The Gift of Giving

Volunteering is an incredible creative and uniting force that can benefit both particular community and the entire society. While LGBT volunteers are equally active in both LGBT projects and general programs there could be more accent on LGBT needs.

This week is the National Volunteer week. Volunteering comes naturally to New Zealanders, according to Statistics NZ, 1 in 3 polled kiwis volunteered last year, on overage 10hours a month. Amazing LGBT volunteers not only pack free condoms but also bring us Outtake Film Festival, Big Gay Out and the Pride parade. They save lives by staffing Outline NZ, Rainbow Youth and NZAF projects. We are proud with role models like Same Johnson, creator of the Students Volunteer Army that came to the rescue of residents in earthquake stricken Christchurch.

Volunteering brings us closer together, gives us purpose and hope. I think it was no coincidence that youth suicides that NZ is so famous for had dropped in the aftermath of the Christchurch tragedy. Among all the hardship, young people united in their resistance, lifted up their spirits by finding inner strength and supporting each other.

Volunteering is an incredible gift for both giver and taker, letting us reach our potential and make a difference in the world. I have been volunteering for the Auckland Museum and for the Tiritiri Matangi birds sanctuary. This gave me opportunity to get out of my shell and isolation, engage with other people, learn new information and acquire new skill. In return, I gave my queer eye for these organizations by drafting LGBT themed guided tours. I believe that there is a lot of volunteering with untapped LGBT accent on both giving and receiving ends that we can both contribute to and benefit from within our rainbow community.

Volunteering is the ultimate gift of giving. It 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 traumatised. 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 posttraumatic 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 most 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. I would encourage people to explore a range of available options caring after animals to training and rehabilitation of animals with special needs.

There is a common perception of gay and lesbian people as wealthy successful wealthy professionals that can reach high by concentrating on their career, and, without burden of children, overspending on their lavish houses, entertainment and holidays. However most vulnerable categories of the society are overrepresented by 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-road. 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% 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.

Green party revealed concerns about treatment of transgender prisoners. Several years ago, Gayexpress magazine has been banned from prisons so LGBT inmates have further suppressed their freedom of information. At the same time from across the world there are reports of bullying, sexual assaults and rapes in prisons while 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 other countries there are special supportive programs for LGBT prisoners including prison visits, correspondence and mentoring.

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.

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.

Gays and lesbians may still 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 Carry from Stephen Kings book not realising 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 Pinknews 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 our community.

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