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Wednesday 10 November 2010


LGBT Communities, Poverty and Social Policy

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 29th November 2009

Why is New Zealand's LGBT community so silent when it comes to poverty and homelessness?

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Social inequality mushroomed in New Zealand from the seventies onward. Labour and National administrations alike presided over corporatisation, privatisation, user-pays service introduction, benefit cuts and social service withdrawal during the eighties and nineties, which was only slightly improved by relative prosperity and strong economic growth during the Clark administration for most of this decade. An 'underclass' emerged as a result of this social policy neglect, which led to violent crime, gang affiliation, drug-dealing and negligent parenting practices as a primary causal factor, which led to some intergenerational continuity.

How does class mobility work or not work for gay men? In my own case, I originally came from Riccarton, a working-class suburb of Christchurch. My parents scrimped and saved to send me to Middleton Grange, that notorious fundamentalist private school which also spawned convicted pedophile Graham Capill. With a hand-eye coordination problem and respiratory difficulties, I tended toward academic achievement and was largely excluded from "tough guy" working class peer groups who 'acted out' against the restrictions that were imposed on them at that institution. I finally escaped through university exams in the seventh form and made it to university, upward mobility and professional status. They didn't.

Granted, my story happened to many other straight and gay pakeha working-class young men and women during the baby boom era. Gayness added incentive to my quest for upward career mobility and self-improvement. It led to a dichotomy, though. I discovered Marx at university and although I questioned its historical applicability and ultimately rejected it, I still vote Labour, support trade union membership and collective action, a functioning public health and education sector and comprehensive welfare state.

Does the existence of lesbian/gay sexuality lead inevitably to upward mobility, though? Not all working class background young gay men are bad at sport - look at former NRL professional Ian Roberts, for example - although there haven't been any gay rugby league or union professionals since, one notes. As yet, apart from Black Fern Louisa Wall, there's no corresponding stories about out LGBT professional athletes.

Some younger lesbians and gay men 'marry upward' if they find an attentive 'sugar daddy' or lesbian 'cougar' to bankroll their consequent educational and employment mobility. What if lesbians and gay men don't make it out of their humble beginnings, though?

There are several reasons why this might happen. One is mental illness, which leads to considerable educational or employment disruption, transient housing and beneficiary status. These may contribute to inability to enter LGBT social networks, venues or maintain membership within such communities. Moreover, religious social service and housing providers may provoke resistance to LGBT identity formation or maintenance within the disability support sector.

Another is alcohol or drug abuse. This leads to social interaction with a social network of 'heavy drinkers' for whom their primary drug of choice damages prospects of stable housing, durable employment or resultant community participation, particularly if they engage in verbal or physical aggression against other LGBT community members while under the influence. As a result, they have peripheral or non-existent LGBT community affiliation and may even be excluded if they break the rules once too often.

Some might respond that 'we' don't want 'them' anyway. To complicate matters, though, class does complicate how one deals with psychiatric disability, so that a middle class gay man with mental health problems may seek and obtain early medical treatment, so that his educational or employment history may not suffer as significantly. Added to which, the diagnostic category affects matters too. People with depression have better outcomes than people who experience schizophrenia.

Substance abuse is a different story. There is some recognition that LGBT clients have specific needs within the A&D treatment sector, and even some individual professionals employed in that role.

Due to the historical accident which saw the rise of the New Zealand New Right in the nineties coincide with passage of lesbian/gay-inclusive antidiscrimination laws, though, LGBT individuals have tended to neglect social service employment and prefer professional employment within the hospitality, tourism, finance industry or related sectors.

There is little incentive to enter social service professions or establish LGBT-centred NGOs in this field, which would prevent the development of substance abuse problems and ameliorate the effects of mental illness amongst LGBT community members. This means that individual LGBT social service professionals may then find themselves overwhelmed by dealing with the complex tasks of removing LGBT individuals from networks of family/whanau/aiga dysfunction, and allied social networks of alcohol and drug maldistribution, interpersonal violence, criminality and itinerancy. They get overburdened by their caseloads and burn out.

Back to the title. How do we fix this? Firstly, we need to give credit where credit is due, to existing LGBT community groups that provide welfare roles. However, we also need to do far better in assisting impoverished community members to achieve social mobility, permanent housing, gainful employment or social welfare benefit access if not and ongoing access to social services, education, healthcare access, affordable public or private transportation and other markers of social inclusion or citizenship.

Clearly, institutional racism also affects the life opportunities and chances of takatapui, whakawahine or takatapui, as well as the transgender community's uncertain status within New Zealand antidiscrimination legislation. Some of the above have inclusive whanau, hapu and iwi to draw strength from and struggle against their constraints, while others do not. One could also ask whether existing iwi social service providers perform such roles.

As a community of interest, we need to develop such organisations now and specifically train LGBT social service professionals to staff them. We need to acknowledge, research and then provide meaningful social services to impoverished and at-risk LGBT community members that face obstacles to social inclusion and/or recovery from alcohol and drug problems. This needs to occur at local and national levels. Weneed to vigorously counter short-sighted current government policies that reduce public sector capacity and service provision and argue the case for formulation, introduction and maintenance of new LGBT-centred social policies and services.

Recommended:

Jeff Adams, Virginia Brown and Tim McCreanor: “Warning Voices in A Policy Vacuum: Professional Accounts of Gay Male Health in New Zealand” Social Policy Journal of New Zealand 5: March 2007: 199-215.


Craig Young - 29th November 2009

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