DIVERSITY of experience, social isolation and histories of community trauma were in the spotlight on the first day of the National LGBTI Ageing and Aged Care Conference in Melbourne.

The inaugural conference, organised by Melbourne-based older LGBTI health and well-being initiative Val’s Cafe, saw older LGBTI people come together with aged care experts and service providers to discuss issues facing ageing LGBTI Australians.

Stories from the lives of older LGBTI people were very much in the spotlight, with the conference providing an unprecedented forum for people to collectively share experiences of community, loss, discrimination and acceptance.

A highlight was a story from former police officer Jill Bolen, who recounted her experience of the 1977 “investigation” into lesbians in the Queensland Police force, and its impact on her life — the story left many in the room in tears.

Keynote speaker Dr Catherine Barrett, who runs the Sexual Health and Ageing Program at La Trobe University’s Australian Research Centre in Sex Health and Society, said the importance of an event like this couldn’t be underestimated — it’s possibly the first conference of its kind in the world.

“I think that maybe it was difficult for us to dream in 2009 when Val’s Cafe started — we couldn’t imagine and older LGBTI person standing up and saying, ‘this is my experience, you need to hear me,’ but we heard that this morning,” she told the Star Observer.

“It’s a very emotional thing… This is history, because we’ve not done this before and it’s time to really turn things around and go, older LGBTI people are everywhere, we need to see them and we need to address their needs.”

Barrett said the intense emotional responses elicited by the speakers at the conference indicated the importance to the community of simply listening and sharing stories, as well as discussing change around policy and practice in the aged care sector.

Other speakers reflected the diversity of the conference and of older LGBTI Australians — Gordon Wilson from older gay men’s group Vintage Men spoke his experiences, and JR Latham from Val’s Cafe talked about the unique and often untold stories of older intersex people.

A number of speakers addressed the fact that many older LGBTI people have experienced extreme institutional mistreatment, including incarceration for gay sex and forced treatments for “mental illness”, for example, through electroshock therapy.

A presentation of a timeline of significant milestones for older LGBTI people led to an audience-driven discussion about the challenges of representing the vast diversity under the LGBTI banner.

Political interest in the event was also apparent, with a recorded opening address from Federal Assistant Minister for Social Services Mitch Fifield, and speeches from state Liberal MP for Prahran Clem Netwon-Brown and state Labor Shadow Minister for LGBTI Equality Martin Foley.

The conference saw the launch of a trailer for an upcoming project called Then and Now, documenting the stories of older LGBTI people in a series of short films produced by Val’s Cafe coordinator Carolyn Whyte and Minus 18 general manager Micah Scott.

Scott told the Star Observer the filming had all taken place inside older LGBTI people’s homes — making participants feel comfortable was vital to the project working.

“People were opening up about some really traumatic experiences, and people were talking about real institutionalised discrimination growing up, as well,” he said.

For many of the participants, Scott said being able to share their stories so younger people could hear them was also important.

He said they were looking to February 2015 to launch the videos.

The National LGBTI Ageing and Aged Care Conference runs today and tomorrow at Melbourne Town Hall.

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OPINION: Generation Val, 60 years on — by Dr Catherine Barrett

OPINION: LGBTI ageing and aged care still in its infancy — by Samantha Edmonds

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