The internet has offered a virtual space for LGBTI people to be themselves safely and seek support and comfort in community, even in spite of distances, write Dr Rachel E Richardson and Kylie Stephens.
Maree is a 68-year old transwoman living in regional NSW. She started gender therapy four years ago after years of anguish and difficulty trying to live as a man. Today, she lives happily but alone in a small unit in a medium sized country town, close to local shops and services and public transport. Although Maree sometimes finds being the ‘lone Transwoman’ in a small country town difficult, she says she stays connected with friends and acquaintances in the Transgender community through a range of technologies including phone and computer on applications like Facebook and Skype. Technology is a great help to Maree in creating and maintaining friendships in the Transgender community but it has also been pivotal in her life over the last 10 years.
Before she started gender therapy she used the internet to try to understand what her feelings were. Reading other Transpeople’s stories helped her to see that she might be transsexual and that help was at hand. Her internet searches and membership of gender diverse online groups later led her to seek out a therapy clinic where she was ultimately diagnosed. Being some distance from her clinical psychiatrist in the capital city, she was able to use Skype for her therapy sessions. Technology has been very important in Maree’s journey to living a truer, happier life. As she says:
“In the early days, I used to look things up online. I couldn’t ask anyone. I couldn’t go to a library even and get a book. I was scared someone would think I was a pervert, you know. But I just wanted to know if I was Trans. That’s all. But I couldn’t even look at a book about Trans on a shelf without worrying if people were staring at me. People don’t know this but a book’s useless anyway. Everything’s out of date before it hits the shelves. I looked up some links in one book I bought online. None of them, maybe one, worked. If you want up to date, go online. That’s how I found the gender clinic. Took me ages to get the courage to give them a call. When I did, it was the best thing I ever did.”
Maree’s story shows just how pivotal modern technologies can be for marginalised people seeking support and specialist services. In Maree’s case, long distance, expensive trips to the city for therapy sessions were also eliminated through technology, and ultimately, in the absence of any local medical expertise, she made choices about other medical services based on experiences posted in her online community and from contact with specialist medical websites.
But technology for older LGBTI Australian’s is not strictly limited to information and specialist services. A great deal of time online for many people like Maree is given over to socialising as is the case for many older Australians. But with older LGBTI Australian’s there can sometimes be a ‘twist’ in that the relationships maintained online may more often than not have been found online. The very small numbers of LGBTI people in the population often mean that finding community for these older Australians has a ‘tyranny of distance’ all its own. Historically, many LGBTI people have been hidden or invisible in their communities – and even from each other.
Older LGBTI Australians have lived the better parts of their lives in a legislative and legal climate where their sexual preference or gender identity has been subject to legal scrutiny, bias, prejudice and – occasionally – public hostility and vilification. Now in their older and more vulnerable years, LGBTI people can be very fearful that even though the legal, political and social climate for them has changed enormously in past 10 years, they may still experience prejudice, rejection, and ridicule and be too frail or incapacitated to protect themselves.
For an historically marginalised, misunderstood and vulnerable group, gathering and socialising in public places has always been associated with risk. For older LGBTI people memories of past injustices can make them more guarded than most in their attempts to socialise. Some older LGBTI people feel especially vulnerable to attack and social rejection and work hard to hide their LGBTI status in order to avoid discovery and possibly harm.
For many older Australians finding ‘community’ can be as easy as finding someone of similar age and interests. Having to consider if one’s sexual orientation or gender identity could have a negative effect on one’s acceptability as a friend is hardly a thought for many older Australians. However, many older LGBTI people know that other people may find their orientation and identity unacceptable and this makes it far less easy to make friends and join in openly in local community activities.
The internet, however, has offered a virtual space for LGBTI people to be themselves safely and seek support and comfort in community even in spite of distances. Online community also offers a level of anonymity which adds to people’s feelings of safety and respects their wishes to remain unidentified in their local community if that is their need. Furthermore, cyber socialising allows LGBTI friendships to be maintained over great distance and allows for an easy connection between others of similar life experience. This is particularly crucial for those LGBTI people living in rural and remote circumstances where LGBTI people can be quite scattered.
Using technology to explore needs
Service providers in aged care should consider taking advantage of older LGBTI people’s online networks in order to research needs of this minority group who are, or will become part of, their clientele. Sourcing LGBTI people’s views on matters of, say, privacy, personal care, and support could help service providers build better and more LGBTI inclusive programs, practices and policies in the services they offer. One of the benefits of using online support group networks is that people can participate without necessarily having to ‘out’ themselves as they might in other research forms, like focus groups or personal interviews.
Modern communications technologies: a tool, not a revolution
It is easy to assume that older LGBTI people living in isolated rural and remote circumstances will have all their social needs met by the ‘wonder’ of modern communications technology. While there is a great difference between the interpersonal closeness created by video communications like Skype or videoconferencing, there can be no doubt that these are not absolute substitutes for the immediacy and tactile potential of face-to-face encounters. As an older Transwoman in my own research commented recently in relation to technology and social comfort in old age:
“Skyping to connect with other old age friends elsewhere will probably be one way I can connect with other Transwomen – like I do now – but really being with other Transwomen – maybe in a facility that catered for a number of Transpeople – would be what I would really want… I would want to be with others who have a shared history and understand what being Trans is. Having someone close like that, that I can talk to, will be really important to me…”
Being connected and staying connected
Providing for the social and interactive needs of older LGBTI people is not going to be a simple process of providing access to internet-based social media. Like other older Australians, online social experiences are only part of a person’s social life. Meeting regularly with other people, forming friendships with people and feeling the comfort of emotionally enriching relationships are core needs of all older Australians. But for LGBTI older Australians, particularly those living in rural and remote circumstances, technology may be a very important supplement for socialisation in their lives. It can offer a place for them to be themselves, share their inner feelings, and reduce the loneliness that may arise when they find themselves without natural community where they live.
Dr Rachel E Richardson is Sub-Dean Pathways and Partnerships Faculty of Science Charles Sturt University. Kylie Stephens is Senior Health Promotion Coordinator at Centre for Excellence in Rural Sexual Health at the University of Melbourne.
This article first appeared in the January 2015 Technology Review.