How do emergency services respond to the LGBTI community?
By Jenan Taylor
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In a classroom at the Victorian Emergency Management Training Centre on the northern outskirts of Melbourne, 17 students stand in an untidy teardrop pattern around a series of cards set out on the floor. The participants – from emergency services, law-enforcement agencies, shire councils, government departments and an NGO – have been asked to recall what the prevailing attitudes towards homosexuality were when they were at high school.
Each of the nine cards represents an attitude, ranging from “repulsion” to “acceptance” and, ultimately, “celebration”. “I suppose it depends on how old you are,” mutters a fire-brigade officer. His memories of high-school homophobia have him standing at the “repulsion” end. For the time being, about two thirds of the group are closer to this side, too. The others hover closer to the pointy end of the teardrop.
“Now move to where you think your workplace would stand,” says Jan Earthstar, the facilitator. The group reshuffles quickly, some exchange glances, but no one looks completely surprised. Everyone has moved further from “repulsion”, with a fair few planting themselves between “tolerance” and “acceptance”.
In the event of a flood, fire or other catastrophe, the first directive for most of these workshop participants is to keep people safe, but it seems that what happens after the screaming sirens and strobing lights abate is not considered. Today’s workshop hopes to begin addressing this. Run by the Gender and Disaster Pod (an initiative of Women’s Health Goulburn North East, Women’s Health in the North and the Monash Injury Research Institute) in collaboration with Gay and Lesbian Health Victoria, the six-hour session aims to “provide participants with an understanding of issues specific to LGBTI people in (and following) disaster situations”.
Extreme weather events are increasing. Cyclones will intensify in the north of Australia, bushfires are more likely in the south, and floods can be expected anywhere. Couple those hazards with population centres and you get disasters, says the University of Sydney’s Associate Professor Dale Dominey-Howes, an expert in natural hazards and disaster risk reduction. While Dominey-Howes was looking at the human effects of disasters, and steps to building resilience, he noticed that the needs of LGBTI people are widely unrecognised in disaster policy, planning and training. He puts this down to the fact that they may be already estranged from social, cultural, economic and political processes. “Emergency services perhaps have a blindness to difference that makes it difficult for them to cater for the needs of LGBTI people,” he says.
Dominey-Howes studied post-catastrophe information from the United States, Haiti, Japan, New Zealand, South-East Asia and Australia, and found parallels in the experiences of LGBTI communities.
In Port-au-Prince several gay men reported being attacked in food queues. In New Orleans, same-sex families were often turned away from support services because of state and organisational policies.
After the 2011 Brisbane floods, a survey of local LGBTI people found that more than 50% worried about their safety with relief groups and decided to not even approach them. Some described being intimidated by some conservative people in the broader community and being told that their “deviance” was to blame for the disaster. The situation amplified inequalities, stereotyping and stigmatisation, and exacerbated mental-health issues.
Things are even more traumatic for people undergoing gender reassignment, says Dominey-Howes. “It’s a very long, emotional and complicated journey involving specialist counselling and health care. In Brisbane a specialist clinic in a particular area was heavily damaged in the 2011 floods. The staff couldn’t continue to work and a significant number of trans people had their journeys really ruptured, down to things like going to an emergency centre with a bag of medicines that needed to be carefully temperature controlled, and of course there’s no [refrigerator] space.
“Having that conversation with someone [from emergency services] or a local volunteer service, or ticking that box about what someone’s gender or sexual identity is – does it really matter? Maybe yes, maybe no, but there are material consequences for individuals who have to reveal themselves at that moment.”
In the classroom, the participants leaf through a workbook describing attitudes towards gender and sexual identity. They examine case studies about the victimisation of transgender people in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and contemplate imagined scenarios in rural Australia where being gay can affect work opportunities. Maree (not her real name) is there to talk about her volunteer experiences in an emergency agency a few months after the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009. She recounts that a few members on her team harassed her because of her homosexuality, and no one came to her defence. During the workshop she listens and contributes ideas, but there is resignation in her voice.
Several times, the group breaks into smaller clusters to brainstorm how they might intervene in some of the imagined scenarios, or how they’d handle the case studies. They are lively, but some are beginning to realise how unprepared they are.
“Imagine taking this to 30 butch fire-fighters …”
“I’d like to see the execs doing this exercise …”
Jan Earthstar paces the room, her head swivelling as she listens in on the conversations. She stops from time to time to prod them on.
“Strategies, think strategies for change,” she says animatedly.
Earthstar, who grew up in Texas, “where many people were repelled by the LGBTI community”, also works at Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria. After moving to country Victoria, she joined an emergency response group as a volunteer. “I lasted one day. There were jokes about women and queer jokes, and they showed this stupid, supposedly motivational, video that was quite violent. The culture was opposite to who I am. There was clearly no space for me.”
Considering this experience, it’s no wonder Earthstar is encouraged by the workshop participants’ reactions. “I was a bit worried going into this,” she admits at day’s end. “I didn’t know who was going to be there and if they had chosen to be there, but it went really well … I’m very optimistic because there’s a lot of momentum about this right now, and although this group can be difficult to engage they’re not blowing us off.”
A few days later, Maree tells me she isn’t so certain the workshop’s lessons will penetrate the emergency sector easily. “There need to be people higher up in the organisations to pass on the changes.” She has pulled a hat low over her head, and her mirrored glasses reflect the young trees and the lethargic town in which she lives. She and her partner have been saving to move away from the region altogether. Although she loves warm weather she loathes summer here, with its possibility of howling fires and of having to depend on the same people she says bullied her. Summer brings back the questions she asked herself when she decided to stop volunteering. “Do I feel safe with these people? If they don’t like gay people, would they protect me? Would they save my life if I needed it?”
This article has been updated to reflect the role of Gay and Lesbian Health Victoria in running the workshop.