Same-sex attracted asylum seekers’ experience of detention in Australia

Colleagues and I at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne are planning a research project to interview same-sex attracted asylum seekers now living in civil society in Australia. We intend to interview a small number of men and women about their experience of being held in detention centres in Australia when their refugee status was being determined. There are three strands to our proposed research. The first strand is the human rights context of detaining asylum seekers in prison. The second is the mental health consequences of doing so, and the third strand concerns the layers of oppression that we suspect same-sex attracted asylum seekers might experience in prison.

Our hunch is that same-sex asylum seekers would experience multiple ‘outsider’ identities when imprisoned in detention centres in Australia. These could include their being refugees, their non-Anglo ethnicity, their non-English speaking background, and finally being same-sex attracted. We hope that by interviewing refugees who have made the transition to civil society we can gain some insight into the effect sexual difference had on their experience in prison and then in the wider Australian society once they received refugee status.

While there has been quite a lot of media coverage in Australia and overseas of same-sex attracted asylum seekers making refugee claims on the basis of fears of oppression in their home country, our intention is not to follow this line of inquiry. We are more interested in how they managed their same-sex attracted identity while in prison in detention centres in Australia and then possibly how well they have been able to integrate into civil society and gay/lesbian cultures in Australia. At present, we are seeking external funding source, so if any readers in Australia have a good fund source they can recommend, we would be grateful to hear from you.

Sexual identity and care home provision: some reflections on the research process

My colleagues and I at Swansea University have recently completed a mixed-methods study into the provision of inclusive care to older lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people in residential and nursing care environments in Wales – an elongated title for saying, ‘how well are older LGB recognised and cared for in care homes?’ We know from the literature that heterosexism in residential care provision can mask the sexual health needs, diversity and desires of older LGB residents. Prior research from Australia and the United States has identified institutional and historical barriers that prevent older people ‘coming out’, or identifying as LGB to care providers (Barrett, 2008; Jackson, Johnson & Roberts, 2008; Knockel, Quam & Croghan, 2010; Tolley & Ranzijn, 2006). Our research was funded by the National Institute for Social Care and Health Research (NISCHR) and had a unique focus on Wales as a UK nation with devolved responsibility for providing health and social care to its citizens, including older people. Residential and nursing homes (private and local authority-owned) from across Wales took part. Two methods were used to gather staff perspectives on inclusive care —self-completed questionnaires (121 respondents), and focus groups with care staff and managers (5 groups) from 32 organisations. Other methods included: content analysis of Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales (CSSIW) Inspection reports (383 reports) to identify content pertaining to sexuality, sexual health and LGB identities; and, semi-structured interviews with 29 older LGB-identifying adults about their hopes and expectations for future care. The final report is available online and provides an overview of the key findings and recommendations: http://www.swan.ac.uk/humanandhealthsciences/research/research-impact/lgb-residential-care-report/

What follows are some brief reflections on the process of involving care organisations in the research – reflective comments on the research process that do not always make the final edit of reports and papers but may help steer future research in this domain.

Willingness to participate and learn – We initially anticipated that seeking care home participation would be the biggest challenge in recruitment because of the politically-charged nature of the topic and our concern that staff and managers would interpret our research endeavours as a critical appraisal of their practice.  Instead, we were struck by the enthusiasm of staff and managers to participate. Using a random sampling method, we invited 51 organisations to participate with 19 declining. Most of these homes declined because of impeding closures that created logistical barriers to their involvement. For some staff groups, participation in a focus group was framed as an informal learning opportunity into an area that receives little time and attention, an unexpected but positive outcome. Across focus groups, there was general agreement of a ‘need to know more’ about sexual difference and LGB histories. Participating staff members conveyed an awareness of progressive shifts in legislation and social attitudes but in equal measures expressed a willingness to be more mindful of the sexual biographies of residents in their care.

Sexuality, dementia and everyday care – While our research focused on sexual identity and social inclusion, a connected and equally pertinent topic that frequently emerged in focus groups was the complexity of balancing issues of sexual expression, dementia and informed consent. Staff elaborated on the challenges of negotiating sexual relationships and intimate contact between residents with declining mental capacity alongside responding to the often divided opinions of family members. Listening to these accounts of complex care deepened our appreciation for staff members’ commitment to respecting the rights and choices of residents in their care and to continually ‘do the right thing’. It also brought home the ethical complexity of providing care in these settings for employees who were in receipt of a low financial reward just above the minimal wage with little professional recognition.

Missing voices from the research – Staff views and accounts conveyed through the research represent predominantly White perspectives. The majority of participating staff and mangers were white, heterosexual women born in Wales and of mainly Christian background. This clearly did not match our observations of staffing groups when entering homes – we noticed many participating homes employed staff from black and ethnically diverse groups, including individuals from African and Asian migrant communities. We were limited to the staff available to speak to us between rotating shifts and group membership was often facilitated by senior staff members operating as ‘gatekeepers’ for their organisations. It is difficult to pinpoint whether individual staff from migrant and ethnically diverse communities opted not to participate for personal or religious reasons or whether they were not approached to participate; we can only speculate about possible barriers to participation. Ethical requirements prevented us from actively approaching individual staff to participate. Finally, we did not anticipate the eagerness of ancillary staff members (such as cleaners, kitchen staff etc.) to have a say in the research. It became increasingly clear that their various duties involved regular contact with residents and their views were of equal importance in the provision of inclusive care. We confess to underestimating the validity and contribution of these staff members’ perspectives; food for thought for future research.

I hope the above reflections are of some benefit to other researchers and practitioners engaged in research in an area of increasing interest. Putting these observations to paper has been valuable for me in capturing the often sidelined messages about research into organisations providing care to others.

Barrett, C. (2008). My People: A project exploring the experiences of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex seniors in aged-care services Retrieved 16th October 2009, from http://www.matrixguildvic.org.au/MyPeopleReport2008.pdf

Jackson, N.C., Johnson, M.J. & Roberts, R. (2008). The potential impact of discrimination: fears of older gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals living in small- to moderate-sized cities on long-term health care. Journal of Homosexuality, 54(3), 325-339.

Knockel, K.A., Quam, J.K. & Corghan, C.F. (2011). Are Old Lesbian and Gay People Well Served? Understanding the Perceptions, Preparation, and Experiences of Aging Services Providers. Journal of Applied Gerontology, 30(3), 370-389.

Tolley, C. & Ranzijn, R. (2006). Predictors of heteronormativity in residential aged care facilities. Australasian Journal on Ageing, 25(4), 209-214.

About the author: Paul Willis is Senior Lecturer in social work in the College of Human and Health Sciences at Swansea University. His research interests include ageing, sexuality and social care; wellbeing and identity construction of LGBT youth; and social inclusion in organisations. Email: P.B.Willis@swansea.ac.uk

A Darker Side to Care..?

It’s been great to read the diverse blogs on this site and the definite slant given by commentaries on issues of identity and sexuality to the challenge of revaluing care. Some time ago I attended a meeting with some of the other members of this network where we raised the question of what is ‘queer care’. And more specifically, how could we go about finding out how it was practised and what it meant to people? We were interested in the lived realities of care for LGBT people but also whether queer theory could offer a framework for making sense of this experience.
Of the still very limited research on care in the context of LGBT ageing there is every indication that helping relationships are organised rather differently to traditional binary notions of the care-giver and care-receiver. For instance, Ann Cronin and Andy King’s work suggests interdependence over dependence in lesbian and gay relationships.  Research with the trans community by Sally Hines also points to support clusters and collective ways of helping people rather than dyadic carer/caree encounters. While Margrit Shildrick and Janet Price’s joint work on intercorporeality and their notion of ‘two bodies becoming together…’ sheds a very different light on how we think about the body itself and its potential in helping situations. However, the closeness and intimacy signalled by these accounts stand in contrast to findings regarding care for older LGBT people of the more formal/paid variety.
Here, care is an uneasy term, and comes with baggage. This is why it has been all but bracketed off in critical disability studies, with the intention that this may lead to more novel ways of thinking about the helping relationships that evolve between people. Perhaps then a queer approach could also usefully begin by treating care with caution –  after all there’s no saying that ‘revaluing care’ might not lead us to decide it is a less useful term for future understandings of helping relationships rather than necessarily investing it with new worth. Many LGBT people’s experiences invite such a possibility because so much of what is badged as care can be experienced as very negative and damaging. This can range from the wholesale neglect of the individual supposed to be ‘in care’ to a diverse range of sometimes more subtle indicators of disapproval, disgust or rejection communicated verbally, behaviourally, emotionally, viscerally etc. and all of which are enfolded within care practices. To date, these experiences are not well documented, partly because LGBT people in the ‘Fourth Age’ are largely invisible and ignored by mainstream gerontology, as Ann Cronin has pointed out, and often are too concerned for their safety to identify themselves in the context of relying upon care services. Do the assumptions that underpin how we currently think and talk about care serve to perpetuate the cultural silence about this darker side?
Taken collectively, research to date tells us that many LGBT people are afraid of a time when they might require care. Findings in the UK and US have uncovered significant numbers who would rather take their life than be admitted to a care home and many more who report a fear of care that involves body work and the prospect of being exposed to and handled by a care worker (although much of this research has been conducted with fit and independent people being asked to anticipate the need for care rather than describe the experience of it). Ironically, older LGBT people are more likely to require formal care by virtue of being less likely to have children and more likely to live alone, but evidence suggests many delay or refuse altogether the uptake of services due to anticipation of negative treatment and its impact upon their lives. At the very least then, formal care has a serious reputation problem in certain quarters. But research with older LGBT people also suggests it has a dark side – one that is perhaps most visible from certain (queer) standpoints. In our efforts to debate and revalue care maybe we should begin with the perspectives of those who have a close-up on the under-side of care and its darker recesses. And perhaps the place to start in ‘queering’ care is to dispense with the term altogether in an effort to find alternative ways of capturing helping relationships and reconfiguring the terrain of help and support in later life in ways that might feel more acceptable to minoritised groups…?