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A great day of Insights at Comhlámh.

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lgbt, volunteering, Ireland

Comhlámh is the Irish word for Solidarity and is described as ‘a member and supporter organization open to anyone interested in social justice, human rights, and global development issues.’ As a volunteer with EIL, my first encounter with this organization was in reading and signing the Comhlámh volunteer charter, which outlines a code of best practice for volunteering abroad, and I think that charter represents a good example of one of the aims Comhlámh strives to achieve, that is the bringing together of different Irish Volunteering organizations to understand from different perspectives what is the best practice for a particular challenge.

In our case, on Thursday, 24th of March I was fortunate enough to represent EIL Irelandat the first workshop of LGBTQ+ supporting policy at Comhlámh’s offices on 12 Parliament Street.  For this we were joined by many of Comhlámh’s own staff, a representative from the Scouting Ireland, UCDVO, Suas, Friends of Londiani, and several other Irish sending agencies.

Fittingly for this topic, the offices are located only a stone’s throw from the ‘George’ on one side and ‘Pantibar’ on the other, with ‘BelongTo’, the ‘Turk’s Head’ and ‘The Front Lounge’ on the same street.  The day was certainly insightful and enjoyable as we had plenty of chat, discussion and debate around the issues of how to support LGBTQ+ volunteers at home and abroad, brainstorming and developing a structure/policy on LGBTQ+ issues in our organizations, and exploring the different cultural and legislative views towards LGBTQ+ in different parts of the world.

I think one of the highlights of the day was meeting people from the many different organizations that are signatories of Comhlámh’s Code of Good Practice for Volunteer Sending Agencies, not only to learn about the different volunteer programs offered by these Irish organizations and how they compare with those of EIL, but also to witness throughout the day the benefits of different viewpoints and perspectives when it comes to policy, culture and programs.

We were also fortunate to have Carol McGuinness and Philip Mudge facilitate the training day, both of whom presented the program in a very lively and engaging way, with quizzes, role-plays and debates intermingled with solid advice and resources on how to find out more about LGBTQ+ rights pertaining to each country, and how to create a friendly and welcoming space for all volunteers regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.

The day began with us exploring LGBTQ+ language and terms, getting an insight into our own Irish LGBTQ+ culture and how changes in attitudes and values of the Irish people have been reflected in the media and in legislation.  We also reflected on our own awareness of LGBTQ+ issues and the sources from which we formed our attitudes, and something noted by many was the absence of representation in the media growing up from films and TV shows.  It reminded me of a recent film screening we held in the UCD LGBTQ+ society called the ‘Celluloid Closet’, which charted how the film industry dealt with the various challenges to  representing LGBTQ+ people on screen, how references to homosexuality were often subtle and required much reading between the lines, and the frustrating misrepresentation of LGBTQ+ characters, often portrayed as either a ‘sissy’, villain, or victim.  For example in ‘Rebel without a Cause’ where Sal Mineo plays a gay kid with a crush on James Dean, he falls into the role of tragic victim.

Luckily however, much has changed in media circles since then and with the success of series such as ‘Orange is the New Black’, ‘Banana’ and representation in shows with a wider reach such as ‘Coronation Street’, and films such as ‘Pride’ and ‘Carol’ we see a shift to better representation of LGBTQ+ people.  Similarly the recent celebration of the centenary of the Easter Rising saw many articles written in papers like the Irish Independent and the Times of the Gay and Lesbian people who played a crucial role in the Rising, showing that we’re no longer ‘Éirebrushing’ people out of the history books, as some call it.

I think certainly however this cultural context gives us a much deeper understanding of how societal attitudes to LGBTQ+ rights are not singularly determined by legislation, and teach us to consider the culture more when we look at the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals in some of the countries Irish Sending Organizations have volunteers in.

Legislation is of course though very important, and the next part of the programme delved into various resources we could use to better understand the rights of people in the country they’re going to.  A really useful resource we looked at was www.equaldex.com, which gives an overview of each country and the recent developments in legislation, as well as a more in depth review of legislation pertaining to each country, which is all very user friendly and easily accessible, by just clicking on the country in the map.  There is also with some countries a review on public opinion, which is also quite useful.  This information could then be presented in the country specific pre-departure booklets volunteers are given before heading off to volunteer in that country.

We then broke for lunch, and following some tea, chats and sandwiches we returned to the topic of making an LGBTQ+ friendly space both at home and abroad.  We talked through different approaches to making people feel comfortable, such as having the equality and diversity policy visible on our website, being careful with language, being non judgemental and recognizing the importance of confidentiality.

It was felt that as being LGBT in some countries has significantly different challenges than what we’re used to at home, it is really worthwhile for the sending organization to create an atmosphere where the volunteer feels comfortable sharing their identity with us, so we can provide information and supports.

I’m reminded of a talk I was at recently with the UCD LGBTQ+ society on ‘Being LGBT in the workplace’ where I felt we could really take a leaf out of the diversity and equality policy of the likes of Google, Apple, Accenture and Linkedin who excel in creating an environment where everybody has the opportunity to be themselves and get the most out of themselves and provide the most benefit to the company they work for (which makes sense as you aren’t putting energy into hiding or thinking of ways to avoid mentioning your partner in conversation, and can focus on the task at hand in a supportive friendly environment).  I think this sense of really believing in the values of the organization you work with is particularly true for Volunteering Organizations, and this sense of belonging and common goal can only be strengthened with the visibility of an equality and diversity policy for all people.

Such supports we discussed included country specific information about LGBTQ+ rights and punishments, an understanding of local attitudes and how they compare or differ with legislation, the provision of a safe space within a group and possibly linking up with a past LGBT volunteer in that country to give advice.  While of course both sending organization and volunteer would understand the importance of not doing anything that would contravene the laws of that country, it would also be important to have a crisis management policy in the event of a worst case scenario.

We then talked through equality legislation, engaged in role plays on how to be LGBTQ+ friendly and around issues that could arise when the volunteer was abroad, and in the end could summarize six key take home points of organization policy on supporting LGBTQ+ individuals.

These were

  1. Policy Statement
  2. Commitment to comply and exceed all legislative requirements
  3. Country specific information on all countries volunteers are placed in
  4. Specific supports offered by the organisation before during and after placement.
  5. Expectations of volunteers before during and after placement
  6. Crisis management protocols.

Overall I really enjoyed the day and I think it is a great reflection on EIL Ireland for participating, Comhlámh for organizing and delivering and its other partner organizations to come together and discuss how best we can support people, mar ‘ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine’ (we do better together).

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