The Formation of ACU ALLY NETWORK
Noah Riseman on visibility, action and connection
The ACU ALLY NETWORK is a new initiative to support students and staff who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, or queer, or as having any other sexuality or gender diverse identity (LGBTIQ+). It is a group of trained staff members who have undergone training and made an active commitment to provide an affirming, safe, inclusive, and respectful environment. Launched in March this year, the ACU ALLY NETWORK is the first such group at a Catholic tertiary institution in Australia. I am proud to be one of the inaugural co-convenors and to share the long journey of how we got the ACU ALLY NETWORK up and running.
In 2015, the LGBTIQ+ publication Star Observer published the first-ever Australian LGBTI Uni Guide. Representatives from the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby and the Star Observer searched all Australian universities’ websites for information about their policies and services to support LGBTIQ+ students. On almost every measure, ACU failed. The only ticks we received were for an anti-discrimination policy that covered LGBT students (though not intersex) and for welfare services to support LGB students (though not transgender and intersex). The Australian LGBTI Uni Guide was a one-off exercise, but it is still visible online.
When the guide came out, I was disappointed because I genuinely believe that ACU is more welcoming of LGBTIQ+ students than one might think. One of the key programmes the Australian LGBTI Uni Guide searched for was a staff ally network: a visible presence of staff who had undergone some form of LGBTIQ+ awareness training and were identified as allies to advocate for LGBTIQ+ inclusion. This was certainly a worthwhile initiative, but I thought that the ACU administration would never agree to it.
That Australian LGBTI Uni Guide sat in the back of my head, but it would take another trigger in 2018 for me to propose the formation of an ally network at ACU. I was presenting at a gender and sexuality history symposium at the University of Newcastle. One presentation was a panel of students in Newcastle’s Queer Collective. One audience member asked an important question: What can we, as staff members, do to support LGBTIQ+ students at our universities? The answer: have an ally network. Even if you think that your university is a welcoming place, having an ally network is a visible marker to LGBTIQ+ students so they can see that they are welcomed.
When I returned to work, I wrote to the Melbourne campus Associate Vice Chancellor, Professor John Ballard, asking what he thought would be the best way to get an ally network up at ACU. John was very supportive and suggested I do some research into common practices in Australian universities and Catholic universities overseas and prepare a proposal. I did as John advised, researching best practice at American Catholic universities (for the record: Georgetown University’s LGBTQ Resource Center and Santa Clara University’s Rainbow Resource Center are gold standard). I also received incredibly helpful documents and advice from the convenor of the University of Newcastle’s Ally Network. Finally, I reached out to LGBTIQ+ students through the Melbourne LGBTIQ+ Student Society and incorporated student feedback about why an ally network is so important to them.
In mid-November 2018 I sent the proposal to the Vice Chancellor and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education and Innovation). The proposal outlined the formation of an ally network on the Melbourne campus in 2019, with plans to roll it out to other campuses in 2020. I heard nothing for weeks and assumed that no response meant it was not going to happen. Then, just before Christmas, the new Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education and Innovation), Zlatko Skrbis, sent me a wonderful email: not only did he support the creation of an ally network, but he wanted it to be national from the start.
Zlatko and I met in February 2019. It was clear he understood why an ally network was important to support LGBTIQ+ students and staff. But there were also (not surprisingly) delicate conversations to have with stakeholders given the university’s Catholic identity. Zlatko asked me to be patient as those conversations happened so we could do this right. I agreed to be patient but also persistent – particularly once Zlatko told me he was tasking Human Resources (HR) to go through the next steps.
To be honest, the rest of 2019 was pretty frustrating. HR was tasked with preparing a research paper about options for an ally network. This was a slow process, and it also did not help that I was completely left in the dark about its contents. The next breakthrough came in late 2019 when the Vice President and Head of the Directorate of Identity and Mission, Father Anthony Casamento, rang me. The Vice-Chancellor tasked him to get the ally network done. Father Anthony released the options paper to me just before Christmas 2019. (for the record: it was a pretty good document, though I could have prepared it myself in less than two weeks if given the opportunity).
In early 2020 Father Anthony convened a working group that included myself, Dr. Joel Anderson (who was meant to take over from me when I was on research leave overseas – another story!), Father Jamie Calder from the Directorate of Identity and Mission, and representatives from HR. Throughout 2020 we went through multiple steps:
selecting an LGBTIQ+ training provider;
working with that training provider to adapt material to the ACU context (with input from the president of the Melbourne LGBTIQ+ Student Society to be part of those discussions);
designing an ACU ALLY NETWORK website and preparing a logo;
drafting terms of reference and guiding principles for the ACU ALLY NETWORK.
In March 2021 our ACU ALLY NETWORK website went live. Joel and I are the inaugural co-convenors, and at the end of this year, there will be a process for nominating and selecting co-convenors. Importantly: our terms of reference say there should be one academic and one professional staff member, and ideally, they should not be the same gender.
It is early days, but we have already had over 180 people who have either join the ACU ALLY NETWORK or who are signed up for training. We held two small IDAHOBIT afternoon teas on the North Sydney and Melbourne campuses. We had plans for Open Day stalls and Wear it Purple Day events on select campuses but had to cancel due to Covid lockdowns. We also have been working with the LGBTIQ+ student societies to address areas of need, such as around processes to support name and gender changes. I am also pleased that we have been able to help one student who experienced a problem in the classroom and have been in discussions with staff who approached us for advice about making their curricula more LGBTIQ+ inclusive.
We have more work to do. We need to be more visible and more active. Even at the best of times, a challenge is that with eight campuses, it is difficult to run events. Add to that the Covid disruptions and it is even harder to plan. We hope that by 2022, we will have a strong membership and interest across all of our campuses, and that the ACU ALLY NETWORK can be a beacon of visibility and affirmation for LGBTIQ+ students and staff.
 Australian LGBTI Uni Guide, 2015, available from https://lgbtiauuniguide.wordpress.com/, accessed 23 August 2021.
 Georgetown University LGBTQ Resource Center, https://lgbtq.georgetown.edu/, accessed 25 August 2021; Santa Clara University Rainbow Resource Center, https://www.scu.edu/oml/rrc/, accessed 25 August 2021.
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