Dr Christy Newman is often moved and surprised by the personal stories she hears during the course of her research.

An associate professor at UNSW Sydney’s Centre for Social Research in Health (CSRH), Newman spends a lot of time interviewing people in marginalised and queer communities about their health, sexuality and relationships.

Recently, one word kept coming up in these interviews: family. In a society where the idea of the biological and nuclear family still dominates, families are a contested space for queer communities.

“Our research was looking at individuals but the people who sat behind them were missing from the picture,” says Newman.

“For example, when we were talking to people in the queer community about how they were coping with blood-born viruses, such as HIV, we were hearing, more and more, that there were people in their lives who were playing essential roles supporting them and getting them to medical appointments, who wouldn’t normally be considered ‘family’,” she says.

“How do we better engage with those families when it comes to planning health care and support? What do those health issues mean to families?”

Queer families and their stories of adversity, diversity and belonging is the subject of this year’s CSRH Sex(uality) Lecture, which Newman will deliver on 22 February.

Last year’s Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey was a reminder, says Newman, that some people still view queer sexuality and family life as incompatible.

Community prejudice came close to the queer mother of two’s own doorstep when a much-loved mural in the inner-Sydney suburb of Newtown depicting pop singer George Michael as a saint was defaced with homophobic messages.

“My children and I would often pass by the mural and we would wave ‘hello’ to St George,” says Newman.

“The mural had become one of those beacons of hope through the same-sex marriage debate. When it was defaced it became a symbol of the continuing split in the community about sexual diversity ... it was very hard to explain to my children why someone would do that.”

However, the marriage debate also prompted the documentation and dissemination of highly moving stories of queer belonging within Australian families, she says. 

In her lecture, Newman will review several studies in which LGBTQ+ participants provided rich accounts of what family means to them. Participants talked about how they overcame prejudice to forge a sense of resilience and belonging in the context of family life.

“I hope we see a growing willingness to recognise that families mean different things to different people, and we need to appreciate the support they have the potential to provide in every form,” says Newman.

“We also need to understand that not everybody is part of a couple, not everyone wants to get married, not all relationships last, and relationships can be messy.

“With marriage equality bedded down, now is the time to start thinking about queer families in a more honest way, to understand how to support them in the communities in which they live."

At the lecture, Newman will be introduced by The Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG and the event will be moderated by health and medical journalist Amy Coopes.

What: Sex(uality) Lecture: Queer families – Documenting stories of adversity, diversity and belonging

When: Thursday, 22 February 2018, 4–5pm

Where: Eternity Playhouse, 39 Burton St, Darlinghurst, Sydney

Tickets: Register to attend here.

Wendy Frew