Reflections on 'Better Together': coming to grips with Diversity, Inclusion, and Access

What an impressive event Better Together 2020 was. I have a particular soft spot in my heart for people who aim big. An inclusive LGBTIQA+ conference intending to tackle difficult topics is a seriously ambitious project, and I wonder if anyone involved had much sleep the fortnight of it all! It was messy, excellent, imperfect, exhausting, brilliant, frustrating, and absolutely worthwhile for me.

During the conference I shared my personal reflections called Safety and Diversity.

A couple of my newer roles are doing community rep work on behalf of LGBTIQA+ folks through the Freelance Jungle, and SALHN (the Southern Adelaide Local Health Network), so a big reason for me attending was to learn more about some of the queer community I don’t know so much about. It’s very difficult to rep such a diverse and complex community and I take it pretty seriously that I need to have at least basic knowledge across the whole spectrum to be effective. A conference is perfect for this, I can engage more than I can with books, and I’m not putting too much of a burden of emotional labour on friends or acquaintances to re-explain their lives 101 for the umpteenth time.

So I’ve come home equipped with far more knowledge about the critical challenges that need support for the Intersex community, the Asexual community, people in non-traditional relationships, and folks who are both queer and autistic. I’ve also got contact details for other advocates who have offered to cast an eye over anything I’m not sure of and help me find my way. Why is this so important? Well here’s a statistic that blew my mind – of all the funding that goes to LGBTIQA+ organisations in Australia, less than 1% is spent on the specific needs of the Intersex community. The distress around being surgically altered to better fit a gender without their consent is intense. As one person said with passion and eloquence “My gender was taken from me with a knife – this kind of inclusion harms people”. People assume this community is being supported because their initial is in the title, so other funds are not provided. This is heartbreaking and we must do better.

Many difficult topics were discussed and a wide range of people were given a platform from which to speak. A huge number of attendees were given bursaries to support their involvement (including me), and outside of the 2 day conference, a collection of caucus’ on specific themes such as trans and non-binary gender were held as private spaces for those communities only. The efforts towards inter-sectionalism were huge, we heard from a lesbian police officer, survivors of ‘corrective rape’, migrants, people of colour, survivors of conversion therapy, parents of trans children, teachers, and so on.

One of my favourite topics were the sessions about being allies. I’ve only ever heard this spoken of as an insider/outsider divide between queer and cis/het (nonqueer) folks. This conversation was much more nuanced and talking about many marginalised identities and communities, the need for allies to support each of us and our obligation to be allies to each other. A woman spoke about her efforts to support organisational change in her workplace and how she has been able to sustain it partly because she has had her own allies she can call on in need or frustration. They are webs and networks. I’ve come home a better ally of some, with more allies of my own, and excited to support others to take these steps themselves.

Another topic I got a lot out of was the sessions about cultural and organisational change efforts through mechanisms such as Rainbow Tick Accreditation. It was especially helpful to hear how they have been put together, the research behind them, and the challenges organisations can struggle with. I really appreciated the speaker from one of those organisations, a Jewish Care community, speaking honestly about their efforts through Rainbow Tick. He spoke about the difficulties when “virtuous intent (is) let down by human error, not malice or phobia” and acknowledged the challenges this poses for people struggling for acceptance, and those learning new practices, terms, and processes to be inclusive. 

Image description: 2 people sitting on a stage in front of a digital presentation. The title is: Working towards “cultural safety” for LGBTIQ people. A large rainbow coloured arrow with small text describing steps in a change process, points to the Rainbow Tick Accreditation symbol.

Better Together was not without challenges however. Inclusion can be full of good intentions and just as many missteps. When you are trying to be inclusive for a community you are not personally part of/know much about, missteps are also inevitable. Especially when you are trying to create inclusion for very diverse communities, there’s a real challenge. For example, the Disability caucus was attempting to meet the access needs of such a wide range of folks – mobility needs, vision impairments, Deaf and hard of hearing, sensory sensitivities, chronic illness and pain issues of exhaustion, and so on. It was a medley of contradictory access needs. When we changed from clapping out loud to using the Auslan for applause, the Deaf and signing folks, and those who find applause unbearably loud all appreciated it. The vision impaired and blind folks however, could no longer tell what was happening during the applause because no one realised to describe it. The app used for communication was super helpful for some and bewildering for others. The loud purring air conditioner was perfect for some, too cold or not cold enough for some, and distressingly too loud for some.

This is such an important aspect of inclusion. There is no such thing as universal access. Access – defined as whatever you need to show up and be included – be that sensory quiet spaces, ramps, a creche for kids, etc – is not a one size fits all but a buffet of various tools and options, some of which fit well together and some of which blatantly clash. The interfaith conversation for example? Was scheduled on the seventh day of the Jewish week, Shabbat, where observant Jews could not attend. The 8 hour days were exhausting for folks with chronic illnesses and pain conditions. The small rooms with locked doors were stressful for folks with trauma histories. Folks with mobility aids struggled to push through crowded corridors between sessions, and if they arrived late often couldn’t fit into the next session and missed out. Access is challenging. Access needs we are unaccustomed to is basically a guarantee for messing up somewhere.

Access is a universal need. But those in the cultural majority or with the most power have created cultural norms that fit best with their access needs. It’s not that some of us have them and some of us don’t, we all have needs. Some of them are fitted so neatly into our regular lives we’ve never thought about them. Some of them are neatly able to be fit together – most folks can ascend a gentle ramp with a hand rail, very few are excluded by that design. Some access needs are near universal with age – most of us will need a mobility aid at some point due to injury or illness and it’s helpful if we can fit through the doorways of our home and into our own toilet. Most of us will experience some level of change in our eyesight and hearing, in our stamina and the strength in our hands as we age, for example. Some access needs clash – such as sensory avoidant autistic folks who need quiet spaces and not too much visual bright clutter, and the needs of parents of young kids who need child safe environments with engaging toys and activities. (at times those needs are reversed for those communities!)

This doesn’t mean giving up on access and inclusion. It means ask for help. Assume we will fumble. Get allies and peers to support our efforts. Be humble when it doesn’t work – take criticisms and feedback on board for next time. Have a strategy in place for warmly supporting anyone our access choices exclude. It’s inevitable that access choices will exclude some – the larger and more diverse the community, the more inevitable this is. In those cases, it’s crucial to anticipate this and have a respectful response ready. Some of those people are very hurt and very angry because they are so marginalised and so tired of being excluded. Not being able to access even a so called ‘inclusive space’ will be salt in the wound, and we need to be honest about this. Diplomatic engagement with such communities is essential, as is offering to share resources where possible and inviting them to ‘fix’ the issue themselves – plan their own caucus, set up their own spaces, put their skills, knowledge, and capacity into it too. Rather than a minority trying to solve all the problems, the organisers become the facilitators of a diverse range of spaces and opportunities, supporting cross communication and respectful engagement. We cannot ‘fix’ each other’s problems but we can build solutions and pathways together.

Navigating criticism in community work is a topic I’ve written about before because it such a challenge and such an essential skill set.

For a conference like this I’ve been tracking the feedback and conversations online and I can see that many are contradictory (wanting the conference to be low cost to remain accessible to the many LGBTIQA+ folks on low incomes or welfare, and wanting spacious, centrally located venues with many large rooms. Wanting shorter days for folks with folks with lower endurance, but longer caucuses, and not having multiple events running at the same time where people belong to both communities. Asking for better input from diverse communities, also wanting people’s time and expertise to be valued and paid, and wanting to keep administrative costs low…) Like the fabulous good/cheap/fast: you can have any two out of three dilemma, all things are valuable but they are rarely all achievable at the same time. Compromise is a painful but essential aspect of any community resource and that can be hard to swallow. Like values, all are important even when they are in tension. There will not be consensus about which are most important, and when the folks actually carrying out the work make calls, it’s up to them to decide which are most achievable and how to navigate that compromise. It’s not okay to allow criticism to crush something that is important and meaningful – while not able to be all things to all people, or for angry people to crush the capacity of those who are not yelling across the divide but putting their skin in the game and trying to create something that helps. It’s also not okay to blanket refuse to acknowledge the costs bourn by those we exclude, and the unthinking patterns of our exclusions that fit the systemic racism, sexism, rankism, ageism, etc already embodied so often in our culture. Between these two poles lay allies, growth, hard conversations, good intentions, calling out, calling in, and an acceptance of the imperfection of our resources while also celebrating them.

At the end of Better Together, I wrote notes on what I’d seen work and where things could be improved. I also did some informal interviewing with people I didn’t know and took down their ideas, the best of things they loved, and what they’d love to see changed. The next conference will be Adelaide and I’m hopeful that we can learn and grow and make something fabulous, safer, imperfect, more inclusive, and just as valuable in 2021. I’m happy to have come home with great new contacts and a lot more information, and I’ll be putting it to good use to better support our fabulously diverse communities. 

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