THE new gender and sexuality commissioner and funding for community organisations are in the spotlight for Victoria’s new Minister for LGBTI Equality Martin Foley, but unanswered questions remain around LGBTI youth health and well being grants and rapid HIV testing.

With the election of a new Labor government in Victoria under Premier Daniel Andrews, Foley (pictured above) became Australia’s first-ever cabinet minister with an LGBTI portfolio, and he now faces the task of implementing the government’s extensive list of LGBTI-focused election commitments.

He sat down with the Star Observer to outline the government’s priorities in the area, and to talk about a few remaining areas of uncertainty.

“We’ve hit the ground running, and in the first two weeks we got together about 20–25 groups in the Premier’s department for an informal round table about how we’d implement our commitments, and the best way we could do that to bring the community with us,” Foley said.

No announcement has been made about who the upcoming gender and sexuality commissioner for the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission will be, but the Star Observer understands discussions are under way.

Foley said the position could not be effective unless the commissioner had a strong relationship with both government and the community, and expected to see extensive community consultation to develop those relationships.

He said the round-table discussions late last year revealed widespread concerns about the lack of funding for community organisations, especially as increased community consultation with the new government meant more pressure on volunteer-led groups.

“In that round table we had, a consistent message was that the community needs support if it’s going to be engaged in how government operates. This is a sector that, with a few notable exceptions, is driven by volunteers,” Foley said.

“People like the intersex community, the transgender community, the rainbow families group and others, who all operate on less than the smell of an oily rag and through the political and personal commitment of their leadership, they do need to have support to properly participate in both that legislative review and indeed through the Department of Health and Human Services working group where most of the programs are delivered.”

While the government’s legislative and policy agenda for the LGBTI community is extensive, two areas of concern coming out of the election are the HEY Grants for LGBTI youth health and wellbeing projects and the Victorian AIDS Council’s Pronto! rapid testing service.

Both initiatives received commitments for further funding from the former Coalition government, commitments that were not matched by Labor.

The final round of HEY Grants was already distributed last year, and Pronto! faces the end of its funding with the close of this financial year in June.

Foley said the government was investigating various possible ways of funding the groups and projects that received money under the HEY Grants scheme.

“We’re currently going through a process of consulting with all of those programs… and working out how we’re going to best continue them in the context of the next four years state budget, and I’m hopeful that there will be a series of positive announcements,” he said.

With regard to rapid HIV testing, Foley said there were concerns around the current form of Pronto! that could be addressed in different iterations of the service going forward.

“Whilst it’s a positive step that obviously works towards encouraging early detection of HIV and making it less clinical and more accessible, there is some criticism around it being centrally city-based and not accessible enough out in the community, particularly in the regions,” he said.

“At the same time, the relationship between HIV and other, related blood-borne viruses and conditions, the most obvious being hepatitis — can the program also pick up and deal with some of those crossover issues?”

Foley appeared alongside Daniel Andrews at the Midsumma Carnival on Sunday, where the premier reiterated the government’s commitment to LGBTI reform but made no new announcements.

The Coalition opposition has named former Health Minister David Davis their Shadow Minister for LGBTI Equality, while the Greens last week gave Prahran MP Sam Hibbins the role of their LGBTI spokesperson.

(Photo credit: Alexander Legaree; Star Observer)

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