Outrage over gay protocols for crises
Rebecca Urban, The Australian, 10 December 2016
Gender-neutral bathrooms in crisis evacuation centres and tailored support services to address perceived discrimination against gay and transgender communities are being canvassed under a push to develop “LGBTI-inclusive” emergency management policies.
Victorian government funded researchers will investigate the specific experiences and needs of LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) communities in the event of an emergency, such as a bushfire or flood, amid broad questioning about the Andrews government’s increasingly radical social agenda.
The initiative follows research commissioned by several women’s health organisations claiming that disaster impacts are “heightened for LGBTI people”.
The decision to investigate these issues in the context of disasters such as the 2009 Black Saturday bushfire catastrophe and the 2010-11 Queensland floods has raised questions about the qualification of some academics to inform emergency services social policy.
The new research project will be managed by La Trobe University’s Gay and Lesbian Health Victoria and the Gender and Disaster Pod, an initiative of Women’s Health Goulburn North East and Women’s Health In the North.
Centre for Independent Studies senior research fellow Jeremy Sammut said the concerning issue with such projects was that they were often run by academics with limited frontline experience.
Dr Sammut cited the example of the 2014 Sydney Lindt cafe siege, in which Muslim radical Man Haron Monis took 18 people hostage. Monis and two hostages were killed. A recent inquest heard evidence that the NSW police command was concerned with the social and political ramifications while trying to secure the release of hostages. “The risk is they can end up diverting crucial services from the core mission, which is to protect the safety of everyone in the community,” Dr Sammut warned.
Noel Ashby, a former assistant commissioner for Victoria Police who forged strong links with the LGBTI community during his 35-year career, expressed concern that policies singling out special-interest groups could have a negative impact on the ability of emergency services to respond to a critical incident. “Operational matters should never be coloured by sexual orientation or race or gender,” Mr Ashby said.
“In an emergency scenario, time is often critical and to have further considerations can only prolong decision-making and can hinder the response.
“The key issue must always be the broader issue of safety of all.”
Emergency Management Victoria commissioner Craig Lapsley received a backlash on social media this week after he promoted the study, which is seeking survey participants.
Mr Lapsley said research in NSW and Queensland had indicated that LGBTI community members caught in an emergency had difficulty in accessing emergency and support services and faced marginalisation or exclusion. “Our interest in this Victorian research is in understanding if this is the same here and how we can better understand and improve the health and wellbeing of LGBTI Victorians after emergencies,” he said.
According to the explanatory statement accompanying the study, “understanding LGBTI marginality, vulnerability and resilience helps contribute to inclusive and effective emergency management policies”.
The survey will ask participants about their experiences in an emergency; what assistance they needed and what was offered; whether they felt their sexual orientation or gender identity had an impact on the quality of service; and whether they felt discriminated against. Respondents will also be asked to comment on “an ideal response”.
La Trobe’s Gay and Lesbian Health Victoria, which also manages the contentious Safe Schools program on behalf of the Victorian government, has been working with GAD Pod, providing training to help emergency services personnel understand issues specific to LGBTI communities. In a video posted to the group’s website, Gay and Lesbian Health Victoria chief Liam Leonard says that in an emergency there is often a blanket assumption that victims are heterosexual or, if not, they are “out” about their sexuality, and have family support.
“For many LGBTI people, that’s not the case,” he says.
The project comes off the back of research commissioned by GAD Pod that found disaster impacts were heightened for LGTBI people. “The usual procedures to secure residences and rehouse those affected by disaster are accompanied by additional privacy concerns and risk and experience of discrimination,” says the report, Gender and Emergency Management Guidelines: A Literature Review, which was released this year.
“The space of evacuation centres, for example, may be experienced as a space of risk by same-sex couples who fear homophobic responses from personnel or other evacuees. The lack of privacy in these centres, particularly in bathroom facilities divided only into a male/female binary, is often highly problematic for transgender individuals.”
The review pointed to previous research that found LGBTI victims of the Queensland floods reported exacerbated anxiety resulting from having to hide their sexual or gender identity from emergency workers and volunteers, or stay with people who were not accepting of them.
Victorian Emergency Services Minister James Merlino last night defended the initiative. “We need to make sure all members of the community are prepared and supported when a disaster or emergency strikes,” he said. The research project was dismissed by the state opposition as another example of the Andrews’ government “dividing communities”.