by Cameron McPhedran
To mark the end of the Australian postal survey on marriage equality and while we await the results, we bring this piece by Cameron McPhedran whose specialisation relates to the interface of mediation and LGBTIQA+ people.
Cameron McPhedran holds a BA and a Master of Criminal Justice and Criminology from UNSW. He wrote his Masters thesis, finishing in June 2017, on mediation in conflicts between LGBTIQA+ youth and their parents regarding gender identity and/or sexual orientation. In dispute resolution, Cameron has worked at San Quentin Prison, Rosemount Good Shepherd Marrickville, and Resolution Institute. He is an NMAS accredited mediator and has also studied Restorative Justice at both UNSW and UC Berkeley.
Over the past month, I have had the privilege of attending two gatherings exploring LGBTIQA+ Christian experiences, as a mediator whose particular specialisation relates to the interface of mediation and LGBTIQA+ people. This blog post will reflect upon those gatherings and the lessons the dispute resolution community can learn from them.
I am not Christian and do not practice any religion. However, I believe that now is a particularly important time to listen the stories of people who are both religious and LGBTIQA+. Whilst the LGBTIQA+ community in general is experiencing immense strain in the midst of the marathon same-sex marriage debate and optional postal survey, the two gatherings I attended demonstrated that LGBITQA+ Christians are doing it particularly tough.
In general, religion serves as a protective factor against mental health difficulties and promotes wellbeing. A notable exception to this is religious LGBTIQA+ people. Writing Themselves In, the Australian report on the health and wellbeing of LGBTIQA+ young people last published in 2010, found that young people within this cohort who mentioned religious affiliation experienced numerous negative outcomes. These included that they were more likely to feel bad about same-sex attraction, experience social exclusion, report feeling unsafe at home, and more likely to report thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
Further, in the midst of the same sex marriage debate, many religious LGBTIQA+ people feel as though their religion is being treated as the ‘enemy’ of the ‘yes’ campaign. This perception is not helped by the actions of some religious leaders. Archbishop Glenn Davies has received media coverage for the Sydney Anglican Diocese’s decision to grant $1 million to the Coalition for Marriage. This action is far from unique among religious leaders, both Christian and non-Christian.
On the ground however, amazing work is being done by LGBTIQA+ religious people and their allies, demonstrating the community’s resilience. On Saturday October 7, at the Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross, “A Different Conversation,” was held. This was the sixth “A Different Conversation,” held in Sydney.
At the event, I was fortunate enough to hear of the way in which the Church community has supported LGBTIQA+ Christians in Sydney. One of the events organisers, Mike Hercock, founded Imagine Church in Surry Hills, which was a welcoming space for its non-heterosexual participants. He also was instrumental in the 100 Revs campaign, which saw 100 members of the Australian clergy apologise to the gay community over historical discrimination and exclusion.
I also learnt about the efforts of Bec Apted and Elizabeth Plant, founders of another LGBTIQA+ welcoming Church- Spark- in Penshurst. Elizabeth’s words have stuck with me in particular in the following weeks. Describing her approach to supporting her fellow practitioners at Spark Church and her friends during this difficult time, Elizabeth said that “you love the crap out of people… you love them consistently and persistently.”
On Saturday October 21, I went to the Inaugural “Equal Voices” Conference at UTS. This event, like “A Different Conversation,” was attended by LGBTIQA+ Christians and their allies from Australia and New Zealand. The keynote speakers were Julie McCrossin, a prominent media figure, and Matt Glover, a counsellor based in Melbourne specialising in LGBTIQA+ issues. There were also breakout sessions covering issues such as understanding and recovering from orientation change therapy, transgender and intersex experiences, LGBTIQA+ affirming Evangelicals, and what justice and inclusion looks like in Christianity.
Matt Glover reflected on some of the difficulties LGBTIQA+ people are facing at the moment. Particularly relevant was his explanation of ‘disenfranchised grief.’ This refers to when grief is experienced by an individual but not by those around them. It struck me just how many members of the LGBTIQA+ community are experiencing disenfranchised grief within their families of origin during the optional postal survey. For example, where LGBTIQA+ people who have family members who vote against or oppose marriage equality, the LGBTIQA+ person may be left to grapple with hurt and rejection alone within the family, no matter the complicated religious, cultural and political reasons are behind this. Glover also talked about the overwhelming number of LGBTIQA+ people accessing his counselling during this survey, many of whom are presenting with symptoms similar to PTSD.
Lessons for Mediators
So what can mediators learn from the experiences of LGBTIQA+ Christians?
Firstly, to state the obvious, these experiences are challenging. But equally, they are rewarding, as religion represents one of the most important part of social connection and belief in LGBTIQA+ Christians’ lives. Further, there are safer spaces for LGBTIQA+ Christians in all faith denominations. Julie McCrossin spoke of an “underground where you are welcome… individual ministers and priests.” When discussing her experiences at the South Sydney Uniting Church, McCrossin also mentioned the ongoing involvement of sex and gender diverse activist Norrie at Church events. It is clear that some spaces are welcoming for all members of the ‘rainbow community.’
Secondly, as these experiences are complex and conflicts between LGBTIQA+ Christians and family members, their churches, or other community structures are ongoing, the mediation profession needs to reach out to this cohort more. Conflict engagement shouldn’t be encouraged where safety cannot be guaranteed. However, if mediators do aim to provide a safer space for these conflicts to be explored, we should embrace Mayer’s concept of “staying with conflict.” Providing an environment where conflict can feel less charged and more manageable with the help of a dispute engagement professional makes a difference in alleviating tension and clarifying issues of disagreement. Mediation should sit alongside counselling, conflict coaching and family therapy as a useful strategy in situations of family conflict relating to issues of gender identity and sexual orientation.
The final takeaway I got from these two conferences is the idea of realistic optimism. Mayer (2016) speaks of realism in the context of optimism and pessimism. I want to emphasise the optimism part: the conflicts the LGBTIQA+ community are experiencing during this current debate in some ways represent progress. It is important that groups who experience structural disadvantage are not silenced in public debate. The LGBTIQA+ community has had the opportunity to show its many faces and stories to the rest of Australia during this debate. For sure, not everyone is listening to these stories and the personal and emotional cost for many people has been a big downside. However, people are standing up for themselves and their LGBTIQA+ friends and colleagues. As a profession, mediators need to listen to these voices with ever greater intention, now and into the future.
NB: I would like to thank Francis Voon, Natalie Cooper and Benjamin Oh in particular for inviting me to attend the Equal Voices Conference 2017, alongside all of the full-hearted conference participants at both Equal Voices and A Different Conversation.