From humble beginnings in 1997, ChillOut Festival has grown to become Australia’s largest Queer Country Pride festival. This year QNews.com.au’s Nate Woodall had the pleasure of chatting with the people who made ChillOut festival possible.
THEY: I’m Em Ireland, the festival director of ChillOut. Next year is my third year as director, but I’ve lived in Daylesford for 15 years.
TF: My name is Dr. Todd Fernando. I’m the Victorian Commissioner for LGBTQI+ communities. I’ve been in the role for almost two years now.
My role, just for clarity, is to provide high-level strategic advice to the Victorian Government on the implications of the decisions they make about LGBTQI+ people in our organizations.
And I also have the pleasure of being the patron of ChillOut.
Sit back, Chill Out
NW: ChillOut has become known as the biggest and longest-running country queer Pride event in regional Australia. What do you think that this is a testament to? Why do you think it has become such an historic landmark event?
THEY: I believe that lends to the community. It was an idea for connection and having a meeting place for LGBTQI+ communities in regional Victoria. It actually started as a picnic.
To answer your question, it’s community and connectedness. And we’re very lucky here in Daylesford to live in a rainbow community.
I like that we can reflect that all around us and support all wider regional areas, all across Victoria and interstate as well.
N.W: For sure. Like you said, it started as a picnic. In my opinion, all of the best queer community spaces start out as a kiki or just a small hangout. Then they become something so much more significant.
THEY: It’s also because it’s not commercial. It’s supported by the government and supported by the Shire. It’s really properly supported by everybody.
So it’s not brought to you by a corporation, it’s brought to you by people with integrity. That really helps with its longevity.
NW: ChillOut is also very interesting and unique because it is rural and regional. I come from a regional town in Queensland myself, so I know first-hand that those spaces are so scarce.
So the fact that ChillOut exists is so ground-breaking.
Todd, what can you tell us about how regional queer events distinguish themselves from inner city communities?
TF: Look, there’s this certain charm to events that happen in regional areas. Often, there’s probably two ways to explain why that charm exists.
One is to spite those living in metro areas to say, ‘Fuck it, we can do things here as well’.
The other is the resilience that regional and rural people have, particularly those who are LGBTQI+, who choose to stay in regional areas, and who choose to continue their connections to the countries they’re on.
They choose not to follow the destined path many queer and gender diverse people take, which is to move to the city.
The resilience that comes from deciding to stay and to embed your roots into country life, into regional life, has a way of manifesting itself in a variety of ways.
What ChillOut has managed to do is to sink its teeth into that fate, right into that choice. And to say, everybody else is going to have to come here and see how we do it.
And that is one of the most exciting things that sets ChillOut apart from any other regional festival is because it knows what it’s doing when it centers the voices of LGBTQI+ people in those regions to perform or to share their narrative in their stories or their lived and living experiences.
Something in the water
NW: Speaking of lived experiences – Em, you are a Daylesford local. Do you think that longevity is because of something about that area? Do you think there’s something magical in the water in Daylesford?
THEY: I’d like to say yes because we live on beautiful Dja Dja Wurrung land. It was a healing place for Sorry Business as far as I know of its first People’s history.
It is also the spa capital of Australia because of the healing properties of the water. So, there is actually something in the water. Three different rivers meet here so there’s something really sacred about the ground which we tender here. People come here to heal, and then they leave.
But it’s also just being among nature and among the trees and among relaxed people. Todd said it beautifully in terms of this sense of resilience, it is really well mentored here, too.
So when people come to ChillOut, they get a sense of what it’s like to grow up in a safe environment and to be yourself.
It’s not just one thing that we have here. It’s everything.
From the schools to the hospitals, to the footy clubs – you name it, all the community groups are all here, supporting one another in the LGBTQI+ community.
If you come here just to have some downtime, that’s easier for some people to connect as well.
Not all of us want to have a dance party. We love to celebrate, but there’s a lot more on offer here during the day, different bushwalks and sports and whatever.
What to expect
NW: Todd, what can you tell us about your first time at ChillOut?
TF: What I witnessed at my first ChillOut, was that people’s shoulders were relaxed, people were holding their partner’s hand more intimately because they didn’t have to look over their shoulder or worry about people glaring or looking because they were amongst a sea of hundreds of same-sex couples holding hands.
Because you’re with your peers, you’re with other gender-diverse people, with other queer people who express themselves.
And that can take people back, right? You’re taken back by the fact that you’re not the only gay in the village or trans person in the village anymore.
But you’re among hundreds, if not thousands of other queer and gender-diverse people.
NW: Speaking of, I have never been to a ChillOut. What advice do you have for first-time-goers?
THEY: Bring really comfortable shoes. Bring your friends and family, bring a readiness to heal. Bring a readiness to chill out!
Get ready for connection. It’s not like anything else.
TF: You’re going to feel like you’ve stepped into a weird bubble. But it’s so normal, you can go out and bring your full self to a country town.
How crazy that is to bring your full self and then to have your full self affirmed in a country town. That’s what you’ll experience and chill out.
A healing experience
NW: Being queer in a rural town is kind of like, the Australian Horror Story, you know? You feel an isolation that you don’t even realize is isolation until you move to the city and discover your found family.
But ChillOut offers an alternative to that.
TF: Look, don’t don’t get us wrong. There are many lived experiences of our communities, both gender diverse and queer, who have to live in country towns that are just not supportive.
They don’t get the opportunity to see rainbows thrown in every shop window. Some of our communities are experiencing the full brunt of progress in their country towns.
But what ChillOut offers is a healing experience, because you’re able to witness what it can look like in a country town where you have full support and recognition from the council through to the health services through to the schools.
So it gives you that moment of relief to say, ‘oh, there are possibilities here in rural areas that can be safe – or safer than the town that I might have grown up in’.
THEY: We’re constantly educating. It never stops, you can never stop learning. But, as a rainbow bubble, if you like, we’re still constantly changing and evolving with everything to do with our LGBTQI+ community.
It’s a really interesting place to keep growing. ChillOut feels a bit like the mother bird with wings around the regionals. We want to show how it’s done because we want to see more of it.
Looking back, looking forward
NW: Chillout also has a pretty extensive history and has seen some pretty huge hurdles in its time. From bushfires to volunteer shortages in 2007, and then obviously, inevitably, the COVID pandemic.
I realize that you’re both relatively recently appointed but what can you tell us about the history of ChillOut and how it’s evolved and changed to adapt to these challenges?
THEY: I’ve been here for 15 years, but I’ve been coming here since I was 20 years old. So I think the community has always been an open offering to people to be who they are.
I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but one of the first AIDS clinics opened here, in Victoria, in the 80s. A lot of people came up to take care of their partners and went, ‘Oh, this is beautiful’, and then bought land.
So we kind of flourished as a queer community on top of already being a very open kind of hippie place.
I’d come up here to, you know, get a Tarot reading, go to the bathhouse and go to the Palais and have a dance.
But yes, I’ve seen the bush fires, and the community really supports itself, regardless of volunteers. Everyone’s always short of volunteers, especially post-pandemic but I hope that’s picking up.
But we have to listen more. Mother Nature’s in charge, we’re trying to put on the best environment we can but we’re also, like Todd said, resilient enough to be ready for plans A, B and C.
I’d like to see ChillOut reach a broader regional audience. It will keep evolving but accommodation will be the challenge. It’s something that needs to keep growing here.
More camping, more regional areas around us embracing accommodation influxes.
Some people say it would be crazy to live out here, let alone put an event on these days. But you know, because of its long-running history, it’ll always happen, and it’ll evolve the way it does.
To find out more about ChillOut and book your tickets to the 2023 Festival, check out ChillOutFestival.com.au
For the latest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) news in Australia, visit qnews.com.au. Check out our latest magazines or find us on Facebook, TwitterInstagram and YouTube.