LGBTIQ+ forcibly displaced people’s needs: safety, belonging and freedom from violence

by tina and renee dixson

17 september 2020 

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ+) people have distinct experiences of forced displacement compared to non-LGBTIQ+ peers. The evidence of their ongoing persecution, of more severe and long-lasting victimisation and that perpetrators of violence are not only state actors but their families and communities is overwhelming.

In recent years, the plight of LGBTIQ+ people who are forcibly displaced is getting more attention (at least in academic circles). Studies have been done to reaffirm the need of close attention to the protection risks for this group. What’s missing is the discussion about the lives of LGBTIQ+ forcibly displaced people in the host countries and whether they are able to find the safety, community and belonging we all are striving for. Little attention is paid to the ongoing and systemic experiences of erasure and marginalisation of LGBTIQ+ people that prevail.

Early on in our settlement we witnessed a deafening silence around the issues of LGBTIQ+ forced displacement.

Only up to 1% of refugees annually will be resettled. For LGBTIQ+ people resettlement options are limited to countries that will uphold their human rights and treat them with dignity and respect. Australia is perceived to be one of those countries.

Renee and I were granted asylum in Australia in 2013. Early on in our settlement we witnessed a deafening silence around the issues of LGBTIQ+ forced displacement. This silence was coming from the both sides. Refugee organisations were not publicly acknowledging the existence of this group, neither did LGBTIQ+ organisations.

Most events on refugee issues, media representations, public narratives and even often logos of refugee organisations reinforce heteronormativity. We hear stories about refugee families but only those who are heterosexual (I lost count of how many times Renee and I were called sisters because we share the same last name). We hear stories about wars and persecution that suddenly uproot lives, but not about the ongoing violence that seeks to ‘normalise’ bodies, to fit people into rigid gender binaries and to punish them, all in the name of patriarchy, societal norms and familial (read heteronormative) values. Whenever LGBTIQ+ forcibly displaced people are mentioned they are seen as an exception from the rule. Such erasure and marginalisation mean that the basic human needs for safety and inclusion are not met even in the countries that seemed to offer this promise.

Coming from the activism background and being so deeply affected by the erasure of our experiences in Australia, we started building the community with and for other LGBTIQ+ forcibly displaced people. In 2018, following my PhD fieldwork we established the Queer Sisterhood Project that aims to provide a space for belonging for LGBTIQ+ asylum-seeking and refugee women. In 2019, we convened the Queer Displacements: Sexuality, Migration and Exile conference solely dedicated to the LGBTIQ+ displacement issues. And, in 2020 we’ve founded the Forcibly Displaced People Network, the first LGBTIQ+ refugee-led community organisation in Australia.

All our work is guided by the centrality of the lived experience of LGBTIQ+ forced displacement. It is our experience as founders. We place the experience of our members at the front and centre of our work through the LGBTIQ+ Refugee Advisory Group that consists of 16 persons living in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand. We demand that other organisations do the same.

For example, the Queer Displacements conference was co-designed with the community. LGBTIQ+ people seeking asylum and refugees held plenaries and were keynote speakers where non-refugee academics and service providers shared parallel sessions. They ran a community dialogue session, a dedicated space to learn about the ongoing experiences of discrimination, exclusion and violence that LGBTIQ+ forcibly displaced people go through in Australia. The audience had to listen with no interruptions – only listening and committing to actions. The Canberra Statement on the access to safety and justice for LGBTIQ+ asylum seekers, refugees and otherwise forcibly displaced people was the outcome that provided a tool for both solidarity with LGBTIQ+ people and accountability to them.

Services still prioritise the comfort of their clients (again read heterosexual ones) over the visibility of human diversity.

What we learned through centering of the lived experiences is that without embedding intersectional approaches in the support system, without a commitment of organisations to learn and do better and without welcoming and inclusive communities, lives of LGBTIQ+ people will be lost. It will be the indifference that will kill us.

For example, in Australia LBTQ forcibly displaced women still experience high rates of sexual harassment and sexual violence. I’ve written about this here in more detail. In the absence of income support, some end up homeless and are forced to engage in survival sex. Trans people are subjected to discrimination, misgendering and transphobia in public and private life. LGBTIQ+ people seeking asylum are housed in shared houses or with their ethnic community members. This puts them at risk of ongoing violence and forces them to choose safety over their right to be who they are.

The only way forward, the only way for LGBTIQ+ people who have been forcibly displaced to finally find safety is to be seen, recognised and supported.

Services still prioritise the comfort of their clients (again read heterosexual ones) over the visibility of human diversity. Time and time again we hear that sexuality is a personal issue, that placing a rainbow flag in the reception may upset some clients, that there is no time to ask person’s sexuality, gender identity or correct pronoun at the appointment.

Most historians agree that sexual and gender diversity existed in all documented cultures across the world. It is a part of human diversity, of who we are. The failure to support LGBTIQ+ people who have experienced forced displacement in settings that are supposed to be safe for them further marginalises and inflicts violence. The only way forward, the only way for LGBTIQ+ people who have been forcibly displaced to finally find safety is to be seen, recognised and supported.

For LGBTIQ+ people who have experienced forced displacement, safety and inclusion are key to survival. Regardless which community service they approach for support, they need to be included and respected. It is the role of the services to ensure such inclusion regardless of whether clients openly disclose their sexuality or gender identity or not. We needed services to start acting now. Here are three steps to take: 

  1. Sign on to the Canberra Statement on the access to safety and justice for LGBTIQ+ people seeking asylum and refugees: The Canberra Statement has been designed to be a tool to forge solidarity. It both educates on the experiences of LGBTIQ+ forced displacement and provides actions for systemic change. As a document that is drafted by LGBTIQ+ people with the lived experience of forced displacement it champions exactly what the community needs.

  2. Support LGBTIQ+ refugee-led work: LGBTIQ+ refugee-led activism and peer-support is robust and resilient despite the challenges we all face. Find, support and resource your local groups. Help them to build their communities as opposed to giving more funds to your NGOs. They are the ones to drive the change.

  3. Train your staff or educate yourself: the whole of the organisation needs to practice inclusion.

Tina Dixson and Renee Dixson are a couple, feminists, PhD Candidates, activists and founders of the Forcibly Displaced People Network. They’ve been together for over a decade. They are currently proud parents to an Australian cattle dog Sandy. Tina and Renee have found their home on the unceded lands of the Ngunnawal people (Canberra, Australia).

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