Looking back at ChillOut
In 1997 a little celebration of all things gay held in the goldfield town of Daylesford attracted about 100 visitors. That little celebration is now one of Australia’s largest regional gay festivals and is holding a special retrospective exhibition. Exhibition curator Tanya Baricevich helps Michael Magnusson dig for some nuggets from ChillOut’s history.
Heading into its fifteenth year, ChillOut is celebrating the occasion with a retrospective exhibition of pictures, memorabilia and recollections stretching back to 1997 and the first festival. The exhibition features ChillOut official photography as well as pictures from the community, T-shirts, posters and stories from the festival’s history.
Tanya Baricevich has been researching for the exhibition and says that first festival was called Spring Connection, but in 1998 it became ChillOut and the name has stayed ever since.
“The idea of ChillOut was that after the Sydney Mardi Gras you would go there literally to ‘chill out’ in a gay friendly atmosphere,” Baricevich says.
Daylesford was always a popular tourist spot with visitors from all around the world, including gay tourists. Baricevich says no one really knows how Daylesford became so popular with the gay community but, “like everything there’s always an ‘underground’ thing where word spreads”. “It might have been through word of mouth, because a lot of the gay business owners did travel a lot and then moved to Daylesford.”
As a result, the tiny town established a gay and lesbian business network, Springs Connections, the only one of its kind in a rural centre. ChillOut was just one of many festivals and events for the area, now numbering over 30 each year, but it’s become one of the biggest, within a decade attracting 16,000 visitors across the Labour Day long weekend.
Baricevich explains that even before the first festival Daylesford was a popular tourist spot with gay visitors and, in turn, tourists were amazed by how gay-friendly the area was. She says gay people always lived in the area and it always welcomed diversity from its earliest days with the Italian-Swiss community and later with hippies.
“Gay people naturally hang out with the more alternative people,” she says. “In 1997 the Springs Connections started as a group of local business owners who tried to break through into the straight community and reach out to other gay people.”
Baricevich says the climate of the time may have contributed to the popularity of a gay festival in a small country town. “May 1997 marked the end of the 25 year campaign to rid Australia of all criminal law banning all homosexual activity.”
Baricevich says many committee members and volunteers have worked on ChillOut for over a decade and so continually tweaked the festival to make it a unique rural retreat.
In the festival’s second year, organisers introduced a closing night dance party. Early dances were held in the historic Palais, one of the oldest dance halls in Victoria, others were held in a marquee in Victoria Park.
Baricevich recalls one where there was a power problem and a transformer blew out.
“Some of the committee members back lit it with the headlights on their cars,” she laughs.
Baricevich says another significant event was the controversy when rainbow colours were first hung from the balcony of the mayor’s office. There was some opposition at the time over flying a rainbow flag over the town hall, although flags had been flown for events like the Swiss Italian Festa, but requests from ChillOut to fly a rainbow flag were refused.
“The committee had heard that the then mayor would be sympathetic, so they approached him and he agreed to drape a banner consisting of rainbow coloured strips of fabric from the balcony.”
Baricevich says it was a significant time, although council subsequently adopted a policy preventing flags promoting special events being flown from the mayor’s balcony. But although they disapproved of the rainbow flag, the council did approve, in 2005, ChillOut’s request to extend the dance party at the town hall until 5am.
ChillOut has attracted LGBTI community celebrities like Luke Gallagher and Dolly Diamond, approaching their ninth year as performers, as well international celebrities, one of which, Baricevich recalls, had special significance for one of ChillOut’s longest-standing committee members.
Her parents were huge Leo Sayer fans and she grew up listening to his records. Leo Sayer was visiting one year and she was asked to take some drinks over to him. “She had one of her parent’s records with her and he signed it for her, then pulled her out on stage and danced with her.”
With the advent of the retrospective, ChillOut is now hoping to extend its archives and welcomes any memorabilia and recollections from committee members and visitors to the festival over the years.
ChillOut Retrospective Exhibition, The Rex Arcade, Vincent Street, Daylesford, 10am - 6pm daily March 8-11, 2013. chilloutfestival.com.au