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Talking to Australia’s First Gender and Sexuality Commissioner

Rowena Allen wants to use her new role to draw attention to LGBT issues in the country that go beyond marriage equality.

af Isabelle Hellyer
18 juli 2015, 5:55am

Image provided by Rowena Allen

Rowena Allen is familiar with firsts. She established Victoria's first rural support group for same-sex-attracted young people, and was part of Victoria's first LGBTI Ministerial Advisory Committee. Now she's Victoria's first gender and sexuality commissioner. In fact, she's the nation's first.

The creation of the role was an election promise from the Labour government last year. And credit where it's due, they chose pretty well. Rowena has been championing LGBT rights for more than 20 years—and has a place on the Victorian Government Honour Roll for Women. She's been working hard at this for a while, but never in such a visible position. We asked her what she's going to change, and how she's going to do it.

VICE: So the most visible of any LGBT issue in Australia is the gay-marriage debate. Are you going to make that your priority?
Rowena Allen: There are a lot of people out there working on it, and obviously I'm 100 percent behind gay marriage. But working as commissioner, I want to remind the community it's not the only issue. People might be forgetting the issues that affect trans and gender-diverse peoples' daily lives, like bathrooms. I'm here to remind people of that.

I think that's an interesting point. There are more immediate things that could make spaces safer. Are you having any discourse around things like gendering and public bathrooms?
Yes! Absolutely. For me personally that's really important; that would be so great to address. I'm very interested in working with local governments to see gender-neutral toilets installed across Victoria. I mean, that's especially important for the trans and gender-diverse community. I've got other interviews later so thanks for reminding me of that.

What's the very first thing you want to do as commissioner?
Once I get around the full media circle—which has been really exciting—I want to make sure we take the commission's work to into rural areas. I've had a lot of universities contact me, really keen to work with me. I want to go where I'm invited. I'm definitely a carrot, not a stick person.

On Monday I'm meeting with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. As I start to head out there and raise the issues we'll see more complaints raised with the Commission as people become more aware of the issues. So it's really important for me to have a good relationship with them. I've received calls from all sides of government wishing me well which is great. If you want to make sweeping social change you have to get everyone involved.

Could you be a bit more specific about what you mean when you say raising "the issues"?
I'm keen to work with schools on implementing the Safer School Policy, again, especially in rural areas where it might be a little harder. It might be easier for the chair of the school board or the principal to implement the policy if they can stand next to commissioner in the school paper. I want to help people who are a bit nervous about getting it wrong. There's a lot of goodwill out there, but people are nervous that they'll offend. Historically, we are a group of people who are easily upset. But I don't want people to be afraid of getting it wrong.

Another issue is trans employment. Lots of people, once they begin transitioning in the workforce, don't keep their employment. Workplaces aren't very understanding, and a change as simple as employers holding afternoon or morning teas to celebrate the transition could be the encouragement that trans employees need to stay in the job. I think right now employers don't know what to do, so instead of trying something and getting it wrong, they do nothing.