Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Privacy, Sexual Identity and Aged Care

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Privacy, Sexual Identity and Aged Care

Article excerpt


Privacy is a key quality indicator in aged care and is acknowledged in the Australian Government's Quality of Care Principles 1997. The promotion of individuals' rights to privacy is also used to advocate freedom of sexual expression and was used as a rationale for the decriminalisation of homosexuality. This paper examines issues facing older gays and lesbians in the public expression of their sexual identities in aged care settings. It focuses on privacy practices that facilitate or limit identity expression. It is argued that aged care providers and workers need to construct relatively safe environments that enable older gays and lesbians to disclose and express their sexual identity. Failure to do so may mean that some gays and lesbians are forced back into the closet in their older age: a form of institutionalised homophobia.


Of all that is considered private, the most private is sex. Our sexual genitalia are indeed our private parts. When we hear of individuals' private lives, it is of their sexual lives that we imagine. And when in 1973 then Prime Minister, John Gorton, moved in the House of Representatives that homosexuality should be decriminalised, he saw individual freedom as being enacted through a respect for individual privacy.

   We are concerned with one question and one question only. That
   question is, I repeat: Should homosexual individuals who are adults,
   who both wish a homosexual relationship with each other, who do not
   flaunt it but who act in private, withdrawn from the public gaze,
   be dubbed criminals and be subject to punishment by the criminal
   law? I suggest to the House that they should not be treated in that
   way (House of Representatives 1973: 2327).

The promotion of freedom of sexual expression through a commitment to privacy signifies only a limited acceptance of gay and lesbian identities and seeks to restrict them to a private realm (MacKinnon 2000). Johnson (2002) argues that Gorton's sentiments are still very much part of the political discourse in Australia, where many continue to self-regulate public displays of their homosexuality, such as same sex couples refraining from holding hands in public. However for those gays and lesbians who were in their 20s in 1973 and who are now in their 50s, homosexuality is unlikely to exist solely in a private underworld. Public representations of homosexuality have increased considerably and for many the flaunting may now be accompanied more by pride than shame. As more of those who publicly identify as gay or lesbian approach older age, aged care providers and workers will need to respond to the importance of the public expression of older people's sexual identities. In this paper I discuss the construction of public and private issues for older gays and lesbians and consider some implications for aged care.

The Public and the Private

In western societies the concepts of the public and the private occupy the centre-ground of the social sciences, including public policy analysis. According to Mills (1959: 22) the value of the social sciences lies in the development of the sociological imagination: the capacity to see 'the intimate realities of ourselves in connexion with larger social realities.' Similarly, feminist scholars have exhorted us to see the personal as political. What were once private and unspoken matters, such as domestic violence, are reconstructed as public problems (MacKinnon 2000).

The concepts of the public and the private seem to hold a mythic power for many people, not least politicians. Bailey (2002) identifies three locations or containers of the public in western societies: the state, civil society and community. All three are changing: the role of the nation-state is shifting due to globalisation and the influence of supranational organisations; increased participation in civil society is promoted by both sides of politics (e. …

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