Q&A with Rowena Allen, Gender and Sexuality Commissioner

Rowena Allen was appointed by the Victorian Government as Victoria’s first Gender and Sexuality Commissioner in July 2015. In the following interview, Rowena discusses her first year in the role.

How would you describe your role as Gender and Sexuality Commissioner?

I sit in the Department of Premier and Cabinet. My role is essentially one of education and advocacy about LGBTI rights and issues. I’m also a member of the Government’s LGBTI Taskforce which is the first whole-of-government taskforce on LGBTI issues.

My official job description is to make Victoria’s public service a more inclusive space for LGBTI people, so I have a broad remit.

My philosophy for the role is to do 20 per cent of my work with the LGBTI community and 80 per cent to change mainstream services.

What’s your thinking behind the 20/80 split?

My role is about changing hearts and minds. There is already a lot of good work going on in the LGBTI community. The low hanging fruit is the corporate sector and sport, such as the AFL. I’ve recently worked on a pride game aired on a major channel on a Saturday night – it’s important to get a broad reach.

The work I do is really topical. People want information about all sorts of things – such as how to help transgender people in the workplace or transgender students in schools. You need to work on high level strategy.

What are your key priorities and projects?

I’ve got my key projects down to about 20! At the moment, I’m focused on the issues of family violence, gay conversion therapy, and the intersections between LGBTI people and other cohorts, including people with disabilities and Aboriginal people.

I am doing a rural “road show” this year on homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia, in partnership with Victoria Police and Victoria Legal Aid amongst others. As part of the Victorian Public Sector Pride Network, I also helped to develop pride networks in all of the departments who have now signed up to Pride and Diversity and who audit their own practices.

I work closely with local government to develop best practice models and with the university sector on inclusive curriculum. I also work to make sure that aged care is more inclusive for LGBTI people. This also includes making sure that events are inclusive, such as advocating for an elders’ tent at a community festival.

Do you see a human rights angle to your work with local government?

The Municipal Association of Victoria recently put out a vote to councils on marriage equality. Some councils don’t think it’s their business but others see its significance as a symbolic vote. For some, I’m preaching to the converted. For example, the City of Banyule has done amazing work on inclusion and equity for LGBTI people.

What has been the impact of your role in the first year?

The role is definitely having a positive impact but we’re still grappling with how to measure and evaluate that impact.

Sometimes it’s the small things that keep you going. I recently responded to a letter from some young people in regional Victoria who asked for my help. I was able to facilitate the establishment of a support group that received government funding.

My role was also pivotal in terms of the recent law reform to allow for same-sex adoption (the Adoption Amendment (Adoption by Same-Sex Couples) Bill 2015).

Did you use the Charter to influence those reforms?

I did use the Charter to focus the discussion on the right to equality. But I think that a lot of people still don’t understand the Charter or what their obligations are.

Having said that, do you think there is an important role for education to play?

Absolutely. Education is key and it needs to be continuous. I love the way VEOHRC do it. It’s education in a non-threatening ‘ask whatever you like’ safe space. It’s simple and step-by-step education.

In terms of my role, I like to think of it as an advisory role to support other agencies to drive LGBTI work independently.

Do you have any other case studies you can share about LGBTI rights?

There was a recently a case about family violence and whether LGBTI people are discriminated against in the family violence welfare system. The system is geared towards women fleeing violence for obvious reasons but there is a gap in terms of education and resources for LGBTI people when it comes to family violence.

There’s also a lot of misunderstanding about family violence in the LGBTI community. Even the courts don’t take it seriously sometimes when violence involves a same-sex couple.

Is there more the legal system can do?

Victoria Police are the first point of contact in these cases. As an organisation they are committed to improving, but they need more support. Family violence in the LGBTI community can be really violent and can even end in fatalities. There is also significant underreporting in the LGBTI community.

Victoria Police has developed online resources on family violence that will include an LGBTI example, which is a small but significant thing. They are also lending me a bus for my rural “road show”!

Can you tell us more about vulnerable cohorts of the LGBTI community?

Aboriginal people are a vulnerable population, as well as multicultural people coming out in their communities. There is a lot of vulnerability for young people in that space.

Other cohorts include older people. There are stories of people being put into aged care as their birth gender, not their affirmed gender. Aged care needs to be safe.

Also people with disabilities. The disability sector doesn’t talk about sexuality, let alone homosexuality. Disability services don’t provide access to gay venues and in many cases, venues aren’t accessible. Access is a human right under the right to equality.