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The Gift of Giving

The Gift of Giving

By Alexander Lowë
5 September 2014

04th of September marked the fourth anniversary of the first Christchurch earthquake. We remembered the huge human toll of the disaster and subsequent aftershocks, individual tragedies, destruction of iconic buildings and continuous hardships of the survivors.
But it was not all destruction, loss and misery that came out of the tragedy. Openly gay student Sam Johnson created the Student Volunteer Army that came to the rescue of residents in the earthquake stricken city, with over 13,000 volunteers joining forces for the massive clean-up. The project was so successful, that Sam Johnson was invited to Japan to set up student Army there after 2012 tsunami and later toured the world sharing his experience.
Volunteering brings us closer together, gives us purpose and hope. I think it was no coincidence that youth suicides that NZ is so infamous for had dropped significantly in Christchurch after the tragedy. Among all the hardship, young people united in their resilience, lifted up their spirits by finding inner strength and supporting each other, realising that they can make a change and have the power to turn things around to the better.
Volunteering can be an incredible gift both for the giver and the taker, letting us reach our potential and also make a difference in the world. I have been myself volunteering for the Auckland Museum and for the Tiritiri Matangi bird’s sanctuary. This gave me opportunity to get out of my shell, engage with other people, learn new information and acquire new skills. In return, I gave my queer eye for these organizations by drafting LGBT themed guided tours. Amazing LGBT volunteers and straight allies not only bring us queer film festivals and Pride Parades but also save lives by staffing gay support centres.
Volunteering is the ultimate gift of giving that comes with an amazing feeling of empowerment, strength, boosting self-respect and self-esteem. These are ironically the qualities so many in the LGBT community may be struggling with.

How many of us felt trapped, powerless, neglected, unworthy, lonely if not condemned to isolation, at times faulty if not handicapped? I think these intense feelings and hard experiences can be rather similar to what actual inmates and real invalids are coming through.

There has been a lot of evidence to show that caring for others can heal sick and traumatized. Retired soldiers, seniors, inmates and even sick and autistic children have been reported to virtually being transformed through interactions with animals. Animals visiting patients in hospitals and residents in retirement villages contribute to dramatic improvements in their health and mental state. Swimming with dolphins has been as therapy for children with disabilities and animal interactions have been encouraged for autistic and antisocial children. In the US prisons a great success was reported with program where inmates adopt street dogs and look after them. Similar program was developed for the police and war veterans suffering from PTSD.

PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder was first discovered in Vietnam War veterans affected with depressions, inability to work and fit back into their normal lives, reliving the most terrific episodes. However, now PTSD is often diagnosed in civil population, in people who experienced either rather terrifying and stressful events as well as continuous abuse. Not surprisingly, rates of PTSD among LGBT are significantly higher than in general population and often remains undiagnosed.

So gays and lesbians would be quite likely to benefit from looking after animals. I have seen myself blossoming personality changes when people had adopted animals or began to be involved with SPCA. There is a range various options available for volunteering from caring after animals to training and rehabilitation of animals with special needs.

There is a common perception of gay and lesbian people as successful and wealthy professionals that can reach high by concentrating on their career, and, without burden of children, use their money to decorate their lavish houses, have fun and travel around the world. However in reality it is the most vulnerable categories of the society that are abundant in LGBT.
Indeed, some of us defy bullying and peer pressure to reach to the very top but how many break down and end up at the bottom? How many of sexual workers are LGBT? Least likely in the elite brothels and most likely out in the streets, in the dark alleys around K' Rd. Yes, Georgina Beyer and Carmen moved on to successful careers but how many ended up less glamorously, exposed to violence, sexual assaults, drugs, suffered mental and physical traumas.

US data shows that staggering 40 per cent of homeless youth are LGBT. Can we guess there is similar situation in NZ? But when we for example contribute to Auckland City Mission, could we expect to have special programs to address the needs of the most vulnerable LGBT residents?

Volunteering NZ project is actively recruiting mentors for at-risk youth, ‘one to one friends’ for children with intellectual disabilities and even male role models for troubled/bullied boys. Unfortunately LGBT youth are more likely to be rejected by their family, peers and lacking adequate help and support, being exposed to the street culture, they could proceed to the correction facilities, where they may get even further marginalized and targeted for their sexuality still lacking any special programs addressing their needs.
The Green Party revealed concerns about treatment of transgender prisoners. Several years ago, gay media was banned from prisons so LGBT inmates have further suppressed their freedom of information. LGBT are consistently overrepresented in correction facilities where they are even more susceptible to abuse and mistreatment, by both staff and other prisoners. According to the US federal estimates, more than 200,000 youth and adults are sexually abused in prisons, with those who identified as “non-heterosexual” being 3 times more likely to report sexual abuse. Transgender prisoners are particularly vulnerable, a study of California prisons found that transgender women in men’s prisons were 13 times more likely to be sexually abused than other prisoners. At the same time inmates do not have access to condoms. And most of all, incarceration could have enormous mental toll on LGBT inmates who in the sexually charged atmosphere often chose to be closeted, further punishing themselves into isolation.

There are various volunteer programs in prisons but they are mostly run by Christian organizations that are not known to support or encourage LGBT identity. In the UK, there are special supportive programs for LGBT prisoners including prison visits, correspondence and mentoring. I believe this could be implemented in this country too.
And what about senior LGBT citizens? Volunteer visitors for retirement villages are in enormous demand however when I spoke with a social worker I found out that current system does not recognize sexuality, presuming all elderly to be heterosexual. In other countries there are already several LGBT communities, specifically in the USA and Germany. There is even lesbian only cemetery opened last year in Austria. One can guess that there must be plenty of LGBT pensioners in NZ too, and been more likely to be childless, they could be further stigmatized and isolated, in greater need for sympathy and understanding.

Volunteering is also crucial for refugees and asylum seekers, who require assistance in adjusting to new life in New Zealand, connecting with local communities and services. Refugees are often traumatized and isolated and LGBT refugees are particularly vulnerable. While New Zealand had accepted a number of LGBT asylums, there is no specific support program for them while for example in Canada there is a range of dedicated LGBT refugee services and even the government supported program to sponsor LGBT refugees to come and settle in Canada.

Gay people still may feel powerless and broken but in fact being different requires courage and strength. Young LGBT can still be bullied coming humiliating experiences on pair to Carrie from Stephen King’s book not realizing that they may have powers as strong as hers to go through their lives. In tolerant Canada, Christian straight guy called Timothy Kurek lived through experiment of posing for a gay guy for a year. He lost most of his friends and was verbally and physically abused. He wrote a book about his experience, dedicating the whole chapter to the first time he was called 'faggot'. “I had to be held back from attacking the person that did it. I never felt so violated and minimized in my entire life, because of that one word.”

An inmate in Leeds prison in the UK spoke to Pink News about the project when he had to represent LGBT for month: “It made me stand in a gay man’s shoes, and feel how all them people I’ve beat up and caused grief with feel, which made me feel small, lower than low, disgusted with myself, a hypocrite if I must say. To know how hard it must be to be gay, how much shit they must go through, how hard it must be to come out and admit they are gay.”

Then in Australia, Jetstar employees last year played a joke on a straight customer by arranging stickers to make huge I AM GAY phrase over his red suitcase. "I am a white heterosexual male. This trifecta of privilege means that I’m not routinely subjected to prejudice,” he wrote. “But for a few minutes I got to walk in the shoes of a gay person in a public place. For no good reason I had had a slur marked over my luggage. I was degraded. I was ashamed. I was humiliated.”

Volunteering is that incredible gift that helps us see how strong we really are. There must be a reason why many LGBT chose professions that require empathy, becoming doctors, nurses and social workers. To capable of the gift of giving, one should understand the taker well and have sympathy. It may be too daring to dedicate one’s to charity and serving people 24/7 but anybody can still discover the gift of giving by volunteering for a good worthy cause, changing one’s life and making bigger change for the better in the community.

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