Bob Perry (right) details the relationship with his ex-lover in a new book by Neal Drinnan. (ABC South West Victoria: Emma Nobel)
It was the sheep people — breeders, the men he had competed against in sheep shows for years — who came to the fore at Darcy Wettenhall’s funeral.
Bob Perry, a former bank manager, had been in a secret relationship with Mr Wettenhall for more than a decade until the early 1990s.
The relationship ended a year before his lover, a famed Corriedale sheep breeder, was murdered at his Barrabool Hills property in country Victoria in 1992, along with his son and cousin.
It was the sheep people who carried the casket, gave the eulogy and helped Mr Perry prepare for next year’s sheep show.
“These were the people who stood by him, and I’m sure had he been game enough, had he been brave enough to come out in his life, he would have found these people were just as supportive as they have been to me,” Mr Perry said.
The “rest of the business” — Mr Wettenhall’s hidden identity as a gay man, his HIV-positive status and his relationship with Mr Perry — was not mentioned.
Dr Paul Venzo says LGBTIQA+ identities don’t just belong in the city. (ABC South West Victoria: Emma Nobel)
‘You can be a whole person’
Mr Perry has detailed the relationship in a new book by Colac author Neal Drinnan called The Devil’s Grip: A True Story of Shame, Sheep and Shotguns.
Mr Wettenhall lived in pathological fear of being found out, something Mr Perry, who came out before the deaths, hoped might have changed if he was still alive.
“I’d like to think that I could say to him, ‘This is what we can do, this is what’s available, you don’t need to live like this, you can be a whole person’,” he said.
“I think it’s vital that people come out and be visible.”
To increase LGBTIQA+ visibility in Colac, Mr Perry and Mr Drinnan helped create the Colac Otway Pride and Diversity group in 2018.
“I wouldn’t say it’s turned Colac into Daylesford, for instance, but it was an interesting thing to create a group that went in [the Colac Kana Festival],” Mr Drinnan said.
In his bookshop on Colac’s main street, with a rainbow flag displayed in the front window, he’s noticed younger female readers gravitating towards novels with more gender-diverse characters.
“I certainly notice that there’s a lot of teenage girls who look at young adult fiction… that’s about diverse gender identities.
“So, who’s to say a bookshop’s not at least a starting place for some sort of discourse around that stuff.”
From Paddocks to Pride is a finalist in the 2019 CBAA Community Radio Awards. (ABC South West Victoria: Emma Nobel)
From Paddocks to Pride
In Colac, younger generations of LGBTIQA+ people have also struggled with their sexuality.
Sarah White was in high school when comedian Joel Creasey was run out of town by a pack of angry young men yelling homophobic abuse.
Growing up in the nearby farming community of Simpson, she hung a newspaper clipping about actress Ruby Rose in her room but didn’t think LGBTIQA+ people could ever be accepted in regional Victoria.
“I only saw gay people on TV. I didn’t know they existed in real life,” she said.
Jarrad Mee helps produce the radio show for his childhood friend Sarah White. (ABC South West Victoria: Emma Nobel)
Deakin University lecturer Dr Paul Venzo, who has extensively researched queer identity, said gay and lesbian culture had been long associated with the city, often to the detriment of rural LGBTIQA+ narratives.
“One thing we can do is to try and break the chains of that city-centric model, to think that all the cool stuff, and in particular all the queer stuff, is happening in the city,” he said.
“People may be tempted to think that after marriage equality was passed, whether you agree with it or not, that the struggle for queer people is over, but on the level of our homes, our workplaces, how we get about in the world, it very much isn’t.”
“It’s important that local communities are prepared to do some self-help and self-development around that, supported by our local council, state and federal government.”
Ms White hid her sexuality “as if it were the worst thing in the world” but came out to her family during the same-sex marriage plebiscite, when 72 per cent of residents in the Corangamite Shire voted yes.
Now, she’s one of a group of locals trying to change things in Colac. Her weekly show, From Paddocks to Pride, on Colac’s community radio station, explores internalised queerphobia, pride history and substance abuse in the LGBTIQA+ community.
She wants to promote diverse voices and reinforce the right to feel accepted.
“You can stay here. It’s safe, it’s welcoming… there are support services out there.”