When Michelle Rogers studied social work at WAIT from 1979-1982, being gay in Western Australia was illegal and university campuses, progressive as they were in many respects, weren’t immune to the prevailing prejudices of the time.
These days, she’s on a mission to ensure that Curtin University is a beacon of acceptance and diversity.
“In 1980 – my second year at WAIT – we had one of those sessions where you tell the class something they don’t know about you. I came out and said that I was a lesbian. There was silence at first, but people kind of said, ‘oh right, good for you’. Someone uttered ‘what a waste’ and then nothing much was said.
“Afterwards, the tutor took me aside and said, ‘look, I just want to give you some advice. If you come out in this town you’ll never get a job here, so I’d really advise you not to be out’. And I just didn’t question it. I just said, ‘oh, ok, thanks’. That was it.
“I was young and wanting to do the right thing, so I took their advice and I believed them, and when my course finished a couple of years later I went to the UK.”
London became Michelle’s home for the next 23 years.
“While I was there, I gradually came out to family and friends from afar, but I was always ‘out’ in the UK; it felt easier and I felt I had nothing to lose. And in a place like London, there’s certain anonymity because it’s such a massive city. That was very helpful to me at the time, even if it was a bit lonely in the beginning.”
Meanwhile in Western Australia, attitudes began to change, albeit slowly. The equal opportunity movement gained significant momentum in the 1980s, but the focus was on gender and racial equality – LGBTIQ rights came a distant second.
Reflecting changes at state level, WAIT/Curtin introduced a range of strategies in the 1980s to ensure a more inclusive environment for underrepresented groups at the university including women and Indigenous people, but the strategies stopped short of LGBTIQ support.
In 1989, after four failed attempts, homosexuality was finally decriminalised in Western Australia, however as a trade-off for the opposition passing the bill, the age of consent for people in same-sex relationships was set at 21, while the age of consent for heterosexual couples was lowered to 16.
The new laws also made it a crime for primary and secondary school teachers to “promote or encourage homosexuality” in any way or for public policy to support gay rights.
The state had to wait until 2002 for these ‘trade-offs’ to be repealed, with the introduction of the Acts Amendment (Gay and Lesbian Law Reform) Act 2002 – the most important breakthrough for LGBTIQ rights in Western Australian history.
In the same year, The University of Western Australia launched the Ally Network that, through a range of initiatives, aimed to create a more diverse and inclusive culture at the university. The network was a first for Australian universities and an inspirational front-runner for all Australian organisations.
It was around this time that Michelle began to long for home.
“I always had a hankering for Perth, partly because of the weather, because in London it was grey all the time,” she laughs.
In 2005, she returned to Perth with her partner, daughter and a sense of optimism.
“The feeling when I came back was very different. I’d been back and forth a few times, and I knew things had changed. “Then I saw a job advertised at Curtin about a month later and it had my name on it, I felt. So I went for it and got it.”
The job was Director of Support Services at Curtin. Perhaps surprisingly, Michelle says she wasn’t motivated by any lingering sense of injustice or a need to put things right after her experience as a student at WAIT. For the most part, she has fond memories of her student days.
“I loved university,” she says without hesitation. “I loved being here. My course in social work really set me on a trajectory that I found was utterly transferable to a whole host of other careers that I’ve had as a result, including this one.”
In her first year in the role, Michelle worked with colleagues to introduce the Ally Network to Curtin. It included awareness training for students and staff on issues facing LGBTIQ people and was the first step of many as Curtin began to build a national reputation for inclusion.
In 2013, Michelle helped establish the University’s Diverse Sexuality and Gender Identity Inclusion Strategy (DSGIS) – a range of initiatives to strengthen Curtin’s inclusiveness of LGBTIQ people.
One of its focus areas is embedding inclusiveness into the university curriculum and removing heterocentric course material.
“I studied psychology as part of my course, and I’ve still got one of the textbooks – it was called Abnormal Psychology, and I was in it! It was saying that homosexuality is abnormal, so there it was in black and white for me, as part of my course,” she says.
The strategy is far reaching, with equal emphasis on research. To this end, the University established the LGBTIQ Collaborative Research Network, and in 2015, the Trans Research Interest Group (TRIG).
“Currently transgender people are diagnosed with one of a number of ‘gender identity disorder’ diagnoses, which the World Health Organization classes as mental disorders,” says TRIG founder, Associate Professor Sam Winter.
Winter was part of a WHO working group that in 2012 made a proposal to replace these diagnoses with one called ‘gender incongruence’, and relocate it to a new chapter linked to sexual health. The historic proposal will be considered during a meeting of the WHO’s governing body in May 2018.
Today, Curtin encourages acceptance of diverse gender and sexual orientation not only within its student and staff population, but far beyond the campus boundaries. And it’s getting noticed.
In the three years 2013-2015, Curtin was named the top Australian university for LGBTIQ inclusion at the annual Pride in Diversity Awards.
“For two of those years, we were second in Australia behind PricewaterhouseCoopers, out of all organisations. It’s phenomenal,” says Michelle.
She recognises there is still work to do to achieve genuine equality, but she couldn’t be happier about how far Curtin – and society more generally – has come.
“Perth’s changed, WA’s changed and Australia’s changed. Corporates are falling over themselves to be recognised for inclusion – the banks, the big sporting organisations like the NRL and the AFL. Part of this is people are recognising that it still isn’t easy for young LGBTIQ people, many of whom experience social isolation and estrangement from their families.
“And I don’t see any of that as a token gesture. I think there’s a seachange in terms of people’s awareness of the importance of being inclusive and not just for LGBTIQ people.
“Once you understand the importance of inclusion for one group of people who are discriminated against, you’ll understand it for most people. People suddenly get it.”
Curtin will host the second annual Australian Ally Network Conference in collaboration with other WA universities in 2018.