• Victorian Commissioner for Gender and Sexuality Rowena Allen. (Kyriakos Gold)
We spoke Australia's first Gender and Sexuality Commissioner on the eve of her appearance at the 2016 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
By
Kyriakos Gold - Κυριακος Γκολντ, David Zita

4 Mar 2016 - 2:09 PM  UPDATED 4 Mar 2016 - 2:09 PM

Ed’s running late.

A local government conference is set to start, and he’s the first speaker. As Queen once sang, ‘The Show Must Go On’, so taking Ed’s place is Rowena Allen.

Allen is Victoria's commissioner for gender and sexuality. Her position is a first in Australia, and is even unique from a global standpoint; it sees her at the forefront of an ever-growing and ever-necessary push for heightened societal acceptance and integration for the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex) community.

As Allen walks up to the stage, the MC sees her and introduces her as ‘Ed’. It would be easy to become perturbed but, at 43 years of age, Allen has learned what to do.

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Rather than open with what she had already prepared, Allen effectively turns her platform into an operating table, dons the robes of a surgeon, and examines the misunderstanding like a surgeon would a tumour, identifying its origins and the ways it can be removed.

She’s good at that.

“It was an awesome prompt in front of hundreds of local government professionals,” she reflects.

“You see what you see… I walk up, you see Ed, you know, I’m not Ed, so you just need to open your consciousness. Not everybody fits into the binary gender stereotype.”

"Not everybody fits into the binary gender stereotype."

Raised in Glen Waverly for her first “20-something” years, Allen, in an effort to better understand the differences between city and rural lifestyles for her work on Australian Youth Culture took a job in Shepparton for one year and stayed there for 20.

For Allen, it all comes back to perception. Rather than see the transition from city citizen to rural resident as jarring and confronting, it’s the brighter side shining through as she deems herself lucky enough to enjoy "the best of both worlds".

Her role in state parliament itself can be seen as a microcosm of her very being: unique in the best possible way. Allen’s role is one envisaged and implemented by Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews. As founding CEO of UnitingCare Cutting Edge, which helped establish Victoria’s first rural support group for young LGBTI people, it’s a role Allen appears born to play.

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The significance of the spot she occupies isn’t lost on her.

“It’s certainly the first in Australia and the first I know of globally that has this education and advocacy… it’s just such a wide coverage of where I can go. I think that’s unique, globally.”

Perhaps just as remarkable as the position Allen occupies is the journey leading up to it. Her advocacy for the LGBTI cause started in the unlikeliest of places, this being within Uniting Church. Allen knew the immense difficulty of the task at hand.

“It was going to be a choice between my spirituality and sexuality,” she said.

She later discovered there were gay and lesbian members within the church willing to support her.

“If you can argue it inside the church you can argue it anywhere."

Allen, who is biologically female but identifies as “a bit of a walker between genders”, insists her story is nothing compared to some of the journeys that people have been on to be their authentic self.

“I came out to my mother first and that was a fairly easy process, I was very lucky. My father however not so. He actually had a physical heart attack when I told him (he was admitted to hospital for five days), so that was a bit traumatic.”

“My daughter, Alex, calls me her mum, but she’s very aware that I’m trans and, you know, she’s sort of comfortable with that."

When asked about how to tackle the pain that often accompanies misgendering people, Allen says it's important to be genuine.

"If you make a genuine mistake, you apologise and correct yourself. The best way, if you don’t know, is just ask somebody, ‘what’s your preferred pronoun?'”

“My daughter, Alex, calls me her mum, but she’s very aware that I’m trans and, you know, she’s sort of comfortable with that. My preferred pronoun is probably 'Ro', or at the moment 'commissioner' because it’s pretty neutral.”

Allen's immediate focus is on the 2016 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. She sees this year’s festival as the perfect platform to send a serious message.

“I’m marching with beyondblue, and that’s the highlight, our overall representation of our community in mental health, depression and anxiety.”

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Mardi Gras is a potential springboard for what could prove to be a seismic year in LGBTI education and integration. Allen hopes to put into practice recommendations from LGBTI people with disabilities, as well as make strides into understanding what’s required from the viewpoints of LGBTI people within the Aboriginal community.

Allen sees family violence as another entry to her overflowing list of ‘musts’, particularly the way in which LGBTI family violence is perceived in the eyes of law enforcement.

“I heard terrible stories the other day of a lesbian victim of domestic violence from another woman… the judge pretty much dismisses it as minor, and two women having a spat, which can be just as violent and psychologically damaging as a male and female relationship.”

When asked about her mounting workload, Allen simply replies: “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”