In 2021, Bank Australia customers Laneway Learning launched their first dedicated LGBTQI+ program: Queer Social. It’s a chance for Melbourne’s queer community to connect, chat and learn everything from car skills to sex ed and money management. We sat down with Laneway Learning’s General Manager, Maria Yebra, to hear all about it.
When Maria Yebra joined Laneway Learning 11 years ago, the organisation was just getting started, and there wasn’t really anything else like it. In 2012, if you wanted to learn a new skill, you more or less had to trawl your local supermarket noticeboard, or sign up for expensive, 10-week short courses.
“We’re used to seeing classes everywhere now,” Maria says, “but back then, there was no-one else doing this. Your only option was the Centre for Adult Education (CAE), and most people didn’t have 10 weeks and $600 bucks to invest in tapestry weaving.”
The Laneway Learning model was different. The idea was to offer small, 75-minute one-off classes on just about anything you could imagine: crafts, gardening, sex, personal finance, politics, literature, photography, cooking, beekeeping. Anything that would bring people together and make their brains fizz.
“It was quite disruptive at the time,” Maria says. “We were allowing people to try new skills, start new hobbies. And the whole thing was done in this very informal, cheap, casual way.”
But there was one ingredient missing. Laneway Learning didn’t have any dedicated classes catering to Melbourne’s queer, trans and non-binary community. So Maria and the team – working with delsi Moleta and her queer event platform Unicorns – sat down and came up with LGBTQIA+-targeted Queer Social, an offshoot of the traditional Laneway program.
“One thing we noticed was that most activities for LGBTQI+ people, when they’re directed at us, usually involve nightlife and alcohol,” Maria says. “There was no real place for queer adults to come together and talk about knitting or whatever. And that’s the beauty of Queer Social. We get this amazing, cross-generational mix of people.”
Upcoming courses (at both their Melbourne CBD and St Kilda locations – with coming plans to expand to Brunswick) include textured acrylic painting, watercolour for beginners, collage for the soul, self-expression via make up and fashion design for the stage, to name a few.
Designing a queer learning space has its challenges – Maria had to fight Laneway Learning’s landlords for over a year to get gender-neutral bathrooms installed – but the team has made a real effort to make Queer Social as inclusive as possible. There are pronoun cards and stickers, ice-breaking sessions before and after each class, and the course content is 100% gender neutral.
“There’s no such thing as a completely safe space, but we’ve done our best,” Maria says. “Everyone who works for Queer Social is queer, from the photographers to the admins, and all the content is completely catered to same-sex relationships and non-binary people. When you attend classes at other institutions, so much of the content is still heavily gendered.”
Laneway’s ethos is known as ‘lifelong learning’. It’s a form of self-initiated education that has less to do with academia and professional development and more to do with personal growth, better cognitive health, social inclusion and self-care.
“It’s like a push-up for your brain,” Maria says. “There’s all this focus on going to the gym and having a healthy body these days, but we’ve forgotten that our brains aren’t designed to live past 60. They start degenerating around 40. And studies have shown that lifelong learning can help stave off dementia and degenerative illness.”
Maria says this sort of thing is particularly important for the queer community, which statistically has higher rates of social isolation, depression, anxiety and mental illness. Maria knows that many LGBTQI+ people really thrive on community, on togetherness; a fact which became acutely apparent during COVID.
“It’s really important to provide a space where queer people can connect and learn something fun,” says Maria. “We have Auslan classes, sex education, money management. We had a car maintenance and repair class with our teacher Richo, where we had at least had least 15 queer people who were really excited to learn about how to change a tire or spark plug. Everybody got so much out of that class, and we got amazing feedback. And that’s what I want to keep creating: a space where queer people can come and learn, and share, and spend 75 minutes of their life with others.”