Queer Support: The Double Hit or Austerity & Covid-19
With this queer support, action, and activism project getting fully underway with Queer Activism in Leftwing Spaces (Sunday 29th November 2020), I’m thrilled to bring you this second conversation – this time focusing on a queer support service. The response to Gemma’s discussion has been wonderful – with a handful of useful comments to consider for future conversations and writings; though there remain some less support or, indeed, hostile comments that I’d like to follow-up on from the initial project overview (Many Voices: An Introduction to Queer Scotland Today; Friday 30th October 2020).
In last week’s publication, I advised that ‘articles featuring anonymised accounts from those previously employed within L.G.B.T.Q.+ oriented organisations, a series of interviews with queer parents (coupled and lone) on the hetero -normativity of state-run support, discussions with activists and educators, a three organisations chat on the creation of queer spaces within political parties, and an interview with the C.E.O. of one of Scotland’s leading L.G.B.T. charities’ were due to follow. It’s my pleasure, therefore, to bring you this conversation with L.G.B.T. Health & Wellbeing C.E.O., Maruska Greenwood.
Luke Ray: So, thank you again for agreeing to have this discussion. You know that I first came into contact L.G.B.T. Health & Wellbeing through the Rainbow Families initiative a few years back. It’s something I’ve looked into again more recently for my Ph.D. work on lone parent families. Hopefully that’s something we can touch on later, but for now could you introduce yourself and tell us a wee bit about the organisation?
Maruska: My connection to the organisation goes back twelve years. It’s always been an organisation, kind of, in two halves. This is the bit that I’ll provide for context, L.G.B.T. Health & Wellbeing – and this’ll be interesting to you as a community development worker – was set up as a healthy living centre. What that means is that the Department of Health (at the U.K.-level) recognised that there were certain communities not being served well by the N.H.S., so they wanted to remedy that. They got in contact with the lottery, and arranged for a huge pot of money to be ring-fenced to do some of that health inequalities work.
What that resulted in were three-hundred-and-fifty healthy living centres, of which, Scotland got forty-five (quite a big share). That’s probably what you’d expect though given the health inequalities across Scotland, though particularly in the west. Most of those healthy living centres were in areas of severe deprivation, generally geographically anchored but there were a few working with specific communities of interest. Of those, we were the only L.G.B.T. one.
This meant that the organisation went from nothing to five years of funding. Really unusual for Third Sector work, but that came with its own challenges… For the first time there was research in a Scottish context into what the health inequalities were for L.G.B.T. people – provided through Health Scotland. That was then the basis of some queer activists and workers getting together on the proposal for the healthy living centre.
There was a sense, at that point, that they could do five years of work, address the issues, and then they’d wrap the organisation up. They employed a series of managers from within the N.H.S. – so people that weren’t coming from the community sector and didn’t understand the unique challenges of our field. What the organisation did… like, it did really good work in those five years. It wasn’t community development, it mostly did capacity building with the N.H.S. At the end of the five years though, they fell off the edge of the cliff. They put in a bid for lottery funding which didn’t come through, so that pretty much looked like it.
However, fortunately they had five months of reserves and that’s when they brought me in. My background was as much more of an activist, especially around Section 28, but I’d also worked the queer bookshop in Edinburgh, and volunteered at Switchboard. My ideas were very different in terms of what we should be doing with the community. That was in 2008, so the start of the recession. I don’t fully know what it was like before that, but when I came funding was really stretched.
What happened from there was that all these healthy living centres faced the end of their funding pretty much at around the same time (2007/08). There was this idea from the Department of Health that it would all just be mainstreamed, maybe a hope that they’d become self-funding or the health boards or councils would take them on. Representation was made collectively by the Healthy Living Centre Alliance to the Scottish Government – and that’s what saved our organisation. At the time, Nicola Sturgeon was the Health Minister and she deserves credit here. She instructed the civil servant that was with her to find money to keep to keep the health living going. We’d stressed that you’re gonnae lose all of these – this whole network – in one go! That Transition Fund was the funding we used to build up our initial small team, just for a year to start with. Then it was about building the organisation up from there.
Luke Ray: Aye, I’ve been there so many times or known others who’ve found their organisations on the cusp of folding due to a lack of income but with these social issue-based projects, it can often become so niche that funders just don’t recognise the impact they have locally.
Maruska: In terms of our community, it was just running events and running activities. It evolved really organically, but it felt for years that we fought for every penny. You know, for many years it was just about trying to build relationships with people. The community didn’t know about the organisation. So building up the trust. Our ethos has therefore been about community building, more generally, and that we run initiatives particularly to support those who are most seldom reached.
Very early on it was clear that the trans community was very disadvantaged and often needed quite specialist information. We’re talking twelve years ago, and, I mean the profile of their issues is much higher now so you can imagine the situation back then. Older L.G.B.T., that felt like a really invisible part of our community. And the other big issue, that was mental health – that cut across all sections of our community. What we were finding was that the solution to the mental health crisis wasn’t necessarily a mental health response; much of it was about community –
[brief interruption by two cats knocking my phone over…]
Our mental health programme was a real mixture, but a really strong element of that was peer support, and just having your identity validated. We found that this really helped address many of the aspects of isolation. That sense of validation and value of having those who are like you around you really makes a difference.
Luke Ray: I’m wondering then, is this something you’ve found in your family work?
Maruska: Yes, you were particularly interested in this. It’s actually a really small element of our work. Rainbow Families actually came out of a member of staff’s own experiences. They wanted to make connections, so that’s one of the programmes that really is just about that – making connections. There are some people who will come to events over a period, but then there are people who’ll maybe come then go away with those support and connections identified.
What we’ve found in the last few years is that, actually, parents with gender non-conforming kids will make use of that space too – both for those parents to connect with each other, but also for kids to make connections with their peers. There are very few places for that kind of meet-up so I think that would be an incredible area of our work to try and build up.
I think that’s really an illustration of how our work evolves as the community and their needs change. There’s nothing very fixed in what we do, and our programme of events – well, before lockdown… – it was a quarterly programme. It always felt quite important for the programme to be open and dynamic. We have a rough skeleton of what we want to do but then it’s very open and responsive. The mainstream attention given to the Black Lives Matter was one example of where we tried to support broader efforts with our own event.
Luke Ray: I’m curious, then, with the funding approach, the service I co-run in partnership with the Tollcross Foodbank (the Tollcross Community Action Network) are always difficult to sustain. We’ve got just two sessions a week currently, but within that there’s childcare (again pre-lockdown), kids’ play provisions, a clothes bank, and advice and welfare service, signposting, etc. and it’s so rare to find someone who’ll support our full project. Often we have to divide it up (even when it’s the same sessions) to win small grants, and even then they start to look quite unusual in the way certain aspects become disaggregated from the larger picture.
Maruska: Well, it’s quite interesting here. Rainbow Families, for example, is quite unusual. It’s not something we have dedicated funding for, so we’ve had to incorporate that into our community programmes because we don’t have specific funding. It’s an area of our work that perhaps feels ‘too fluffy’ for some people, but from where we’re sitting it has a very clear impact, but that doesn’t always translate into the financial support.
One of the easier – well ‘easier’ – to fund parts of our work has been with older people. The disadvantage over a lifetime seems more widely understood. The legacy of discrimination and harassment, the double lives people have often needed to lead with the lack of protection around employment – that seems better acknowledged. Funders do sometimes think ‘well we’re not funding that work anywhere else’; and we are one of the very few groups doing that work in the U.K. with older queer people.
Just on that funding, in Edinburgh we’ve got N.H.S. and statutory funding. Our presence in Glasgow is much newer though – we’ve been delivering there since 2014 – and we have no regular local statutory funding; it’s all trusts and foundations. You try to get that to be multi-year, but it’s not easy. Take our trans work in Glasgow, it’s had a patchwork of eight or nine funders over those years. It’s still been really tough. It’s one of those programmes that you know is just so great and much needed on the ground, yet we’ve never had just a single funder supporting it in that time.
Luke Ray: Is that something you have open conversations about with service users or staff?
Maruska: One of the things I was really aware of was the connections that had already been made. We had started a drop-in for trans people back in 2012 and wanted to sustain was. A couple of years before that the Glasgow L.G.B.T. Centre had shut. There was a huge anxiety in the community that new groups would disappear again. In building up our presence in Glasgow, we’ve been so conscious of that.
The closure of the Glasgow L.G.B.T. Centre left a really big gap. Gay Men’s Health is now gone; Switchboard is gone… You really don’t want to burden the community with how difficult it can be to secure funding and therefore how precarious and insecure provision can be. So, aye, you want the people just to be able to access the services without having to worry about that; but staff are really aware…
Luke Ray: So there’s this cyclical nature to your work more generally, working with particular issues when they do become publicly debated or when they arise within the supported communities. You said you arrived in 2008 amidst this first wave of austerity so I’m wondering how has the pandemic shifted what you can do now?
Maruska: We shifted very quickly. Everyone went home and we migrated so much of our service online. When I looked around at what others were doing, it felt like we were really ahead of the curve. The thing that we wanted to bolster, to begin with, was the one-to-one support. Our Scotland-wide helpline service went up from the usual two days a week, and immediately calls went up 80% [eighty] and they’ve continued to be high throughout covid. Social isolation is obviously a huge issue there, and the loss of community.
The other thing that’s really interesting is that we’ve had a lot of ‘coming out’ calls! What lockdown seems to be doing is offer a space for lots of people to reflect on their lives and deciding, ‘I want to be my authentic self’.
Luke Ray: It’s a huge thing, you see those who are – where they have the choice – choosing to change careers at this point; moving in with partners earlier than they might otherwise to form their own bubbles; or, as you say, deciding they don’t want to piss around with something that doesn’t matter to them or give them what they want in life anymore.
Maruska: Yes, and it’s a bit of a stereotype, but we found there was a big disconnect between some of our older service users and online access. That’s definitely one of the trends, so another thing we’ve done is that we’ve set up a tele-friending service. What people are telling us was that they were so isolated but just weren’t receiving contact from anyone.
Luke Ray: Something we’ve found at the Community Hub / Foodbank Partnership is that a lot of our older and more emotionally or physically vulnerable folk we supported on a regular basis pre-Covid are without phones and relied on the Hub to be that social fixture in their life. The pandemic has removed even that basic element of a once a week coffee and check-in with our team.
Maruska: We did a phone around right at the early stages of lockdown, maybe just ten days in, and we were having people tell us that we were the first ones to contact them. What these community members often liked was that we were reaching out to them rather than placing the onus on them to get in touch with us.
The other section of the community we’ve been really concerned about is asylum seekers and refugees. The week we went into lockdown, back in March, was when our new dedicated Refugee Project worker came into post, so a really tough start to that project. They’re already themselves a part of that community so had some reach, which really helped make connections. But what we’ve found is that the levels of financial deprivation in that community is massive. Very unusually for us, we found ourselves handing out mobile phone top-ups and food vouchers, just whatever immediate emergency responses we could provide.
Luke Ray: If any of the folk you’re working and supporting – particularly with the food vouchers – could benefit from any of the provisions we have at the Hub – clothing, books, even D.V.D.s now – do send them down. ***
Maruska: Aye, it’s that thing of not wanting to start something and then suddenly pull out of doing it – especially when you’ve realised how essential that service is. But the reality is that it is so precarious…
Luke Ray: That’s definitely something your reminders about what services we’ve lost over in Glasgow in recent years proves. Where does the organisation go from here then?
Maruska: I think, like for any many charities, the coming years look pretty tough. Money is going to be really tight and that’s not a secret across the sector. It’s a positive that the Scottish Government has brought many of the L.G.B.T. organisations together really quickly during covid and asked ‘what do you need?’; ‘how can we support you?’, but you know that can’t go on. Somewhere down the line we’re going to have to pay for that in the years to come. I do have a bit of reassurance in the sense that we built the charity up during the recession and we’ve got a lot more people involved now, with many now relying on our service. I’d love that trajectory of growth to continue, but the reality is, really, we don’t want to end up reducing our offer. I think that, realistically, we’ll be doing well if we manage to stand still over the next two years or so.
The really big challenge that we faced – and we are going to talk about this publicly – is that the Glasgow Community Fund doesn’t fund any services for L.G.B.T. adults, and this is Glasgow Council who’ve failed to fund any of these services. That is on the back of a historic underfunding… We’d really hoped that we would get some statutory funding and that just hasn’t happened. It feels like the L.G.B.T. community has been particularly disadvantaged. It’s like, if you look at it thematically, no community has been hit as hard as the L.G.B.T. community. A wee bit of funding has gone to L.G.B.T. youth services but nothing for adults.
People engaging with us are of all ages so it’s always really interesting to consider our profile, and though we tend not to take people’s information as they come through the door, we take a snap shot every year. Each and every year, the age range is huge! We’re talking sixteen right through to ninety. We have seen the demand grow and grow and grow in Glasgow – to the point that it’s totally overtaken engagement Edinburgh! Despite that, there’s been no statutory funding from the N.H.S. or the Council there.
The Glasgow Community Fund, you know, this was going to be the S.N.P.’s new administration big thing, what they were going to do differently when they came into power. There were a lot of promises at the time. It was going to be ‘Glasgow’s going to be the best for L.G.B.T. people in Europe to live and visit’, which sounds great but unless you’re going to fund frontline services, members of our community will just continue to be so marginalised.
Luke Ray: Absolutely, and if you think how focused Edinburgh has been on tourists and attracting folk to its range of festivals – often to the expense of supporting local communities and year-round residents – Glasgow can be this great, you know, ‘Safe City’, but it doesn’t ultimately matter…
Maruska: We worked with the council quite a bit ‘cause they wanted to have an L.G.B.T. centre. We felt it could be great, but it’s going to need to be supported or run by established groups that can take it on. You know, we met with them recently and they were all ‘what about this hub idea?’; and the reality is ‘well, you’re not funding our work…’. We can’t take something that huge on without funding for continuing our frontline work
It’s just so frustrating ‘cause we really see the need. I wonder, sometimes, what people think the organisation is there to do. It’s not an ‘icing on the cake’ type service! To give you just an idea, more than half the people we speak to indicate to us that they’ve had thoughts of suicide. And that’s massive. It’s the price that is paid for not tackling frequent discrimination in society. It’s perhaps going on tangents possibly from the focus here though…
Luke Ray: It’s all interrelated. When there’s so much need for it within the L.G.B.T. community as is, you can only imagine there’s going to be even more of a health crisis following the pandemic.
Maruska: Well, it’s interesting… We also ask people accessing counseling how important it was that this was an L.G.B.T. service. Many of them tell us how vital it was that they weren’t having to educate the counsellor. It means they can go into counseling without having to explain themselves, their lifestyles, their chosen families, the impact to toxicity and aggressive coverage around the G.R.A. and the media coverage has on them – without needing to explain themselves. It’s so much more effective and means that issues can be engaged with directly rather than pussyfooting around them.
Luke Ray: It’s something I’ve known folk from minority religious communities in north Edinburgh or black activists and colleagues throughout the central belt who’ve said how important it was for them to have someone who understands the intersections of their struggles when they’ve sought out help.
Maruska: Definitely, it’s very much about cultural competence and we see that reflected right across society at all intersections. People need to know when that is there in a service ‘cause it’s just such a barrier to engaging with the person opposite you when they perhaps only get this one part of you…
For us, it’s really important when we come out of this pandemic that we are strong. The social and economic impacts of Covid-19 are going to be felt, often to a greater degree amongst minority communities – many of whom are L.G.B.T.. It’ll be a concern for all those across the sector so the authorities are going to have to make sure to play their part in supporting these groups.
Luke Ray: Maruska, thank you for your time today.
*** This is something that applies to all readers in Edinburgh as well. The Hub is currently open Mondays (14:00-16:00) and Thursdays (10:00-12:00); but do contact us via our email address ([email protected]) or through our Facebook Page: https://bit.ly/3myGWrz
As always, my thanks to the team at Bella Caledonia. I’m privileged to be a part of the Many Voices programme alongside Tomiwa Folorunso, Zozan Yasar, Sean Wai Keung, Annie George, and Anahit Behrooz. To keep up to date with our work, check back on Bella’s website or search #ManyVoices on your social media platforms.