“You can’t be wrong if you’re right, and you don’t stop fighting for justice simply because those around you don’t like it, you keep fighting.” – Rob Riley
A couple of weeks ago I attended the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) at the UN headquarters in New York. The planning to attend the forum started a couple of years ago. I had become frustrated with the lack of resources from the otherwise billion-dollar Indigenous health economy to the Indigenous LGBQTI community in terms of preventing suicide and for mental health wellbeing. So, I reconciled that the United Nations would be the place to take this issue. Having previously attended global Indigenous events I had some inkling of what to expect. However, the UN is really something different and for the most part I was a deer in headlights. Thankfully I was in great company.
Professor Megan Davis is a total rock star and was fully within her element. I often refer to her as the Mockingjay; I am such a fan. Congress co-Chair Dr Jackie Huggins who I got to hang out with quite a bit, delivered quite the zinger during her 3-minute presentation on issues facing us Indigenous people back home in Australian. If you’ve not been to the UNPFII, like I hadn’t, the maximum you get is 5 minutes and the chairperson’s gavel is not to be defied. Former Congress co-Chair Les Malezer, whom I also met for the first time, left a an impression that he would be a great mentor to our youth, and to folks like myself, wanting to engage further with the UN. Outgoing UNPFII secretary Sonia Smallcombe, was also a pleasure to meet. Funny but true story, we are both from Darwin.
Because my trip was self-funded, I was only in New York for the last week of the UNPFII and there was only a small contingent of Australians, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. Rachel O’Connor from Prime Minster and Cabinet, was equally impressive, and to her credit gave a response to Dr. Huggin’s zinger, that was both respectful and full of grace. I met Kevin Rudd briefly on the way to dinner. He is much taller in real life.
Back home the prevention of Indigenous suicide has been moving at a snail’s pace. This is because of a lack of collaborative effort and endeavour. The week preceding my UN trip, the inaugural Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Conference was held in Alice Springs. In attendance, approximately 350 Indigenous suicide prevention advocates. It had been hoped that a number of ministers and senators would be in attendance, however it was Budget week and we told they had to stay in Canberra. The Minister for Indigenous Affairs did send a video message. The minister made mention of the funding that had been allocated via their portfolio. Sadly, there was no mention of the $17.8 million allocated for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Strategy by the Rudd/Gillard government some three years ago. It’s been three years since that strategy was released. Most folk don’t know that this money has been quarantined instead of being slashed. It was quarantined by the Ministers for Indigenous Affairs and Health. But, it has now been three years! The Greens have adjusted the original total to just over $20 million. The Minister did announce the one million dollars allocated to an Indigenous culturally appropriate response postvention pilot – the Critical Response Project. Earlier this year, I was asked by the ABC radio my thoughts of the initial announcement, I did welcome it but as I said then, as I’ll say now – it is not nearly enough funding. Particularly given the millions poured into the postvention space to non-Indigenous organisations working with our communities. I’m still waiting on the evaluation of those non-Indigenous services – and many others. Strangely however, these services are not held to the same level of accountability as Indigenous led initiatives.
I am completely over statistics but I want to share with you this; data gets policies delivered (Dr. Vanessa Lee). Indigenous Australians are the highest risk group of suicide in Australia and 12th highest in the world. For non-Indigenous LGBQTI Australians the rate of suicide is 3.5 to 14 times higher than heterosexual non-Indigenous Australians. The data on the suicides among Indigenous people who are LGBQTI we need to inform policy is non-existent. Despite the math on this being terrifically frightening, the suicidality of Indigenous LGBQTI people isn’t getting the attention nor the resources it deserves. Despite our presence at the inaugural Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Conference which included two concurrent sessions, two spots during the plenaries and a pre-conference LGBTQI fact sheet workshop, a keynote opportunity didn’t make the cut.
At the World Indigenous Suicide Prevention Conference in Rotorua, NZ next week, there are five Indigenous Australians who will deliver presentations as keynote speakers. All of them esteemed and deserving to be there. However, they are all heterosexual. Conversations with some of our LGBQTI brothers and sisters from across the Tasman and Pacific indicates that LGBQTI representation is minimal. No LGBQTI keynote there either. This highlights that as a global community we still have a long way to go to be inclusive and respectful of the qualitative information we have on the high rates of Indigenous LGBQTI suicide and self-harm.
In light of this, I have great news to share. The trip to the UNPFII was a success. I spoke on the lack of resources and low levels of engagement to the issue of suicidality and self-harm in the global Indigenous community and I am very pleased to share that a global discussion on this topic will commence shortly. A global discussion that I will be co-leading with other Indigenous LGBQTI UN affiliates from other colonized nations. This global discussion will address not only the day to day social determinants facing Indigenous LGBQTI peoples, but also the high risk of suicide and self-harm that up until now has been largely ignored. This global discussion is the outcome I had wished for, and now, hopefully, our own communities will no longer look at the high rates of Indigenous LGBQTI suicide and self-harm with feigned ignorance or surprise.
Back here in Australia, I know that after I pen this, that opportunities will either arise or disappear. Either way, there will be a cost. Whatever the result, whatever the cost, this issue is pressing and is far greater than just me. It’s time.