By Dr Giselle Roberts
I met Dr Anthony Lyons on a windswept August day, the kind you would rather spend happily ensconced in your office and away from the elements. After a fifteen minute walk with umbrella and notebook in hand, I was only too glad to arrive at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS), housed in a beautifully refurbished building at the northern end of La Trobe’s Bundoora campus.
ARCSHS is part of La Trobe’s fabric in every sense of the word. Established in 1992, the Centre has become a major player in framing the agenda on sex and sexuality in contemporary Australia, particularly in relation to health, education and social justice.
I sat down with Anthony Lyons, acting director and associate professor, to find out more.
GISELLE ROBERTS: Anthony, we are living in hopeful yet complex times when it comes to sex and sexuality. On one hand, we’ve reached some huge milestones, like marriage equality. On the other hand, LGBTIQ+ populations are still marginalised in many ways. What’s going on?
ANTHONY LYONS: We’ve seen significant changes, but legislative change and medical change are not always in step with ideological change. While we have made incredible progress – marriage equality is a highlight, and attitudes toward sexuality have become increasingly positive over the past 20 years – marginalised groups still face widespread discrimination, and challenges to their health and wellbeing. Rates of anxiety and depression are disproportionately high among lesbians, gay men and other groups, for example, and stigma-related stress is thought to be a major factor.
GR: And that is where ARCSHS comes in. You explore sex and sexuality in practically every context.
AL: That’s what we do at our core. We explore the relationship between sex, sexuality, gender and health, and we do it through a range of disciplines including sociology, political science, cultural studies and psychology. Our research portfolio covers everything from the health of LGBTI people to the sexual behaviour of the baby boomer generation, understanding treatment barriers for hepatitis C, improving the quality of life of people living with HIV, and more. It’s quite a cross-section. Collectively we have this unique skillset that allows us to create new knowledge and strategies that may, for example, help LGBTIQ+ people to access particular health services, or provide training and support to those working with young LGBTIQ+ people. Every now and then I like to stop and remember that our research helps people to live happier and more fulfilling lives. We play a part in that, and it is quite inspiring.
GR: ARCSHS is one of four national centres funded to undertake strategic research as part of Australia’s national response to HIV, viral hepatitis and sexually transmissible infections. Can you give me an example of the work that is happening in this space?
AL: One significant piece of research is the HIV Futures survey, which is about to enter its ninth iteration. It started in 1997 to investigate the health and wellbeing of people with HIV, tapping into issues such as treatment, stigma and discrimination, financial security, relationships and social connectedness. It informs the Commonwealth Government’s HIV strategy and is widely used by community organisations and health providers.
GR: Has ARCSHS coordinated all these surveys?
AL: Yes. What’s interesting is the historical value of the work, which spans 21 years. There have been big changes. Treatment options, for one, are more effective and carry fewer side effects, giving people with HIV greater quality of life and confidence about getting older. Of course, we still see challenges, particularly around financial security. Poverty can be disempowering, and can limit someone’s capacity to access services and care. This has a flow-on effect, because good services may help to reduce experiences of stigma.GR: And stigma, in this case, and more generally, is key. AL: Stigma is most evident when people experience discrimination. Society’s beliefs or prejudices can have a huge impact. If a person is coming out, they might experience rejection from friends or loved ones, and that has a very direct effect on their mental health. For others it could be subtler, perhaps having a general feeling of not being fully included in society.
GR: It’s also ever-changing. It plays out differently in the individual life and it changes over time.
AL: It does. The research project I am working on now examines the health, support-related challenges and needs of older LGBT populations. This group of people have, generally, experienced higher levels of discrimination for most of their adult lives, and intolerance has an enduring impact. Engaging with aged care services may culminate in resurgent feelings of fear and stigma. We’re trying to understand that experience and provide information to enhance health outcomes. It’s an important project, and I hope it will be useful to a range of stakeholders.
GR: Ultimately it is about putting research breakthroughs into action.
AL: That is what we strive to do well, to generate research that creates an evidence base and helps us to implement programs that pave the way for change. We partner with community groups and manage a range of education and training initiatives for a variety of stakeholders. It is our way of ensuring that ARCSHS’ research has immediate, real-world impact. That’s what we are here for.