesbian who pops up several times throughout the weekend – interupts to make her own impromptu speech. “i’ve watched him grow from a little boy and i love him as much as my own son. i support you,” she says, a statement that’s received with rousing applause. the support for CoastOut in Coffs harbour
is widespread, but it’s not universal. When the plans were made public religious group Lifehouse sent an email to its members decrying the idea and encouraging them to complain. the following debate was played out mostly in the pages of local newspaper, The Advocate. sawtell resident John gray’s badgering letter – “i am offended and i object to any of my rate money being used for this purpose” – was at the mild end of the scale, while Bill phillips went much further, taking the entire gay rights debate back to the very beginning with a point of view that was discredited decades ago: “While it is acknowledged that a small percentage of the population are born with a homosexual orientation, we must all agree that gay and lesbian activity is unnatural and in most cases medically or psychologically treatable.” even one of the preachers got involved. Minister tony sands, of Your Church, Church Of Christ, wrote: “as for those promoting this event, i think making a circus of their sexuality will not help gain acceptance but further marginalise them by separating and differentiating them from the wider community.”
the fact that in 2010 these words could be written, let alone published by a seemingly respectable newspaper, is more than a little alarming and would give me doubts about visiting Coffs harbour – if it weren’t for the response they received. the rest of the community fired back at the religious nay- sayers with a salvo of angry letters that made it very clear on which side the majority stood. “i have never been so disgusted with a religion/ church until now. how dare they? if you don’t like the idea then don’t go. siMpLe!” Daniel thundered, while hope could only shake her head: “i cannot believe what i am reading.
it really saddens me and makes me angry.” the very best summation came from a reader identified as justj: “Lifehouse ‘church’ would do well to remember they are a minority in this community also, and they rely heavily on the good will of the majority.” When the newspaper ran a poll on the issue, asking whether Coffs harbour should go ahead with the event, the result was heartening: 75 percent in favour.
as one of the those pushing hardest for the festival, Denise has become a bit of a target for criticism, with one unhappy ratepayer even confronting her in the supermarket. however, she says that for the most part the negative reactions have been based on misunderstanding. “Unfortunately some people’s minds still leap to paedophiles and g-strings,” she says. “One of the men i work with came up to me and said, ‘What’s this about us hosting a Mardi gras?’ i told him it wasn’t that at all and explained exactly what was going on. he was okay with that.” it didn’t help that the first most people knew of the event was when The Advocate ran a banner headline on a saturday morning declaring “say g’Day to a gay”. it was slightly more provocative than it needed to be and certainly got the anti-gay elements in town fired up, while more than a few in the CoastOut camp were also disappointed. apart from being a little patronising and making those who will be coming for the festival sound like an invading horde, the headline ignored one very simple and extremely important fact: gays are already here. Coffs harbour has a significant gay community that, while not publicly thriving in the way you would find in the inner suburbs of a major city, is certainly bubbling along very strongly. there’s even a regular queer dance, trouble in paradise, that’s held every few months and attracts hundreds of frocked-up and fabulous partiers.
“there’s definitely a gay community here,” says anne Brown, who moved from newtown a number of years ago. “You just don’t see them much, they’re a bit more tucked away.” i bump into anne (and Vicki, yet again) on the saturday afternoon at the annual Chilli Festival in the nearby village of sawtell. they’ve established base camp with a group of their friends at a table out the front of the pub with a clear view of the band (which, in a nod to just how far from the city i really am, even includes a fiddle player) that is performing from the back of a truck in the blocked street. it’s an obviously queer group to anybody who bothers to give it a second glance, but nobody does.
Vicki says Coffs harbour was once a very homophobic community, but that has long since stopped being the case. When anne makes a slightly mean joke about Vicki she apologises by giving her a big kiss, without bothering to pause for even a moment to see if anybody on the crowded street is watching.
it’s a similar case at the Coffs harbour hotel, an exuberantly heterosexual venue where the stench of mixing testosterone and pheromones hangs heavy in the air, the beefed-up coastal boys walk around with puffed-out chests that make them look like they’re pushing invisible wheelbarrows and a sign flashes across the screens every 30 seconds threatening a life ban for anybody who gets into a punch-up. Yet for all of that, the group of gays i’m with make no attempt to hide their sexual identity as we dance, attracting no attention despite the fact two of them are even wearing CoastOut t-shirts. i wouldn’t try to pick anybody up,
at least not without them giving me several winks and at least one hand on my knee so i’m certain they swing in the right direction, but i feel very comfortable that nobody is going to harass me. the closest thing to a negative is that a constant string of hopeful local blokes keep hitting on the two hot lesbians who are with us, but none of them take rejection badly and (as much as they say it’s annoying) i suspect the girls are secretly flattered.
Of course, the last dregs of homophobia are not the only challenges todd has to overcome. as late night turns into early morning and the others keep dancing inside, he and i share a smoke in the beer garden where the alcohol makes both my questions and his answers far more candid than they would otherwise be. above a background din of locals shouting along to Khe Sahn, he reveals some of his uncertainties and gives me a glimpse of the pressure he’s under. “some people think that because i’ve come back from sydney and Melbourne i’m just trying to recreate their gay scenes here. that’s not it at all. i just love this place and i want to share it with the wider gay community because i think they’ll have a great time here.” i ask him how supportive the local gay community has been and he says that it’s been patchy. “some of them are behind me and couldn’t do more to help, while others are against the idea and are saying, ‘Don’t rock the boat’. they’re keeping their distance – i think, just in case it fails.”
there’s one thing todd wants to make absolutely clear: “this isn’t political. i’m not at all political. i just want to put on something good for Coffs harbour and bring gays up here to show them a great time in a fantastic place.”
On that score, todd certainly does live somewhere that’s worth showing off. there is, of course, the Big Banana that is among australia’s most famous “bigs” – and which now has an ice-skating rink (!) – but there’s far more to the place than that. Just ask tracey Conry. When i meet her shortly before todd’s speech she lists all the town’s assets, beginning with the fact it has direct flights from Melbourne, Brisbane and sydney (with the latter two accessible in an hour or less) and going on to talk at length about the unspoiled beaches and various distinct natural environments. to prove it, the following day she takes me for a helicopter joy ride, hugging the picturesque coast between the sparkling blue ocean and the crumpled green velvet mountains.
her excitement about CoastOut is contagious. not only is she looking forward to a top weekend, she’s also very keen on the benefits it will bring to Coffs harbour. “having events here gives people the opportunity to see it as a destination in its own right, instead of just as a stop on the way between sydney and Brisbane. it’d be great to make them stop instead of just whizzing through on that wretched highway. this region has a lot to offer.” When i ask tracey about the controversy over whether or not to hold the event, she shrugs it off. “Like any regional community, there’re those who don’t want it and others who know how good it’s going to be.”
the essence of a good story is conflict and i’ve written a lot about those few people who are against CoastOut, but it’s important to put their comments and opinions into perspective. While in Coffs i ask pretty much everybody i come across how they would feel about an influx of gay surfers and the overwhelming majority either couldn’t care less or are enthusiastically supportive. My favourite is the barman at the Coffs harbour hotel. “is that the poof thing they’ve been talking about in the papers?” he asks, then gives it a moment of purse-lipped consideration before shrugging. “i don’t see how it could bother me and it’ll probably be good for the town.”
todd, who will undoubtedly wear the main responsibility for the festival’s success or otherwise, describes himself as “excitedly nervous” when he thinks about how it will turn out. “i swam for over a decade growing up, twice a day every day, and this feels like the training before a big meet. the weekend, when it rolls around, will be the competition – adrenalin-pumping, fast-paced and i’ll be partially shit-scared… but nothing a good dance with mates won’t fix.” asked about his goals for the festival, he’s modest. “You’ve got to walk before you can run and i completely understand that,” he says. “One day we’d ideally like to see gay and lesbian people and their friends from all over the world hearing about it and coming to check it out. Right now, though, we’re just trying to create a beach festival that will give people the chance to get out of the cities where they live and relax with their peers on the mid-north coast. i want to give them the chance to see a different part of the world and put their toes in the sand.”
all the signs at this stage suggest he’ll succeed. the young blond homophobe i opened the story with wasn’t the only surfer to emerge from the water at Diggers Beach that day. salt water drips from 60-year-old peter’s red-and-grey-tinged goatie as he stops for a chat. “i don’t believe in it,” he says when i ask him about CoastOut and for a moment i think he is against the idea of gays paddling in the same waters as him, until i realise he’s talking about surf festivals in general: “i just think surfing’s something you should do on your own.” When i ask if he’s bothered by the gay and lesbian aspect he bursts into laughter. “Oh, it’s a gay festival? Well i’ve got no problem with that part of it. good on ’em. they’re more than welcome.”
For more information on the festival go to coastout.com.au.
I stand with my toes at the dark linebetween wet and dry sand that marks the edge of the pacific Ocean, watching the young, wetsuit-clad blond carry his board out of the water. he looks about 16 or so and i’m keen to get his opinion on the topic that’s had the northern new south Wales town of Coffs harbour talking for months – the gay and lesbian beach festival that will be held here in October.“i’m not gay,” he snaps when i’m halfway through my question, giving me a wary look as if he suspects i’m propositioning him. i try again, explaining to him what CoastOut is – a three-day carnival that will bring gays and lesbians to Coffs harbour for a range of events including surfing, an ocean swim and iron man/woman challenges – but this time i get even shorter shrift. “Yeah, i’ve got a problem with that,” he says and stalks away down Diggers Beach before i can get him to elaborate any further.there could be no better summary of the need for a festival like CoastOut. surf culture remains a surprising outpost of homophobia [see Surf’s Out in Dna #125], to the point that there are no openly gay men on the professional circuit and very few of the surfers we contacted were willing to speak to us. not long ago it was thought there might actually be no gay surfers, but that idea was blown out of the water this year by the creation of a website, gaysurfers.net, that finally gave some idea of just how many there really are. they signed up in their hundreds and now, for the first time in australian history, they’ll get the chance to come together at Coffs. the significance of the event cannot be overstated, nor its potential. if CoastOut is a success it could bring gay surfers together in a way they never have been before and become the foundation for their own solid community.not that todd Buttery knew any of that when he first came up with the idea.todd grew up in Coffs harbour but left when he was 19 and has spent the last 15 years rotating between the gay scenes of the major cities, first in Brisbane, then sydney and Melbourne. he returned home last year and was looking to put his pR and advertising experience to good use when inspiration struck. “i looked around me and the weather was superb, the beaches were magic and it just hit me. Why isn’t there a beach festival, an event where we can all get together by the ocean and have fun?”as serendipity would have it, at almost the exact same time Coffs harbour Council was looking for something along those very lines, following a visit from the tourism minister during which he encouraged them to establish a signature event that would boost the region’s profile and draw more visitors. there was a poll in the local newspaper and when Councillor Denise Knight’s suggestion of putting in a bid for the gay games camein at number four out of 15, todd saw his opportunity. he gave her a call and very quickly won her over with the idea, which she and her ally Councillor Kerry hines took before the rest of council for their stamp of approval. “it’s going to bring something to the town we haven’t had before,” Kerry says. “Before it’s been sporting teams coming and pissing up and causing trouble, whereas the homosexual community is renowned for being passive and peaceful and creative. how could it not be a plus?”i’m speaking to them at a function todd has put on to thank all those who have helped him so far. the trendy art gallery is only just big enough to hold all the people and there’s a buzz of excited anticipation in the air. One of todd’s friends, a DJ, is in charge of the music and another, Mark – a straight guy who nevertheless looks very good in a vest with no shirt underneath – is serving drinks.When todd gets up to make his speech they show him the respect you get in a smaller community: that which is hidden beneath several layers of crude jokes. however, they do listen to him and as the night goes on it becomes ever more clear that he is the driving force behind this event. When he pauses for breath Vicki Laugs – a good-natured and high- spirited lesbian who pops up several times throughout the weekend – interupts to make her own impromptu speech. “i’ve watched him grow from a little boy and i love him as much as my own son. i support you,” she says, a statement that’s received with rousing applause. the support for CoastOut in Coffs harbouris widespread, but it’s not universal. When the plans were made public religious group Lifehouse sent an email to its members decrying the idea and encouraging them to complain. the following debate was played out mostly in the pages of local newspaper, The Advocate. sawtell resident John gray’s badgering letter – “i am offended and i object to any of my rate money being used for this purpose” – was at the mild end of the scale, while Bill phillips went much further, taking the entire gay rights debate back to the very beginning with a point of viewthat was discredited decades ago: “While it is acknowledged that a small percentage of the population are born with a homosexual orientation, we must all agree that gay and lesbian activity is unnatural and in most cases medically or psychologically treatable.” even one of the preachers got involved. Minister tony sands, of Your Church, Church Of Christ, wrote: “as for those promoting this event, i think making a circus of their sexuality will not help gain acceptance but further marginalise them by separating and differentiating them from the wider community.”the fact that in 2010 these words could be written, let alone published by a seemingly respectable newspaper, is more than a little alarming and would give me doubts about visiting Coffs harbour – if it weren’t forthe response they received. the rest of the community fired back at the religious nay- sayers with a salvo of angry letters that made it very clear on which side the majority stood. “i have never been so disgusted with a religion/ church until now. how dare they? if you don’t like the idea then don’t go. siMpLe!” Daniel thundered, while hope could only shake her head: “i cannot believe what i am reading.it really saddens me and makes me angry.” the very best summation came from a reader identified as justj: “Lifehouse ‘church’ would do well to remember they are a minority in this community also, and they rely heavily on the good will of the majority.” When the newspaper ran a poll on the issue, asking whether Coffs harbour should go ahead with the event, the result was heartening: 75 percent in favour.as one of the those pushing hardest for the festival, Denise has become a bit of a target for criticism, with one unhappy ratepayer even confronting her in the supermarket. however, she says that for the most partthe negative reactions have been based on misunderstanding. “Unfortunately some people’s minds still leap to paedophiles and g-strings,” she says. “One of the men i work with came up to me and said, ‘What’s this about us hosting a Mardi gras?’ i told him it wasn’t that at all and explained exactly what was going on. he was okay with that.” it didn’t help that the first most people knew of the event was when The Advocateran a banner headline on a saturday morning declaring “say g’Day to a gay”. it was slightly more provocative than it needed to be and certainly got the anti-gay elements in town fired up, while more than a few in the CoastOut camp were also disappointed. apart from being a little patronising and making those who will be coming for the festival sound like an invading horde, the headline ignored one very simple and extremely importantfact: gays are already here. Coffs harbour has a significant gay community that, while not publicly thriving in the way you would find in the inner suburbs of a major city, is certainly bubbling along very strongly. there’s even a regular queer dance, trouble in paradise, that’s held every few months and attracts hundreds of frocked-up and fabulous partiers.“there’s definitely a gay community here,” says anne Brown, who moved from newtown a number of years ago. “You just don’t see them much, they’re a bit more tucked away.” i bump into anne (and Vicki, yet again) on the saturday afternoon at the annual Chilli Festival in the nearby village of sawtell. they’ve established base camp with a group of their friends at a table out the front of the pub with a clear view of the band (which, in a nod to just how far from the city i really am, even includes a fiddle player) that is performing from the back of a truck in the blocked street. it’s an obviously queer group to anybody who bothers to give it a second glance, but nobody does.Vicki says Coffs harbour was once a very homophobic community, but that has long since stopped being the case. When anne makes a slightly mean joke about Vicki she apologises by giving her a big kiss, without bothering to pause for even a moment to see if anybody on the crowded street is watching.it’s a similar case at the Coffs harbour hotel, an exuberantly heterosexual venue where the stench of mixing testosterone and pheromones hangs heavy in the air, the beefed-up coastal boys walk around with puffed-out chests that make them look like they’re pushing invisible wheelbarrows and a sign flashes across the screens every 30 seconds threatening a lifeban for anybody who gets into a punch-up. Yet for all of that, the group of gays i’m with make no attempt to hide their sexual identity as we dance, attracting no attention despite the fact two of them are even wearing CoastOut t-shirts. i wouldn’t try to pick anybody up,at least not without them giving me several winks and at least one hand on my knee so i’m certain they swing in the right direction, but i feel very comfortable that nobody is going to harass me. the closest thing to a negative is that a constant string of hopeful local blokes keep hitting on the two hot lesbians who are with us, but none of them take rejection badly and (as much as they say it’s annoying) i suspect the girls are secretly flattered.Of course, the last dregs of homophobia are not the only challenges todd has to overcome. as late night turns into early morning and the others keep dancing inside, he and i share a smoke in the beer garden where the alcohol makes both my questions and his answers far more candid than they would otherwise be. above a background din of locals shouting along to Khe Sahn, he reveals some of his uncertainties and gives me a glimpse of the pressure he’s under. “some people think that because i’ve come back from sydney and Melbourne i’m just trying to recreate their gay scenes here. that’s not it at all. i just love this place and i want to share it with the wider gay community because i think they’ll have a great time here.” i ask him how supportive the local gay community has been and he says that it’s been patchy. “some of them are behind me and couldn’t do more to help, while others are against the idea and are saying, ‘Don’t rock the boat’. they’re keeping their distance – i think, just in case it fails.”there’s one thing todd wants to make absolutely clear: “this isn’t political. i’m not at all political. i just want to put on something good for Coffs harbour and bring gays up here to show them a great time in a fantastic place.”On that score, todd certainly does live somewhere that’s worth showing off. there is, of course, the Big Banana that is among australia’s most famous “bigs” – and which now has an ice-skating rink (!) – but there’s far more to the place than that. Just ask tracey Conry. When i meet her shortly before todd’s speech she lists all the town’s assets, beginning with the fact it has direct flights from Melbourne, Brisbane and sydney (with the latter two accessible in an hour or less) and going on to talk at length about the unspoiled beaches and various distinct natural environments. to prove it, the following day she takes me for a helicopter joy ride, hugging the picturesque coast between the sparkling blue ocean and the crumpled green velvet mountains.her excitement about CoastOut is contagious. not only is she looking forward to a top weekend, she’s also very keen on the benefits it will bring to Coffs harbour. “having events here gives people the opportunity to see it as a destination in its own right, instead of just as a stop on the way between sydney and Brisbane. it’d be great to make them stop instead of just whizzing through on that wretched highway. this region has a lot to offer.” When i ask tracey about the controversy over whether or not to hold the event, she shrugs it off. “Like any regional community, there’re those who don’t want it and others who know how good it’s going to be.”the essence of a good story is conflict and i’ve written a lot about those few people who are against CoastOut, but it’s important to put their comments and opinions into perspective. While in Coffs i ask pretty much everybody i come across how they would feel about an influx of gay surfers and the overwhelming majority either couldn’t care less or are enthusiastically supportive. My favourite is the barman at the Coffs harbour hotel. “is that the poof thing they’ve been talking about in the papers?” he asks, then gives it a moment of purse-lipped consideration before shrugging. “i don’t see how it could bother me and it’ll probably be good for the town.”todd, who will undoubtedly wear the main responsibility for the festival’s success or otherwise, describes himself as “excitedly nervous” when he thinks about how it will turn out. “i swam for over a decade growing up, twice a day every day, and this feels like the training before a big meet. the weekend, when it rolls around, will be the competition – adrenalin-pumping, fast-paced and i’ll be partially shit-scared… but nothing a good dance with mates won’t fix.” asked about his goals for the festival, he’s modest. “You’ve got to walk before you can run and i completely understand that,” he says. “One day we’d ideally like to see gay and lesbian peopleand their friends from all over the world hearing about it and coming to check it out. Right now, though, we’re just trying to create a beach festival that will give people the chance to get out of the cities where they live and relax with their peers on the mid-north coast. i want to give them the chance to see a different part of the world and put their toes in the sand.”all the signs at this stage suggest he’ll succeed. the young blond homophobe i opened the story with wasn’t the only surfer to emerge from the water at Diggers Beach that day. salt water drips from 60-year-old peter’s red-and-grey-tinged goatie as he stops for a chat. “i don’t believe in it,” he says when i ask him about CoastOut and for a moment i think he is against the idea of gays paddling in the same waters as him, untili realise he’s talking about surf festivals in general: “i just think surfing’s something you should do on your own.” When i ask if he’s bothered by the gay and lesbian aspect he bursts into laughter. “Oh, it’s a gay festival? Well i’ve got no problem with that part of it. good on ’em. they’re more than welcome.”
For more information on the festival go to coastout.com.au.