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Changemaker  |  Social Affairs

A Celebration of Diversity

22 May 2017 at 8:25 am
Wendy Williams
Ruth McNair is a general practitioner, an associate professor at the Department of General Practice, University of Melbourne and an advocate for LGBTQI equality. She is this week’s Changemaker.

Wendy Williams | 22 May 2017 at 8:25 am


A Celebration of Diversity
22 May 2017 at 8:25 am

Ruth McNair is a general practitioner, an associate professor at the Department of General Practice, University of Melbourne and an advocate for LGBTQI equality. She is this week’s Changemaker.

McNair has worked as a GP for more than two decades, specialising in lesbian health and women’s health .

It was through this work she became an academic GP and did a PhD on various research projects.

In 2010 she was awarded a PhD for a qualitative project that explored the patient-doctor relationship between same-sex attracted women and their usual GP.

She is also the inaugural director of the General Practice and Primary Health Care Node (North West Academic Centre) with research interests in the patient-doctor relationship, the health of lesbian and bisexual women, cultural diversity training, and inter-professional education.

In addition McNair is active in LGBTI policy and community development, with roles as member and chairperson on each of the Victorian Ministerial Advisory Committees on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Health and Wellbeing.

She is co-chair of the Victorian LGBTI Health and Human Services Working Group, chair of the Gay and Lesbian Foundation of Australia (GALFA), and a founding member of the Rainbow Families Council and the Australian Lesbian Medical Association.

In 2006 she received the Quiet Achiever Rainbow Award, and in 2007 was made a life member of the Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights lobby.

In this week’s Changemaker McNair talks about homophobia in Australia, how the definition of a family is changing and some of the reasons why LGBTI people are facing homelessness.

Ruth McNair headshotYou have been leading the Journeys Home project exploring the pathways to homelessness, and the additional challenges LGBTI people are facing. What have been some of the most surprising findings to come out of that project?

So far, the family issues are huge, in our understanding of why LGBT people become homeless in the first place. It seems largely about either family rejection or just misunderstanding. And then of course the compounding issues of once people are living out of home they find that they might be in a homophobic, transphobic share house or accommodation that is not accepting of them at all. So they still have to continue to hide their identity to remain safe. So it is not just about family rejection it is about social rejection and isolation as well.

How prevalent do you think homophobia is in Australia?

I think it is obviously improving given the widespread information that is out there around the health and well being of same sex attracted people and trans people. We are starting to understand it more and I think the general population is starting to understand it more as well  –  that it is not a deviation or something abnormal but it is their reaction.

We came across isolated areas, in certain rural locations, certain conservative sub groups, and you know we talked particularly in the rural areas to some caseworkers about the issues of religion and how that compounds LGBTI marginalisation. And so it is certainly not all elements of that religion, but the more conservative parts that make it much more difficult for people because it is stigmatised and they don’t want their families to lose face, so they either hide themselves completely or walk away from their community of origin. So I think you know subgroups in our community are still very homophobic or transphobic but partly that is because it is misunderstood, they don’t have enough information.

I think one of the big outcomes of our project will be some recommendations around supporting families and communities to understand LGBTI issues more, so that the young people don’t have to do it all themselves. Groups like PFLAG have been around for years and that’s been one of their aims, to help educate families, that’s been happening but only in pockets around Australia.

You were the inaugural treasurer of the Rainbow Families Council and you have a son with your partner. Do you think the idea of what constitutes a “family” is changing in Australia?

Very much, I think we are starting to diversify our opinions of families effectively and I think that is one of the reasons we started Rainbow Families is to both support the families ourselves, but also to educate our community and our own families and so on.

So it has been interesting to see the difference because initially we were just lesbian mums and then increasingly more gay dads came along and wanted to be involved. Gay Dads Australia was set up after we formed to support gay men who were having families through surrogacy. So we can see this huge diversification. And also now in the last five years we are starting to see a lot more trans parents either coming out late if they have had kids or trans young people saying: “Well we want to have kids as trans people”. I know that the children’s hospital in Melbourne and other centres are starting to do some pretty effective fertility preservation techniques for trans people before they start on their hormones because they are aware that these young people might want to start families just like anyone else. It is pretty amazing actually to see this changing so quickly, in the last 20 years or so.

How close do you think Australia is to achieving marriage equality?

Even in the last five years you can see a huge shift in the population’s opinion about this, the politicians are a little behind, so eventually they’ll catch up. It is obviously a very political issue, there is a strong lobby against it, largely from conservative religion and conservative politicians but it is inevitable. It is just a pity that it is taking so long and so much in the way of resources.

That is one of the things that we discussed at GALFA around harnessing some of the new philanthropy that is coming through the LGBTI community and being given to the same sex marriage or equal marriage campaigns. To me it seems, not a waste, but it is such a large amount of money being funnelled into one issue when there is so much else that could be done. So we are hoping that these new donors will then redirect their efforts into other LGBTI issues once we have achieved marriage equality. Because philanthropy isn’t huge in Australia and I think within the LGBTI community there are very generous people and donors who give money but often not to LGBTI issues. I think that is one of the things we are interested in in GALFA to try and encourage people to think about LGBTI issues, and put back a little bit into our own community.

What are some of the biggest issues facing the LGBTI community?

The intersectional issues are huge, around religion, around multicultural issues in our community, disability of course, homelessness, mental health is a huge one. There are so many issues that are mainly triggered by negative attitudes, that are leaving our community at a disadvantage and still very little policy in Australia that addresses LGBTI people as a vulnerable sub group.

We are getting some wins with mental health and the 10 year mental health plan in Victoria for example. We now have LGBTI people listed as a vulnerable subgroup but it took a lot of lobbying and it only happened last year. And we can also see the conservative rollback of things in the States. We’ve only just started to achieve getting LGBTI questions into our big population base study and a conservative government in the US is just removing those questions from there population based studies, so we need to be pretty vigilant as well that these things aren’t always stable we have to keep putting the pressure on government bodies to keep asking these questions. Because the more information we have the better we’ll be able to find solutions.

Through your work what is your ultimate goal?

I should say equity in Australia for LGBTI people. We are different and we don’t want to be the same as everyone else. We love the fact that we have diverse family forms and we love the fact that we have diverse relationships and lifestyles so that is an important part of our community. But we also don’t like the fact that we are treated unequally. So that is what I would like to see. Some celebration of this diversity.

We can see some parallels with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. They still have a lot of battles to be won but we are starting to celebrate their culture more effectively in Australia, at last. So hopefully we can start doing that with LGBTI cultures as well.

How do you find time for yourself?

That’s what I’m doing now! We’re just travelling around Australia at the moment which is pretty amazing.

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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