Conference Report – June Lowe – Chair of GRAI

June Lowe Health in Difference | 13-15 August 2015 | Report by June Lowe, Chair GRAI

“If conferences resonate with the wider political and social worlds outside their workshop walls, then you generally have a recipe for success. Certainly the context for Health in Difference 2015 was perfect in this regard.  With equal marriage being the hot topic of Canberra debate, many HiD conference delegates arrived through a rainbow-lit airport, and the collective impact of some 300 LGBTI activists made its mark in an already receptive Canberra city.

From this promising foundation the conference launched with enthusiasm and goodwill. The depth of topics and talent were testimony to the maturity of LGBTI research and activism in Australia and to have four full program streams scheduled for three days was a fine achievement for the organisers.

Despite many tempting offerings in other rooms, GRAI loyalties had me sticking close to the LGBTI Ageing and Aged Care stream. The high quality and variety of presentations was most impressive, showcasing latest research, along with inspiring collaborative projects between the LGBTI community and the aged care sector.

Dr Catherine Barrett (La Trobe University) gave a thought-provoking presentation exploring the two versions of life-stories often exposed in research interviews. Typically, opening conversation were quite positive, ‘tip of the iceberg’ interpretations, whereas what followed, the ‘thick narrative’, often revealed quite serious forms of homophobic abuse. Catherine’s analysis explored this apparent disconnect between what people say and their lived experiences. Seemingly disjunct, the narrative gap actually pointed to an important survival strategy for older LGBTI people, their need for a minimisation of harmful experiences and the imperative not to make waves.

Looking ahead, we heard a timely warning from Liam Leonard (La Trobe University) to move beyond the ‘stigmatized identity’ of LGBTI elders in our work of awareness raising, to promote positive values for older LGBTI people so that their needs will still be met when the discrimination narrative becomes less applicable. (For me, this fits well with a positive ageing agenda: combating the twin spectres of ageism and homophobia challenges us to sell older LGBTI fabulousness more creatively).

Both Catherine and Liam noted the pressure on older LGBT people not to cause offence, which potentially restricts expression of gender identity or sexual orientation, leading to a compartmentalising of public and private ways of being. Coupled with historical experiences of discrimination, this element heightens the imperative for service providers to embrace the onus of responsibility in taking an affirmative stance to achieve LGBTI inclusivity.

For me, attending Health in Difference was very energising.  It is particularly encouraging to hear of the achievements of several aged care providers who have dedicated serious attention towards LGBTI inclusivity within their organisations.

Robin Burton, from the ACF Group in South Australia, described their 3 year project ‘Free To Be’ which started in 2103. A classic thermometer measures their progress on in-house staff training: to date over half of their 1200 staff have received training, funded by an ACSIHAG Grant (they aim for 100%). Other milestones include an LGBTI champions program to provide support and advice on LGBTI topics to other staff; and a policy on managing homophobic residents with a step by step management process.  They also have produced a suite of resources including a celebrative diversity brochure as part of the welcome pack given to new residents; and an information pack for staff inductions, including a pocket-size inclusive language guide. Community collaboration has been critical to the development of LGBTI cultural understandings within the ACH Group, and the service now feels confident to engage with the community in the 2015 Feast Festival (Adelaide’s equivalent of Pride).

Helen Povall of Lifeview, Melbourne, also identified community engagement as a key element in their inclusivity journey. They began with a Diversity Plan and used peer support and community networking as core strategies, working with residents and volunteers to develop a reference group to guide their activities, which include monthly discussions on LGBTI diversity and cultural safety. Lifeview’s four facilities this year celebrated IDAHOT Day (International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia) with a range of creative activities. Residents painted rainbows and made hand prints with personal pledges, decorated cup cakes with rainbows, while others watched the film, The Birdcage.

Celebrating diversity also pays dividends beyond the intrinsic benefits of creating safe spaces valuing all involved: this year Lifeview received a Victorian State award for excellence as 2015/2016 Large Provider of the Year, in part for their LGBTI inclusion initiatives. Ultimately, Lifeview plan to take their commitment to a whole new level, with plans on the drawing board to build an LGBTI facility in Prahran, Melbourne.

Four years ago, UnitingCare Ageing NSW embarked on a journey of LGBTI inclusivity, working with ACON’s ‘Pride in Diversity’ workplace program.  Steve Teulan, Director of UnitingCare Ageing, and Vicki Coumbe of ACON spoke about this large-scale collaboration, in which, so far, 800 staff members have completed a one-day training program.

UnitingCare’s progress has been clearly measured using the Australian Workplace Equity Index (AWEI), an annual survey which benchmarks LGBTI workplaces: having moved from an AWEI score of zero in 2001 to a remarkable 120 in 2015. In May this year, UnitingCare was recognised by ACON as one of Australia’s ‘Top 20’ employers for LGBTI people.

As UnitingCare Ageing is the single largest provider of aged care services in New South Wales and the ACT, their leadership in providing a welcoming place for LGBTI clients, staff and families provides a strong impetus for inclusivity in the aged care industry in Australia. It is also a great showcase for the benefits of collaboration between the aged care sector and the LGBTI NGO sector and community.

The importance of community partnerships was a theme that ran through the conference’s Aged Care and Ageing stream. Presentations on Palliative Care, Community Visitors Scheme, and Carers all underscored the importance of close working relationships to build trust, understanding and ongoing motivation to break down pervasive hetero-normative organisational cultures.

Such cooperative ventures have been the hallmark of the LGBTI inclusivity agenda in ageing and the aged care environment, with significant gains having been made in a few short years. The enthusiasm and the spirit of generosity behind these many projects bodes well for a future where LGBTI elders don’t feel a need to retreat to the closet, but are visible, welcomed and free to be their whole selves, wherever they are.

In Australia, we have done exceptionally well at integrating research on older LGBTI people with on-the-ground programs – and in gaining political traction, translating into policy reforms for the rights and wellbeing for this cohort. However, social change is uneven and fickle, and to achieve permanent attitudinal shifts will require sustained effort and interest. Building on our community/aged care ‘coalitions of concern’ will be essential to maintain the motivation and momentum to keep this movement alive.

Congratulations to the National LGBTI Health Alliance on a very successful conference, playing no small part in advancing these essential relationships.”