Wednesday, 09 September 2015 14:40

Rowena Allen, ‎Victorian Commissioner for Gender and Sexuality

It’s just turned 8am on a crisp September morning and already the Treasury Café is in full swing. Ro Allen has just raced across from an adjacent building for her first meeting of the day with a second appointment scheduled an hour later in the same place. One set of handshakes morphs into another and off she goes again.

That’s pretty much what it’s been like since Allen was announced Victoria’s first Gender and Sexuality Commissioner two months ago.

Since July, her feet haven’t touched the ground as she comes to grips with life inside the bunker of 1 Treasury Place. With approximately 16 interviews under her belt, it’s fair to say that if she knew little about dealing with the media back in July, she knows a whole heap more now helped along by the fact that she’s as sharp as a tack and rarely short of a word: “You have the ability to change hearts and minds when you tell stories…”

It’s a different pace from the life she was leading in rural Victoria with her partner: “the brains of the outfit”, as she calls her, and her 7 year old daughter who wants to know if Allen has a limosine the same as her Barbie doll.

Long since having given up the idea of commuting a few times a week from Violet Town she now lives in an apartment in inner Melbourne and travels home on the weekend. Next year her partner and daughter will move to Melbourne but Allen is adamant that she will “never, ever” sell her Violet Town home.

So how did this young activist end up moving from suburban Glen Waverley to Shepparton and then nearby Violet Town in the first place?

“About 20 years ago I was giving a paper on youth culture. It got to the questions and they asked me about rural young people and all I had was textbook answers. I was a real upstart activist so I made the decision to go and do 12 months in rural Victoria to get it on my CV so I could talk about it with credibility.

“I took a job at the City of Shepparton and then the Uniting Church found out I was up there so they asked me to apply for a position to set up the Uniting Care Agency.

“Every time I thought about returning to Melbourne there was another critical social issue. The refugees turned up then the next wave or refugees turned up…so every time I thought about going back to Melbourne there was a new challenge.”

“I couldn’t just be a youth worker. I had to be the bestyouth worker. I built the organisation from ground up but I also realised I needed to make this bigger than me and so I was dealing with everyone from single parents to the Aboriginal community.”

“Twenty years ago there was very little support for kids in the rural areas and certainly no role models. Now we have funding for core projects but, for me, rural and regional Victoria remains a priority.”

Allen is fond of using the phrase “what you see is what you get” and, asking around, that tends to be how others describe her as well. Calling herself “a walker between genders” (or gender diverse or gender fluid) Allen goes to great pains to make others feel comfortable around her who might otherwise grapple with how to refer to her.

“You can call me he or she or Sir. I am comfortable with all those terms. I am very relaxed about how people gender me…the way you see me is the way I’m happy to be.

“I want to be approachable and engageable so I am happy with however people want to engage with me. Being called Ro is, for me, the best option, gender neutral and less confusing.

“The terms are changing all the time around lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) and it’s hard to keep up. I’ve had to have an LGBTI 101 and even I can muck it up.

“In the case of the media all I ask is try; it’s as simple as that. Take a bit of time to figure out how people prefer to be gendered, look up something, ask. We shouldn’t beat the media up for getting this stuff wrong but when they deliberately misgender, as they recently have, they need to be called out on it. But on the other hand you don’t want to paralyse the media.

“In the case of Caitlyn Jenner she has a lot of privilege from a socio –economic view that many people don’t have in their transition but it’s raised the issue in the media for discussion and discussion is good.

“It’s an opportunity for people to tell their own stories. Caitlyn Jenner is one story but it’s not everybody’s story of transition.”

For Allen one of the great challenges is to turn around the current statistic that suggests the vast majority of people who transition end up leaving their place of work.

“It may be their choice, it may be their employer’s. Either way they don’t feel comfortable and they leave. It’s a two way responsibility.

“Employers need guidelines and some training and information for staff. The leaders of the organisation need to be present. There needs to be frank and fearless conversation.

“Most importantly you need to get the toilets rights so that everyone feels comfortable.

“In fact I’ve joked that I’m going to be known as Commissioner of the Toilet. I’m not saying we have to spend millions of dollars on this. One simple idea is to call disabled toilets all gender- all ability toilets.”

Since taking up her role, Allen has been given a fair deal of both solicited and unsolicited advice.

Only hours after taking up her position, Melbourne radio host Neil Mitchell warned her not to read social media or let her family read social media. It’s advice she intends to follow.

“Homophobia is alive and well on social media. The backlash is still there but compared to 20 years ago I now have a lot of armour and that comes through my experience, politicians, community...they all provide me with protection because they all want my position to be successful.

“I’ve been asked would I have changed anything in my career trajectory? Well, no.

“Not everyone becomes the Commissioner of Gender and Sexuality. I am because I have been out all of my working career. I’ve done the hard yards.”

Contact the Commissioner for Gender and Sexuality: (03) 03 9097 7196 or email rowena.allen@dpc.vic.gov.au

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