Every two years since 1994, LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) people with a connection to the Uniting Church in Australia have met to share their experiences of faith at the Uniting Network Australia’s Daring Gathering. Along with their families and friends they reflect on their journey to date and envision their future.
Damien Stevens is a co-convenor of Uniting Network Australia, a network of LGBTI people, their families, friends and supporters within the UCA. This year’s gathering, Daring to Celebrate, will be held in Sydney.
Although marriage equality is high on the agenda for many people seeking social reform, Mr Stevens said LGBTI people still face many issues of exclusion and isolation, both in wider society and within the church.
Mr Stevens is a community development worker at UnitingCare’s Cutting Edge in Shepparton. In this role, he deals with the issues faced by the LGBTI community on a regular basis. As we speak, it is clear the concerns of those in a small rural town are reflective of concerns within the wider church.
Many young people grappling with confusion about their gender identity and sexuality may experience feelings of isolation. But for those living in rural areas this isolation can be exacerbated.
Much like a church, with its culturally entrenched gender stereotypes, rural Australia is probably the last place to spring to mind when thinking of issues concerning the LGBTI community. But, as Mr Stevens explained, support services are needed in those areas for just that reason.
“I’ve been working in the welfare sector with young people and older people who are same-sex attracted, gender diverse, trans and intersex for probably 10 years or more,” Mr Stevens said.
“This past year in Shepparton I had a young person send me a photo of something that had just happened in her school. She is in year nine and students had written homophobic slander in huge lettering in the toilets.
“This is stuff that young people, who are vulnerable and isolated and being bullied, are dealing with at school.”
Mr Stevens runs a support group called Diversity for people aged between 10 to 25 years. Approximately 15 people meet once a fortnight in a safe environment for three hours.
“We provide a safe space for people where they can be label free,” Mr Stevens said. “The group has a focus on working with those who are same-sex attracted, intersex and trans young people.”
“The first hour is working on life skills such as cooking and friendships. When you are young and living in the country and come out, often you can be kicked out or certainly not have good relationships with parents and miss out on some of those skills.
“The second hour is about information so we have a guest speaker come along. They might talk about depression or self-harm, or something a bit more uplifting like diet or nutrition.
“The third hour is a social component, something active like swimming, walking around the lake and getting ice cream or doing an art project.”
In his day-to-day life Mr Stevens is hoping to challenge gender stereotypes and prejudices. As co-convenor of the Uniting Network Australia, he hopes to achieve the same within the church. Although he acknowledges attitudes are beginning to change, he is realistic about the rate of that change.
“It needs to be slow. I get that. I can’t expect things to change overnight,” Mr Stevens said.
“When you have lots of different views within the UCA and you are trying to work with them all it’s difficult. And there is a really conservative group and a more open group. So you’ve got to take baby steps.”
While Mr Stevens might personally be patient about change, he makes it clear that the church itself might not be able to wait much longer.
“The issue is that young people more than ever are turning away from churches,” Mr Stevens said.
“The majority of young people are pro equal rights –whether it’s for gay people, asylum seekers and so on – young people are so sick and tired of anyone for any reason being told ‘no’ because they are thought to be ‘less than’.
“If the church expects young people to come into the church living with those kinds of boundaries, then they’re not going to have much luck.”
Daring to Celebrate runs from 6 – 9 June in Sydney. For more information visit: www.unitingnetworkaustralia.org.au