Addressing the generation gap in Rainbow communities

My last post reflected on the five years since the incident, resulting in the cancellation of the 2019 pride parade and the establishment of a separate organisation running future parades. A contributing factor to this schism was the lack of intergenerational solidarity in our rainbow communities and the spaces in which to develop and foster it. But challenges of shared understanding and values between generations are hardly unique to rainbow communities. In this post, I explore the underpinnings of the generational divides and strategies we could all use to bridge them.

When generations collide

January 2024 appeared to be the month for acknowledging intergenerational divides. The release of the Australian Lamb advert tickled my funny bone, making interesting caricatures of the various generations and a feel-good story about coming together over a BBQ (although, spoiler alert, they missed the boat somewhat if expecting eating red meat to be the value that unites). Moreover, I was inspired by the article Learning from an Intergenerational Blowup Over Social Justice. The article’s authors, both of the Boomer generation, detail how a relatively straightforward premise to increase young representation on boards broke down over a mismatch in values between younger and older. It offered a refreshing take on the issue of intergenerational values alignment and offered ways to foster shared leadership.

On sitting at the table

One framing of the above article is the view of “it is better to have a seat at the table than not”, clashing with the view of “under what conditions might we accept a seat at this table?”.

Our rainbow communities have many reasons to celebrate having a seat at the table. Those of the Boomer and X generations will remember when you could be fired from, or overlooked for, a job in the public service for being gay, something that happened to Peter Rule, whose estate led to the foundation that I co-chair today. Police attempted to trap homosexuals, and the justice system routinely overlooked violence towards gay, lesbian, and transgender people, as happened to Allen Aberhart. Today, rainbow people can serve openly in public service, and many agencies and corporations have rainbow networks and participate in events such as the pride parade.

Millennial and Gen Z rainbow community members call attention to Pride’s historical role as a vehicle for resistance and advocacy without a seat at the table. Marching in the street was done to take up space, signal that we would not hide away, and protest the unjust treatment received at the hands of police, healthcare, employers, and more. In the 1980s, many healthcare workers refused to treat, touch, or even enter the room of gay men dying of AIDS. Today, it is well documented that transgender and non-binary people face consistent challenges accessing competent healthcare, and there remain many other institutions such as schools, social services, churches, prisons, and more where acceptance, safety and well-being for rainbow people can vary widely.

Shared challenges and opportunities

A first step in bridging intergenerational misunderstanding could be to name the shared challenges that remain before us. In the Western world, we have begun to experience pushback and, in some cases, reversal of the rights hard-won over the decades. The formerly progressive UK approach to gender-affirming care has been rolled back, with discriminatory policies being introduced by the NHS. In the US, police are again finding pretences to raid gay bars. Closer to home, at least one high school believes it is ok to prioritise Christian beliefs over the well-being of rainbow students, students who may have no say in which school they attend.

Opportunities are rising as significant growth in rainbow community organisations, rainbow staff networks, and rainbow advisory roles calls for an ever-increasing number of those knowledgeable about our past, current dynamics, and future. Understanding of rainbow identities is moving beyond what the US and UK informed over the last 50 years at the increasingly visible intersection with Māori and Pacific world views. The number of our out, older rainbow people is also growing, an underserved group that will become more visible and vocal with time.

Building understanding

To create shared understanding, we need opportunities to come together and share stories, hear a different perspective, and build understanding among one another.  It’s easy to roll our eyes and say, “Ok, Boomer”, or shake our heads at “young people today”, but this doesn’t solve anything. I enjoy various friendships across four generations and am not immune to a good eye roll or exasperated head shake. Yet, even when vehemently disagreeing with my friends, I usually work to understand how they arrived at such a position, finding interest in what their perspective tells me about our shared history or future.

Creating safe, productive spaces requires skilled convening and facilitation of the dynamics present. The arts can do this well, with books, movies, TV, theatre and visual arts powerful mechanisms for storytelling. But not everyone is an artist, and not everyone can be great at convening and facilitating groups of people. All of us, however, can practice the skills needed to hear opinions that differ from our own. As individuals we can focus on finding common ground, listening to understand, and being generous with those who use words we don’t relate to. This isn’t to say we must sit and endure offensive language and sentiment—quite the opposite. A reciprocal exchange based on generosity rather than seeking to be right, is required. The self-help books are not wrong on this front; listening is often the key.

Our community organisations represent an opportunity for intergenerational dialogue. Yet many gravitate towards a homogenous grouping when it comes to age, and increased value should be placed on having voices present from younger to older. An organisation’s shape, feel, and wairua come from those most involved, including staff, the governance board, and key volunteers. If we want our organisations to bridge generations, those who give life to the organisation need to reflect that. But beyond the token younger or older representatives on a board, what are the fundamental processes and practices that allow this to happen harmoniously?

Intergenerational dialogue at the Rule Foundation

The Rule Foundation is one of the few rainbow organisations I have been involved with that has representation across decades, covering three generations. While Rule Foundation has work to do on representation in other areas, I believe diversity in age is a key reason for its enduring success and place in the community. Amongst Trustees, there is a strong culture of robust debate and valuing the devil’s advocate point of view. Kōrero regularly incorporates an interpretation of Peter Rule’s intentions from the 1980s, an understanding of today’s needs, and aspirations for our communities future.

Establishing the Rainbow Well-being Legacy Fund was a significant act of compassion and solidarity towards our younger community members. Older gay men, convicted before law reform in 1986, sympathised with the challenges of today, even when vastly different to their own experience. Those able to make such decisions can choose to uphold intergenerational solidarity and understanding even when we don’t know or agree with those who benefit. Many acts like this will be required, big and small, individual and organisation-based, to create greater understanding across our rainbow communities.

Conclusion

In this two-part blog series, I’ve aimed to highlight division and the shared aspirations and opportunities between our rainbow generations. Sitting at between 4% and 8% of the total population, we are big enough to be communities, rather than one community, yet also small enough that we must work together in solidarity to maintain and further the rights we have gained. While significant differences in the thoughts, approaches, priorities, and language exist between our generations, there is much to learn from one another, and it would benefit us all to do so. The 2019 Pride Parade, or rather lack of one, brought our division into sharp focus but has created space for the intergenerational conversation to be brought out into the open.

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