Life in the Intersection

Last week I was asked to provide a keynote speech to the 2nd National Conference on LGBTI and Ageing. My direction was to consider the experiences of older LGBTI people with an added perspective of their linguistic and cultural background.

This was the space I needed to occupy; a space between age, ethnic background and sexuality.

This is a nuanced discussion about individuals dealing with multiple identities and negative factors such as the homophobia and transphobia in ethnic communities and ethnic stereotypes and racism in the LGBTI communities.

When ageing is added to this mix a whole new complexity is unleashed.

Ageing in ethnic communities is its own phenomenon. The post war migrating generation is now accelerating through their 70s and 80s. They are experiencing ageing in this context for the first time as their migration has disrupted the time tested approach of learning from their parents who were left in their country of origin.

CALD ageing is characterised by low engagement with health prevention and healthy ageing strategies, a lower take up rate of both community and institutional care services, and lower English proficiency.

CALD ageing is quite distinctive in its reinforcement of the role and value of family and the broader cultural community. After work ends there is often a retraction back into community, places of worship, 24 hour country of origin satellite TV, and family both as the immediate environment as well as potential service providers and carers. For some this can represent an almost total cultural immersion. In this normative cultural values carry far more weight.

For a person who identifies as LGBTI, this process reduces both the options and time to live their sexual identity.

While they are changing, ethnic communities especially ones that exhibit strong patriarchal structures, have a strong tendency to be homophobic and to consider homosexuality a behaviour that deviates from the cultural norm. The consideration and manifestation of shame is real and palpable and one which will take a generation and active engagement around issues such as same sex marriages, to modify.

LGBTI people who are ageing within CALD communities may indeed face greater restrictions on how they can live their sexual lives. Some do find it hard to identify as LGBTI within their ethnicity and as such are far more likely to keep their sexuality concealed or maintain clandestine sexual lives. Or they move away. This moving away or living at an effective distance to diminish participation expectations allow ‘face’ to be kept by all.

This living away will increasingly become a pertinent factor as they age, especially if this ageing is associated with cognitive loss such as dementia or chronic disease leading to high level physical care requirements. As needs increase there is a corresponding lack of blood family and cultural community to meet these needs.

Ultimately what these individuals, and especially those I talked to in preparing this paper, want is to be accepted within both their cultural and LGBTI communities.

The Conference focussed on the need to change the attitudes of the care community to people who are LGBTI. I learned about the Rainbow Tick which is an assessment framework for LGBTI service responsiveness. I did wonder about the extent to which ethnic specific and multicultural care environments had moved on this journey.

It is not surprising that most of the LBGTI people I know from CALD backgrounds who have come out are in cross cultural relationships. Cross cultural relationships provide a legitimate out from cultural expectations. Perhaps same sex, same cultural couples would find the pressure to conform greater and have two sets of family expectations to deal with.

The other issue I addressed was racial prejudice and even racism in the LGBTI community. This plays out in two quite specific ways. The first, and what was a consistent theme in the conference, was the expectation by LGBTI older people that care providers from CALD backgrounds would be homophobic, not because of how they behaved but because of their ethnic background.

I suggested that there was a need to challenge this stereotype. Equally if it is demonstrated, any homophobic behaviour by CALD staff should be challenged and service expectations and related training should be provided and reinforced. Racial and cultural sensitivity should not inhibit care structures addressing unacceptable behaviours and undertake the necessary interventions for service behaviour improvements.

The second is the experience of racism by CALD men within the LGBTI communities. This area has been researched and there is an acknowledgement that there are layers of both overt and covert racism across LGBTI segments. While a real experience, this issue did fall outside the scope and focus of the conference which was about the experiences of LGBTI people in ageing and the attitudes and behaviours of aged care service providers.

So in this human Venn diagram, how should care workers proceed to navigate these identity frameworks? The answer and the related approach is a perfectly simple one which is to live out the rhetoric of person centeredness.

It is only in this individualised approach that we can come to terms with multiple and varying weights of both identity and lived realities.
The takeout messages from my presentation were equally simple:

  • We need to address homophobia in CALD communities and not accept any reactionary tendencies that may exist;
  • We need to address racial prejudice and racism in LGBTI communities and ironically address negative cultural stereotypes that would impair personal and care relationships.
  • Ultimately in the aged care sector we need the service providers and carers to be competent and skilled in addressing their prejudices around ethnicity and sexuality and see the person through the labels to be able to identify and meet their care needs.

A hallmark of the Conference was the involvement of older LGBTI people and their stories. This is what made it such a special event.

In keeping with this narrative approach and in order for my words to carry more personal meaning I presented the story of a close relative who has only come out as gay in the last 12 months aged 57.

The response from his brothers which 20 years ago would have been family expulsion or even violence was to hug him just a little bit tighter and accept him even regardless of whether they agreed with or understood his sexuality. Immigrant cultural communities can and do change.

I was privileged to be invited to speak at the Conference and I understood (through hearing the myriad of personal narratives from gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals and intersex people) the essential message that there is no such thing as normal.

Pino Migliorino

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