Cafe Chat – SWAG Founder Brian Kuehn

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SWAG founder Brian Kuehn. Photo: TruPics

At the recent AlburyCity Australia Day awards, fledgling community group SWAG – Social Albury Wodonga Gays – was nominated for the Community Group of the Year Award, while its founder, Brian Kuehn received a nomination for Citizen of the Year.

SWAG has been operating on the border for only 18 months and provides the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, and Intersex  (LGBTQI) community with regular activities including a monthly night to socialise that sometimes includes performances by Brian’s alter ego, the ‘golden haired’ Beryl Kuehn.

While not winning either award, Brian feels the nominations, on top of winning the Victorian 2016 Globe Community Award for its work connecting the LGBQTI community, ring a strong endorsement for the work of the group.

Border Cafe’s Robyne Young caught up with Brian to talk about the development of SWAG and Beryl’s role in making the group and its aims accessible beyond the LGBTQI community.

What prompted you to start SWAG?

There wasn’t the right group for me: nothing inclusive or that sat with my belief system. I had set up a group like this before, so thought I could do it again.

When and where was this?

It was in the mid 1990’s to 2000’s. At Pash in Parramatta in Western Sydney, we put a show on every fortnight. I knew all of the drag queens and organised the shows. I was also studying in the mental health field during this time and was starting to see what this type of entertainment could do in terms of encouraging positive mental health in the LGBTQI community.

How did this experience help you to start SWAG?

Firstly I used my contacts in Sydney, I contacted drag queens who I knew to perform; I met people through the internet and social pages including using my own Facebook page and then set up the SWAG Facebook page in August 2015.  People started to come out of the woodwork.

Beryl - Brian's alter ego.
Beryl – Brian’s alter ego.

What the public see are the shows compered by your alter ego Beryl. What do these shows do in terms of supporting the LGBTQI community?

I did a night where a younger crew got to come in and perform. I taught them some movements, and some stage presence, but what came through was that they were facing a level of social stigma.

Lots of the people were coming along and were very open about the impact of that stigma on them. They were saying I want to kill myself – some kids had massive anxieties on the night and I basically had to hold everyone’s hands, but they did a great job.

But, I felt there were more needs to be met. I started more activities – Ten Pin bowling, laser tag, camping, and we’re now doing swimming. This year we’re going up to Mardi Gras in Sydney, and next month we will be in the parade at the ChillOut Festival in Daylesford. All this gives us a platform.

We’ve also connected with Shepparton, Melbourne and Wagga. I believe in connecting the dots and finding access to services. As people came to know me they started contacting me to connect people with support services from health, housing employment and mental health among others.  SWAG enables people.

 Are there other ways that you’ve raised SWAG’s profile?

Yes, the Border Pride Fair and Marriage Equality walks. Also, I am very proactive with the media. I want people to know that SWAG is not just for gays, it’s not just about gender. We now have a following from all sectors on the border, and it’s this support we need to gain equality in all areas including Marriage Equality.

Last month we held a fundraiser for Sarah Burkitt who has terminal cervical cancer, and her partner Naree, that raised almost $9,000. The response was amazing.

What do you think the nominations you and SWAG received at the AlburyCity Australia Day awards reflect?

It speaks volumes. We were acknowledged by the community and the Mayor, Cr Kevin Mack. Albury councillor, Dr Amanda Cohn has also been a great supporter. It was funny, people were also coming up to me and asking, “Are you the guy who plays Beryl?”

Tell me more about Beryl and her role in the group achieving its aims?

Beryl was born because I didn’t have anyone else to compere the first show. It was the first time I had done drag, and at the end of the night it was Beryl I received the most feedback about and there was a request to have her return. She’s a combination of my mum who was a very quirky lady and me. Beryl bring happiness and allows me put forward some messages that people might not want to hear from me.

When did you come out and what was that experience like for you?

Growing up I wasn’t allowed to be gay … there was no such thing as gay. I went off and got married and had a family. Then at 28 I was either going to kill myself or be me. I had two choices and two roads. I love life too much to have wanted to kill myself, so I told my family I was gay. And in the beautiful words of my mother, “Que sera sera”.

Doris Day’s iconic version of the song “Que Sera” was included in last November’s HotHouse Theatre Studio Ensemble production, “At The Hip” in one of the scenes where SWAG members were played by ensemble members. How did it feel to have SWAG be part of a production that was all about Albury-Wodonga?

I was ecstatic that they used that song. I burst into tears when I first saw that scene … and I saw the show a couple of times. This again was a massive acknowledgment of the hard work we do. People believe we’ve been here for a long time, but we’ve only been here for a year and a half.

I looked across and saw the response, and thought I am now part of this town.

Notes: SWAG is looking for new premises for its community centre. Contact details and more information about the group at http://www.swagalburywodonga.com