Victoria’s recently appointed gender and sexuality commissioner, Rowena Allen, knows a thing or two about social justice.
In fact, she feels her passion for speaking up for the vulnerable is inevitable, given her background in the Uniting Church.
The establishment of a gender and sexuality commissioner was a commitment of the Labor party prior to the state election. The role is the first of its kind in Australia, if not the world.
Rowena has been a strong advocate for LGBTI rights for many years, and was founding CEO of UnitingCare Cutting Edge, where she established Victoria’s first rural support group for young LGBTI people. She currently chairs the Adult, Community and Further Education Board and is a former chair of the Victorian Skills Commission and the Youth Affairs Council of Victoria.
Speaking on her second day in the newly-created role, Rowena is keen to let the church community know how important they have been to her, both personally and professionally.
“The Church has had a massive influence on my life,” Rowena said.
“It has taught me how to stand up for the oppressed, how to do public speaking, leadership – nearly everything I do, I got from the church.
“When people ask me where I developed my skills and experience I tell them the majority of my working life has been with the Uniting Church. That’s where I honed my skills in advocacy, in negotiation and in social justice, it gave me the framework.”
Although social attitudes towards the LGBTI community have changed significantly throughout the years, Rowena said that subtle forms of discrimination still exist. A personal experience within the health-care system a few years ago highlighted the concerns.
“My partner was asked to leave the room when they wanted to do a procedure that generally a husband or wife would stay for,” Rowena said.
“At the time, I was chairing a gay and lesbian advisory committee and my partner was very assertive.
“These things happen when you are at your most vulnerable. For me, I was lying in bed and I was in pain and even as the chair of the state advisory committee I couldn’t advocate for my rights. So if it can happen to us then it can happen to anyone.”
Rowena hopes that her experience within the church might challenge people’s perception of faith-based organisations when it comes to issues such as sexuality.
“I always felt supported within the church. I came out and was supported by my mentor, Rev Dorothy Macrae McMahon, who took me under her wing and showed me it wasn’t a choice between my sexuality and my spirituality. That was incredible – it was lifesaving, life giving.
“I actually came out at NCYC (National Christian Youth Convention) in Canberra back in the early 90s. I came out to myself and to my friend there when I was 20 years old.
“I was the first to come out in our group, so I think for all my social justice friends it was exciting – they had a new justice issue, one of their mates!”