YOU get the feeling when speaking to John Caldwell, a successful radio personality and entrepreneur, that he has told his coming out story many times — probably because like so many LGBTI people it has played a formative role in his life.
To understand the significance of his coming out, it’s important to understand the rough start Caldwell had in life.
Caldwell also faced a cycle of bullying and abusive foster parents until he left school at the age of 15, homeless and broke.
However, through determination and resilience, he began turning his life around.
He picked up work at pizza chain Domino’s where he would do long hours and never knocked back a shift. Within a short time he became a state manager and would own two of his own franchises, one of which would go on to win Franchise Store of the Year.
“I got the shittiest job I could find and worked my arse off,” Caldwell said.
“I always said yes to extra shifts, I would call all the other stores asking if they had extra hours… sometimes I would travel up to an hour for a two-hour shift.”
Today Caldwell wears multiple career hats: he is an entertainment reporter on radio station KIIS, regularly appears on Channel 10 and has set up his own recruitment agency for the hospitality industry.
He has used his negative experiences growing up as a force for good, writing a book called Full Throttle about the bullying he faced. A prominent anti-bullying and anti-family violence advocate, Caldwell is also an ambassador for the Alannah and Madeline Foundation and a spokesperson for White Ribbon Day. All of this helped him become the Victorian candidate for the 2014 Australian of the Year Award.
Caldwell is now an active member of Melbourne’s LGBTI community, currently serving on the board of Midsumma. In 2015, he was one of the festival’s annual ambassadors, alongside Kerryn Phelps.
Despite his professional successes, though, it took Caldwell a while to come to terms with being an out gay man.
“My coming out happened in two stages,” he explained.
“We lived in a caravan park and I was caught having a peek under the showers… the guy recognised me, he told our neighbours who then told my parents.
“The reason I tell that story is because I remember panicking and thinking, ‘I need to kill myself, this is the worst thing that could happen in my life’.
“I can still feel it now, physically… the thought of my parents going ‘that’s okay, our son is gay’ wasn’t even one per cent in my mind… there was nothing okay with it at all.
“I had this curiosity, that I didn’t know what to do. We didn’t have the internet so there was no avenue to explore it… I came from a poor background, my dad was a real blokey bloke, I didn’t know any other gay people.”
The second stage of his coming out story, Caldwell’s “actual coming out”, involved forcing his de facto partner to live in a separate bedroom and pretend to just be friends when a co-worker moved in as a housemate.
“I was still self conscious it would jeopardise my career,” he said.
Eventually he would be comfortable being out at work and with his family and is philosophical about his time in the closet.
“What I love and hate about it (coming out) was that I was desperately trying to hide it (being gay), but noone gave a shit about it,” he said.
Caldwell wanted young LGBTI people, especially in regional areas, to realise that coming out was “not the end of the world”.
“Even if you think in your immediate community of family that this is unacceptable, there is a wider community and family… and there are people that want to help you,” he said.
“There’s a life outside of where you are now.”
**This article was first published in the February edition of the Star Observer, which is available now. Click here to find out where you can grab a copy in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra and select regional/coastal areas.
Read the February edition — the Midsumma issue — of the Star Observer in digital format: