Most people know Michael Woodhouse as the face of New Mardi Gras. He’s the man who, after the old Mardi Gras collapsed in 2002, announced to the world the organisation would be resurrected. Most of the community will recall him as the young redhead who spoke at major events -“ in white shorts one year, in drag the next.
But Woodhouse was more than just a face. Colleagues say he was the backbone of NMG, that without him it may have never survived and that he’s done more for Sydney’s GLBTQ community than most people realise.
Last weekend Woodhouse, 32, stepped down from his position as NMG co-chair to concentrate on his recent appointment as Fairfield Hospital general manager. After two years of juggling full-time work with an average of 20 hours of volunteer work a week, he’s exhausted. It has been a hard slog, he says. There’s only so long you can devote your annual leave to running a Mardi Gras festival rather than take a holiday. Also I think it’s a good idea for other people with new ideas and new vision to come in and have a go. I’m really confident I’m handing it over to safe hands.
It was Woodhouse, says current board member and former co-chair Steph Sands, who inspired and motivated people to commit to helping New Mardi Gras from the beginning. He got people to do amazing things and got them to commit to following through, she says. There’s no doubt he provided the backbone of New Mardi Gras, especially in the last 12 months, and kept everything together. He never lost sight of where we were heading or [what we] should be achieving.
Woodhouse has commanded the respect of his peers since school. A fellow student at his Adelaide high school, Sydney Star Observer news editor Stacy Farrar, clearly remembers Woodhouse as a stand-out. He was the smartest kid in his year, Farrar says. I remember he didn’t get picked on -“ even though it was a pretty tough school and he wasn’t all that butch -“ probably because of his brains.
David Mills, Blue magazine’s features editor and former Star journalist, met Woodhouse at Adelaide University, when the future Mardi Gras boss was national secretary of the Australian Student Christian Movement. He was very earnest, very intelligent and very funny, with a good sarcastic sense of humour, Mills recalls. Oh, and he had long hair. It was halfway down his back and he usually wore it up in a kind of French roll thing, he laughs.
After uni Woodhouse and Mills moved to Canberra and both won internships in the public service. The pair got involved in the local gay and lesbian newspaper which was losing a lot of money. Mills says, Michael was really quite central to saving the newspaper. Even to the point of pumping a fair bit of his own money into it, which showed to me his personal commitment to community ventures. And he never saw that money back. The pair also prophesied about one day running Mardi Gras.
Woodhouse got a job with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in Sydney, then later at ACON as director of community health. He was on the board of the Star when he was contacted by members of the group of community organisations who would come together to save Mardi Gras, after it was placed in receivership in 2002.
ACON CEO Stevie Clayton was his first co-chair. Clayton says Woodhouse was approached because of his experience working with the community. But it was limited experience which meant he didn’t come with a whole lot of baggage and people wouldn’t be out to get him for things he’s done before. So he was almost a fresh face but someone who’d done enough with the community to know how it all works.
New Mardi Gras board member Mark Orr, who first met Woodhouse when they were singers in the Sydney Gay And Lesbian Choir, says one of the reasons he was seen as a good choice for co-chair was his understanding of the process of running a community organisation.
At first Woodhouse wasn’t sure he wanted to help save Mardi Gras, or even whether it should have been saved.
In some ways I think, like a lot of other people, I was a bit ambivalent when the whole thing went under, he admits. But as I thought more about it in those couple of months it seemed to me there was something remarkable about an event that commanded the attention and participation of so many people. I think that’s an incredibly amazing and valuable thing that so many people put in so much effort, whether it’s formally within the organisation or in terms of what they do to get ready for the party and parade. It seemed to me that was worth saving, and I wanted to have a go.
Sure, he says, there were mistakes along the way, like the bad Sleaze poster and the dropping of gay and lesbian off the 2003 parade’s title. But Woodhouse says he and the organisation learnt a lot from the incidents.
Twenty months since its creation NMG has come a long way. Financially the organisation is in a reasonably healthy position, but it has further to go. It’s a start-up company. It’s only 20 months old and like any new business there’s going to be growing pains and it will take five years to secure itself.
Woodhouse would like to see New Mardi Gras continue to command the respect and involvement of people from across the GLBTQ community, particularly the younger generation. He’d like to see new events and different ways in which people can come together and express their creativity. He’d like the production values of some of the events, particularly the parade, to be lifted, and for the organisation to continue challenging both ourselves and the society at large.
So what next for Woodhouse? I’m sure we’ll see him as a very senior bureaucrat in the ministry of health within five years’ time, Mills believes. Clayton also feels he will go far: I see him as an up-and-coming star who’s going to blaze a trail for himself.
The man himself says he’s looking forward to concentrating on running Fairfield Hospital and at some point taking a real holiday. More importantly, he says, It will just be nice to get my life back.