Riding the Bus: Building Inclusion in the Heart of Regional Victoria

7 Feb 2020

Jennifer Wolcott joins a mission to build equality and inclusion among the communities of rural and regional Victoria.

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I have had a long and rich career in environmental and natural resource management, with forays into regional economic development and the prickly nexus between the two. In the past, I had steadfastly avoided social policy and programs.

Yet in 2017 I found myself on a bus accompanying the LGBTIQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and gender diverse, Intersex and Queer) Rural and Regional Roadshow. The bus and its driver were somber. They were after all provided by Victoria Police, part of ongoing efforts to address their history and shift their culture in working with LGBTIQ people. I was heartened to discover that there were at least some sparkly props packed on board. 

The bus carried the roadshow team led by Victoria’s first Commissioner for Gender and Sexuality, Ro Allen, and a colourful group of people representing different LGBTIQ experiences and organisations.

In the past, I’d been party to too many government ‘roadshows’ rolling in and out of rural and regional communities to consult on some project, policy or program – well meaning, but typically stop-start, poorly coordinated with other consultations, and even patronising and tokenistic.

But this road trip was different.

We were out there because LGBTIQ people suffer significant ongoing discrimination impacting on their education, employment, health, wellbeing and dignity. One in five Australians still do not believe they know LGBTIQ people and are highly prejudiced against them.[1] There remains a strong need to acknowledge and fully include LGBTIQ people in every part of our society. 

The 2019 Inclusive Australia Community Index reports that a third of LGBTIQ people have experienced major discrimination in the past two years, with personal wellbeing at its lowest among disabled and LGBTIQ Australians.[2] LGBTIQ people have higher rates of psychological distress, anxiety, self-harm and suicide than the broader community which is attributed to both experiences and fear of discrimination, rejection and internalised stigma. Compared to the general population, LGBTIQ people are twice as likely to have symptoms, be diagnosed and treated for mental health disorders. Young LGBTIQ people are five times more likely to attempt suicide and transgender people are 11 times more likely to attempt suicide.[3] Eleven. Where people experience abuse or are isolated, as in many rural and regional communities, these grim statistics are even worse.

Reaching and supporting rural and regional LGBTIQ people is challenging because they are too often hidden and isolated, yet we know they are part of every community, every family, every club, every workplace, every school.

Kickstarting the conversation

The LGBTIQ Rural and Regional Roadshow tackled these challenges on a number of levels. It started with many, many cups of tea as expert facilitator and roadshow point man Daniel Witthaus explored local dynamics and engaged local people on their terms in their places.

When that bus rolled into town, a range of events had been carefully crafted with locals. The team had arranged a breakfast with the Commissioner, community leaders, and local media – people who often said “there aren’t gay people or I’ve had no issues in my club/school/workplace”. A country person themselves, Ro Allen would give a brief, warm but pointed speech. After breakfast the Commissioner invited people to join a photograph, which they politely did. Later that photo would be published in the local newspaper and social media – the school principal, coach or local councilors standing next to the Commissioner for Gender and Sexuality. This alone proved enough for people to feel safer, and for those leaders to discover they had LGBTIQ people in their families and organisations, and that those people needed support.

The roadshow team then facilitated workshops. Critically these meetings created safe spaces for rural and regional LGBTIQ people to share their experiences and, over time, to build their own formal and informal support networks. People were connected into existing rural and regional LGBTIQ groups and events, and were supported to establish new ones. They were introduced to statewide organisations that could provide services and support, such as Switchboard and Thorne Harbour Health. They developed their own inclusion plans.

The roadshow also conducted workshops with local service providers, such as health services and counsellors, to build their understanding of the experiences of local LGBTIQ people trying to access their services and how to create more accessible, safe and inclusive services.

My roadshow day culminated in a celebratory evening of food, music and entertainment by the acerbic and magnificent Dolly Diamond, and finally, the Commissioner and team leader Rowena Doo singing ‘Over the Rainbow’ accompanied by ukulele. I looked around at the invited local LGBTIQ people, allies and leaders – including notably all the area police command and executives from the energy company AGL who were to sponsor a local Pride Cup. We were singing together in a moment of community harmony: “The dreams that that they dared to dream, really do come true.”

The next morning, I found our trans advocate bantering with a group of tradies in high-vis in our country hotel. I felt a small lift of hope. 

Foundations to build on

The rural and regional roadshow program evolved. While low key and publicised visits around the State continued, local leaders emerged and networks strengthened. Rural and regional LGBTIQ groups coalesced into a statewide gathering in 2018 to share ambitions, learning and strategies. The State government sponsored local queer events and community groups and funded significant new LGBTIQ health and wellbeing programs. Service providers are being trained and accredited in inclusive service provisions, and employee pride networks blossom.

The LGBTIQ Rural and Regional Roadshow provides a model for other government programs to consider.  Modestly funded, it relied on deep, sustained listening and acknowledgment of people’s diverse experiences, letting locals lead and ultimately celebrating resilience and pride. I am generally skeptical of the term, but ‘co-design’ is accurately used in the title of the published program evaluation.[4]

The roadshow helped to kickstart the work of many courageous LGBTIQ rural and regional people and their allies. I have no doubt that it saved lives – including through the searing 2018 marriage equality debate.

There’s a long way to go, but it was heartening that 64.9% of Victorians, including every rural and regional electorate, supported marriage equality in the postal survey. There are a growing number of ‘pride’ sporting and LGBTIQ cultural events across Victoria sustaining visibility and building understanding.

As an elderly farmer said to me at the roadshow dinner: “Now I know my gay son isn’t alone. I didn’t want him to be alone. He is part of this community. And I guess so am I.” 

Jennifer Wolcott was Director of Equality for the Victorian Government from 2017-2018.

[1] Faulkner N, Zhoa K, Kneebone S, Smith S; The Inclusive Australia Social Inclusion Index: 2019 Report; Monash University; December 2019

[2] Ibid

[3] National LGBTI Health Alliance; Snapshot of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Statistics for LGBTI People; July 2016

[4] LGBTI Equality Roadshow Evaluation Report Summary - August 2018 (PDF)