In 2021, for the first time in its 220 year history, the census asked us about our sexuality and gender identity. The data is giving a clearer picture of the numbers of LGBTQIA+1 people living in England and Wales.
A survey of care homes2 found that two-thirds of care home staff said there was not a single resident who was openly lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans, with a common response from staff being ‘we don’t actually have any.’
‘I kicked the doors off that closet years ago … and they are not going back on for anyone.’
This suggests that many older lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people feel unable to disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity to staff.
Furthermore, almost 80% of care home workers said that they had never been provided with any training in LGBTQIA+ issues at their current workplace.
Greater Manchester Combined Authority, Houseproud NW3 and the LGBT Foundation worked together to explore the lack of LGBTQIA+ visibility in retirement schemes and care settings. A project was developed against a backdrop of existing programmes such as Pride in Ageing, centred around over 50s communities in Greater Manchester, and the development of an LGBTQIA+ Inclusion kite mark for the housing sector.
The artists and housing organisations who took part were Anna Raczynski with Great Places Housing Group, Lauren Sagar with Calico Homes, Tamzin Forster with Trafford Housing Trust and Jez Dolan with housing schemes represented as part of Rainbow Roofs (Houseproud NW’s LGBTQIA+ customer forum).
‘My daughter is gay and very happy. I don’t understand most of the jargon that is about today, I do believe family is whatever people want it to be. There must be tolerance towards any person living with us. I don’t mean tolerance, I mean freedom to be.’
Back in the Closet aimed to shed light on LGBTQIA+ people’s experiences of retirement housing and independent living schemes, specifically looking at how LGBTQIA+ visibility can be improved in these settings.
This project began to explore the reasons for non-disclosure, its impact on residents, staff and visitors and the positive changes that could be made to increase diversity in these settings. It sought to help establish a set of principles around LGBTQIA+ housing and test an approach with housing providers for the first time.
Staff at housing schemes need to feel confident in having conversations with and supporting LGBTQIA+ residents. Across the different housing schemes in Greater Manchester (GM), this project identified a number of opportunities for more staff training on diversity and inclusion and highlighted the need for more space for staff to have open conversations about the needs of their diverse customer groups. The project encouraged staff working in housing schemes to think and talk about their LGBTQIA+ residents and raised awareness of the need for more open conversations and more support to enable a positive day-to-day experience for residents.
Back in the Closet paired four professional artists with staff and LGBTQIA+ residents at retirement schemes in Greater Manchester to explore the theme of LGBTQIA+ visibility where they live. These were opportunities to share stories, thoughts and reflections on individual experience through creative practice.
For example, artist Tamzin Forster and a participant explored the themes of:
- Perfect places and safe spaces
- LGBTQIA+ history.
Within these themes they examined why someone who identifies as LGBTQIA+ may not ‘feel at home’ or may be ‘uncomfortable,’ and the importance of a safe environment.
Covid-19 restrictions meant that much of the project’s engagement needed to be digital or via phone. Housing schemes were able to support participants by providing iPads and setting up Wi-Fi in residents‘ flats where needed.
The resulting artworks have an authenticity and tell compelling stories of real people’s lives and the issues they face around homophobia and biphobia. These pieces can be viewed on LGBT Foundation’s website.4
Jez Dolan and Paul Richards
‘Is That All There Is? – Seasons of Life/Moments (Frozen) in Time’
Anna Raczynski and Anon
‘Franz Schubert: An Enigma’
Anna Raczynski and Bill Moss
Tamzin Forster and Mary E Taylor
The pieces have been shared with the housing sector and the wider public at a number of online events. LGBT Foundation and House Proud intend to use them as a training and discussion resource in their continuing work around diversity in the housing sector.
4 artist residencies
4 housing providers
‘Participation and self-representation is increasingly important for me when I work together with people. The telephone phone interaction opened up a special space that was quite intimate.’
‘It felt important to find ways to adapt this project to enable participants (who were at times feeling incredibly isolated due to lockdown measures) to take part in a meaningful and impactful creative project that offered them connection and a space for expression.’
What we achieved
Back in the Closet improved the visibility of LGBTQIA+ older people in retirement schemes in GM. Members of this underrepresented group often feel invisible and face discrimination. Whilst there is a great deal of interest in LGBTQIA+ histories at present, this project provided a voice for individual stories in a very specific context.
Participants had a positive experience of taking part and were able to share their experiences and reflections whilst expressing themselves creatively. Participants were particularly keen to stress how being involved helped them to better manage their mental health and wellbeing during a very difficult time, and facilitated them connecting with external services such as the LGBT Foundation and House Proud NW.
The selected artists, who were all LGBTQIA+, were supported to undertake their residencies in the retirement schemes and to work with staff and residents. This was particularly necessary due to the intimate nature of the project and the many one-to-one conversations that took place with participants. The role of LGBT Foundation was crucial here to protect the artistic nature of the collaboration. Artists were able to refer issues of a personal nature onto appropriate, trained professionals.
An unexpected outcome of the project was the development of new skills for the artists, for example in making socially engaged work remotely.
Housing schemes benefited from having an artist-in-residence to work with both residents and staff; their presence was a catalyst for starting conversations about LGBTQIA+ experiences and identities in housing schemes.
The project partners also benefitted from the project. For example, LGBT Foundation gained intelligence about the experiences of communities within housing schemes which is being fed into the development of the LGBT+ Inclusion Kite Mark and the development of Greater Manchester’s first LGBTQIA+ extra care scheme.
‘The impact the project has had on our customers and colleagues cannot be underestimated. It has started much needed conversations around how we can better support the needs of our older LGBT+ customers, and other schemes are already reaching out to us to get involved in future projects.’
Tara Kelly, Great Places Housing Group
LGBT Foundation made connections to professionals working in social housing, identified potential new audiences for their work, and now have an ongoing virtual exhibition as a resource.
‘It was a pleasure working with such eager participants willing to share creative writing and photography as a means to communicate with me, the wider community and audience.’
What we learned
The project provided proof of concept of working with LGBTQIA+ older people through a creative process and reinforced the need to explore and tackle the issues further. Back in the Closet provided many useful insights and lessons learnt which can inform future projects, including:
Adapting to the pandemic – Working with vulnerable or isolated participants was a challenge during national restrictions. Issues included:
- It was originally envisaged that the project would increase LGBTQIA+ visibility and create a buzz by occupying space within housing schemes. Working remotely and one-to-one engaged fewer people, but it was a deeper engagement
- A number of residents were not digitally connected, which then required staff to be on-site to communicate with them until this was resolved by installing Wi-Fi and supplying hardware
- The project team did not want to add pressures to staff who were already managing sites through the pandemic and a series of lockdowns
- Some of the artists involved in the project were negatively impacted by the pandemic, experiencing their own feelings of isolation and vulnerability.
However there were some notable positives:
- The changing circumstances brought about by the pandemic opened up a space for experimentation by both artists and housing associations. This meant that a broad range of approaches were trialled and this resulted in a number of ideas for potential future projects
- One-to-one participant engagement offered housing scheme staff the opportunity to build deeper relationships with those residents
- The virtual exhibition will have more longevity than the report originally planned as a project outcome
- Regular monthly, virtual project team catch-ups worked well and helped to address emerging issues.
Getting buy-in – It was important for all partners to be committed to the development and delivery of this project, and to be enthusiastic about the ways in which it could spark change and highlight good practice in their organisations. However, in some cases the project was presented to residents as being about diversity in general rather than LGBTQIA+ specific. This caused confusion and diluted the aims of the project. The artists involved in these residencies had to continually bring the project back to its original aims.
Briefing front line staff directly, rather than relying on internal communications, is essential to ensuring they feel confident in discussing the project with residents and aids participant recruitment. Training should be offered to all housing staff, not just those directly involved, at the start of similar projects.
Recruiting participants – It was challenging to identify LGBTQIA+ residents and this was hampered by the lack of in-person contact. The project had to rely on individual staff knowledge as to who might be interested in taking part.
Participant reach was smaller than initially envisaged as a result. This shows that LGBTQIA+ visibility is a continuing issue in the housing sector.
There’s more work to do – The project showed that despite housing organisations’ commitment to equality and combatting discrimination, there is still a lot to do to make retirement schemes more inclusive for LGBTQIA+ residents. Many residents still experience homophobia either directly or through omission, and more targeted action is needed to tackle this and ensure that retirement housing settings are safe spaces for LGBTQIA+ people. Creative interventions are an effective methodology and can produce outputs which can be used for staff training and awareness raising.
‘The project reinforces how creative working and creative practice opens up conversations and allows people to open up about complex issues and also how complex we are as humans.’
Stakeholder, LGBT Foundation
‘Many LGBT older people see Covid as their second pandemic, HIV being the first and as one of our residents told us. “They’ve kicked the closet door down once and they aren’t going back inside.”’
All images © Tamzin Forster and Mary E Taylor