Tina Dixson (formerly co-founder Forcibly Displaced People Network)
Featured image credits: Renee Dixson
Sexual and gender-based violence are manifestations of power and an enforcement of the patriarchal order where rigid and harmful gender norms and binaries permeate relationships, and racial hierarchies are created. Perpetrators, mostly men, use their power and control to create a world where all women exist to serve their needs, and where toxic masculinity allows no divergence from a rigid sex binary. Violence is inflicted on LGBTIQ+ communities as a tool of punishment for defying this patriarchal order.
Yet in the context of displacement, gender-based violence is often conceptualised as violence against women, meaning those who are cisgender and heterosexual.
Queer and trans refugee women are rarely seen as legitimate victims of displacement. Their experiences are marginalised and their gender and sexuality are deemed private or irrelevant, if not the very cause of their displacement. In describing drivers of displacement of LGBTIQ+ people in their Age, Gender and Diversity policy, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) writes that violence against this community happens “due to their sex, sexual orientation, and/or gender identity”. In other words, a victim is blamed for causing violence by simply being who they are, and not because violence is inflicted by the racist, homophobic and transphobic patriarchy.
There is evidence that LGBTIQ+ people experience familial (eg. forced marriages, ‘honor’ killings), societal (eg. conversion practices, stoning or ‘social cleansing’) and state violence (eg. imprisonment, perpetrator impunity or death penalty), which are drivers of displacement. Despite this violence continuing throughout their displacement and in settlement, LGBTIQ+ refugees exist in the “zone of nonbeing”.
Françoise Vergès writes that “trans people, queer people, male and female sex workers are simply bodies to rape, traffic, torture, kill”. They are sacrificeable. They are blamed for the violence they endure. Their extinction becomes the norm.
While gender-based violence marks the everyday for LGBTIQ+ people, especially those who are displaced, paradoxically they are excluded from how displacement is imagined. In writing about sexual and gender-based violence against refugee women, Jane Freedman categorises women who are traveling alone in the following heteronormative way: “women are travelling alone because they are single, or because they have lost their husbands during the war”. This indifference to experiences of gender-based violence against LGBTIQ+ people spans from community organisations to the UN. In 2011, I was an NGO delegate presenting a shadow report on the human rights violations against of lesbian, bisexual and trans women in Ukraine in front of the Committee operating under the Convention on Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. A day before, a Committee member from Brazil approached me during breakfast in my hotel. ‘Lead with stories, explain the impacts violence and discrimination has on women, only then mention their sexuality, and only in passing’ she said to me. Thinking about violence inflicted on these women (and very soon myself), we cannot and should not separate their gender from their sexuality. Both constitute the experience of violence.
Years after and now in my own displacement, UN rhetoric has not changed. In 2017, I was invited to join a Gender Audit team, led by the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Forced Migration Research Network, to take part in the development of the Global Compact on Refugees. What offered a unique opportunity to finally make LGBTIQ+ displacement visible became an experience of silencing. Many countries never mentioned this cohort. When Western countries did, this was seen as an imposition of their values and issues that are not relevant to some bigger cause. It is no surprise that this issue became one of the first to be dropped during the negotiations process. It did not matter where you were in the room as an LGBTIQ+ refugee. You were always not the right kind of a refugee.
As a result, the final text of the Global Compact on Refugees not only omits any references to these communities but importantly creates a normative understanding of concepts such as ‘vulnerable groups in displacements’, ‘survivors of gender-based violence’, ‘specific needs in displacement’ and so on. It moves away from allowing to fit yourself in as an LGBTIQ+ refugee when your experience is mentioned as ‘other status’ in a long list of diversity characteristics to a complete silencing and fixed definitions. For example, persons with specific needs are defined as: “children, including those who are unaccompanied or separated; women at risk; survivors of torture, trauma, trafficking in persons, sexual and gender-based violence, sexual exploitation and abuse or harmful practices; those with medical needs; persons with disabilities; those who are illiterate; adolescents and youth; and older persons”. You do not have access to words, let alone protection.
Trying to bring attention to the issues of LGBTIQ+ displacement and the extent of gender-based violence inflicted, you always hit a brick wall. Within mainstream feminism in a country such as Australia, most morning teas, report launches and parliament events during the 16 days of activism will neglect to meaningfully engage with anything other than whiteness, heterosexuality, cisgenderism and citizenship.
Within displacement activism, again heteronormativity will prevail. Still so much research on displacement that always claims to offer new and comprehensive ways of looking at this issue neglects including sexuality and gender as inherent and constituent parts of one’s selfhood, one’s displacement journey, and most importantly one’s feeling of safety and belonging. Neither acknowledges that homo- and transphobia are a feminist issue and are in turn an anti-racism and decolonial issue, and that neither of these social justice struggles can be completed in isolation.
Where LGBTIQ+ displacement is mentioned, it is either reduced to an anomaly (something so rare that it is not worthy of attention) or racialised communities are being blamed for their ‘backwardness’ when it comes to LGBTIQ+ equality.
What is missing is an honest reflection on the impact of colonisation and the importation of homophobia and transphobia onto communities who used to celebrate and honour sexual and gender diversity.
Mikki Kendall writes that “entitlement, intolerance, homophobia, misogyny, aggression and sexual violence inside and outside marginalised communities are the antisocial behaviours that patriarchal systems create” regardless of the countries location. Instead of achieving safety, marginalisation is being perpetuated. For as long as we think of some as more deserving of protection than others simply because of who they are, violence and domination will prevail and we will not achieve justice for anyone.
You can learn more on how to work inclusively and meet the needs of LGBTIQ+ forcibly displaced people by passing this free training: https://fdpn.org.au/lgbtiq-settlement-training/
Tina Dixson is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University researching the lived experiences and construction of narratives on queer and trans women’s forced displacement and violence. Tina’s research focuses on trauma theory, gender studies, migration studies and queer theory. She has contributed to a range of work on LGBTIQ+ displacement within Australia and internationally.
In 2012 Tina and her partner Renee Dixson became displaced due to their LGBTIQ+ human rights work in Ukraine and settled in Australia. Tina co-founded Forcibly Displaced People Network, the first registered LGBTIQ+ refugee-led organisation in Australia, with her partner Renee Dixson in 2020. When Tina stepped down from her role with the Network, Renee Dixson became the current chair.