Dr Christopher Fisher from Curtin’s Department of Health Promotion and Sexology talks about how universities can help foster a culture supportive of sexual and gender diversity.
This year, the possibility of a same-sex marriage plebiscite has dominated Australian news headlines, raising awareness of how discrimination against people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex or queer (LGBTIQ) can lead to increased rates of depression, anxiety and suicide.
In such an environment, there are two crucial roles that a university can play to support LGBTIQ individuals, according to Dr Christopher Fisher from Curtin’s Department of Health Promotion and Sexology: conducting research to inform positive policy changes and improving education on sexual and gender diversity.
1) Conducting research
“Definitely, the research end of it is key,” says Dr Fisher.
“Research generates data that’s useful for developing programs and influencing policies that can lead to reduced discrimination and a change in attitudes.”
Prior to his appointment at Curtin, where he teaches online units in health promotion planning, Dr Fisher worked at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (USA) – one of the top five US medical schools for primary care. There, he was instrumental in researching the health disparities between transgender and non-transgender individuals, the correlating factors behind suicide ideation among LGBTIQ individuals, and a health comparison of LGBTIQ individuals in urban and rural areas.
“We found a really high level of suicide ideation [among LGBTIQ Nebraskans] as a result of their sexual minority status – almost 50 per cent for the entire group and over 66 per cent for transgender people,” says Dr Fisher.
“That is very telling because Western Australia, although considerably larger in landmass, is not unlike Nebraska. There’s one population centre and then there are rural areas where LGBTIQ people have almost no social support. It wouldn’t come as a shock to me if we were to do something similar here and find similar results.”
A policy change influenced by Dr Fisher’s findings came about in 2012 when the city council of Omaha, Nebraska, passed legislation to protect LGBTIQ individuals from discrimination.
“Knowing that our research played a major role in that conversation was probably one of the most rewarding moments so far in my career,” says Dr Fisher.
Curtin is active in the field of LGBTIQ research. This year, Associate Professor Sam Winter published a paper on transgender mental health in Australia in The Lancet, a leading peer-reviewed medical journal. Curtin also established the LGBTIQ Collaborative Research Network, which hosts regular events and seminars, and brings together researchers interested in LGBTIQ studies across different fields, such as cultural studies, human rights, sexology, psychology, and health sciences.
Despite the good work so far, Dr Fisher feels more research is needed to support positive policy changes. One example, he suggests, is to research the benefits of pre-exposure prophylaxis (“PrEP”), an antiretroviral drug that can prevent HIV. Currently, the drug is unavailable in Australia and has to be imported from overseas.
“Studies have shown that the drug is 90 per cent effective for gay and bisexual men, so it’s really a medical breakthrough in terms of pharmacological treatment for preventing HIV. But it’s still not approved in Australia,” says Fisher, acknowledging that organisations such as the WA AIDS Council have attempted to advocate on its behalf.
“So again, Curtin can do some research to provide hard data and expertise to push that agenda through. I know there’s a lot of people from the eastern states who are doing that work, but it would be remiss for Curtin to not be involved in some way.”
2) Developing comprehensive education
The second crucial role that Fisher believes a university like Curtin could play is to raise awareness and improve LGBTIQ inclusion through encouraging a comprehensive education in high schools, community programs and other areas.
Such education could discuss important topics such as sexual orientation, identity and gender, helping to halt the bullying conducted against individuals who are questioning.
“High schools should be the primary line of disseminating information. The challenge is that schools have a lot of things to teach, so it will inevitably get short-shifted in the curriculum. It’s not an ongoing conversation, like maths or writing, which are basic skills,” says Fisher.
“It’s really about bringing it into another parts of the curriculum. You could have an English class where the students read a book that deals with issues around sexuality. Or a biology class where they’re including information on STIs when they’re going over viruses and bacteria.”
While he is concentrating on developing a comprehensive education in his native US – not just for students, but adults as well – he notes there is work to be done in Australia, and applauds Curtin for the initiatives that have already been conducted to foster a supportive environment.
“The efforts being undertaken by Curtin and in particular staff members dedicated to programs such as Ally are crucial to addressing LGBTIQ issues,” he says, referring to the program created in 2006 to provide training about issues faced by LGBTIQ individuals, and help community members of diverse sexual and gender identity feel welcome at Curtin.
“Research has already established strong links between a social and cultural environment and the pervasive attitudes and the mental and other health outcomes for LGBTIQ individuals.”
Despite Curtin having demonstrated a strong support of people who identify as LGBTIQ, such as by becoming the second Australian university to declare support for marriage equality, being named the top Australian university for LGBTIQ inclusion at the annual Pride in Diversity Awards for 2013, 2014 and 2015, and collaborating with the Curtin Student Guild’s Queer Department, there is still an element of fear that needs to be addressed.
“When I attended the training, a person who identified as a transgender woman did not feel safe enough to come to Curtin, to an Ally training, as herself. Although great progress has already been made, we have more work to be done to ensure she and others like her do feel safe in being and presenting as their true selves.
“I think as Curtin matures as an institution in relation to these matters, it will then be in a better place to move beyond to the broader Perth community.”