Hi. I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories – the podcast for the monthly LGBTQIA storytelling night I run at Giant Dwarf in Redfern, with support from the City of Sydney. This week – refugee advocate Tina Dixson.
This is 2008. It’s an hour before I will tell my partner Renee that I have some feelings to her. She was my first, and the only one woman I’ve ever been in love with. And, it took me six months to reveal my feelings to her. But it will be like this: “These are my feelings, do whatever you want. Don’t tell anyone,” because I thought I was straight at that time. And then, three months, we will be living together.
She still says that I actually forcibly made her to marry me. Well, it’s happy, right? I hope so. This is 2009, it’s our wedding day.
And this is 2012 when Australia granted protection to us.
I was thinking for a long very time what story to tell you tonight. I wanted it to be funny, and easy, and witty, and just this very romantic story of a person who, despite their traumatic past, is easily overcoming all the hurdles on their journey to become an Australian. But then, I thought that not all stories should be happy, and that’s okay because one can find empowerment in trauma too. And it also should be about the unconditional gratefulness to your new home because you can be critical of it too.
Today, I’d like to tell you a queer story of a person from a refugee background, in other words, a story of silencing and invisibility. A story about me. As someone from a refugee background, you very quickly learn the cost of protection. Firstly, when you disclose your refugee status, you are expected to constantly justify your right to be in Australia, and also you’re expected to constantly justify your legitimacy as a refugee. The last entails performing a particular refugee identity, in other words, as a victim that is simultaneously stealing jobs and is all on welfare. But also, that you are willing to retell your story on every single occasion. Secondly, you are expected to be a refugee and no one else.
It all starts with this question, “Where are you from?” When it’s most definitely asked when people hear your accent. In my case, I’m white, so in Australia, I really realized the privilege of being white, unfortunately, but it vanishes as soon as you open your mouth. So, let’s imagine I am talking to someone, and then they hear my accent, and then you see this real effort on their face. Their muscles get tense. Their eyes, they focus, like, lean forward. At least I know they’re listening, right?
But then this question follows, “So, where are you from?” And it’s like it doesn’t if I’m at the work meeting, or I am just catching an Uber, or I’m getting some wine in a store. They just ask it.
“Where are you from, Tina?”
I’ll be like, “Oh, I am from Newtown.”
They’ll be like. “No, no, no. You didn’t understand my question. Where are you from originally?”
“Well, you didn’t understand my answer.”
*Audience laughs and cheers*
And you know, big love to Newtown forever. We’re actually in Canberra now, Bush Capital, but Newtown is our hearts.
Anyway, the chain of questions rarely stops there. I’ll be always asked when, how, and why I came to Australia, and whether I miss my home. Well, my homemade everything possible to let me go. No, not like that. My home banished, evicted, and exiled me. I don’t miss my home. But for me to be able to say that, I have to disclose that I came here seeking protection. When I introduce myself, I never say, “Hey, I’m Tina, I am a refugee.” But a lot of people feel an absolute right to introduce me that way, even when they know a little bit more about me. Other people who were told that I’m a refugee, say, for instance, “Rhonda was telling me all about you.” And then this look, full of pity and sympathy. And I know what was told; definitely not my LinkedIn bio.
Once having a talk, I said, “You know, I don’t need your sympathy. I just need you to stand in solidarity with me.” And then I see this room of people leaning back on their chairs and taking this closed posture. It was like, “She does not want our sympathy? What a bad refugee.”
Some people even want me to be heterosexual in order to better fit into their image of who can be a refugee. Once, this humanitarian aid worker, in front of my partner, said that I should add “Smith” to my last name, so people would think I was married to an Australian to increase chances of getting a better job. Well, my partner and I did change our names, but for the safety reasons. Yet, an Anglo name makes magic, tested, especially with a job search, however, I’ll tell you a little family budget-saving secret. It is so much cheaper to just change your name than just to get married.
You know, I need to come back to Sydney from Canberra and save a million for this tiny studio somewhere in around Liverpool and giving up an avocado on toast doesn’t really help, so whatever it takes.
*Audience laughs and applauds*
Don’t hold this against me. I do want marriage equality to happen. I just want a party.
When people know that I came from a refugee background, they also expect me to tell my story in as much detail as possible. I get these questions like, “Did a lot of violence happen to you because you were gay?” Or, my favourite one, “Tell me what exactly happened to you.” Sometimes, my story is asked in the most unlikely settings. I was recently changing jobs and got called for an interview, a policy role in the ageing area. The third question I get at my interview is, “Tell me about your experience of seeking asylum.” I am also currently writing a PhD, and so on one of my first coursework classes when we were introducing ourselves, I was told, “Come on, Tina. Just tell him that you are a refugee.” I never tell my story of seeking asylum because of the cost attached to that storytelling.
Firstly, the storytelling never goes beyond the recollection of the past. No one is ever interested in asking, “How are you now?” Secondly, I don’t think that the story of displacement is a very easy topic for conversation that is so fun to talk, especially on your birthday party, especially with a stranger. Thirdly, PTSD is real, trauma is real, and re-experiencing every time you retell it is real. Lastly, the ask to tell my story makes me remember everything and everyone we left behind. Apart from the feeling of pain, the only response that I get to that is an overwhelming feeling of shame; shame for leaving and shame for surviving.
When I do decide to tell my story though, I talk about the gaps in services that for someone who is queer and from a refugee background, there is really nothing tailored for me. I also talk about homophobia from refugee and ethnic communities, and I talk about possible racism from queer community. I talk how queer organizations do not want to talk to people via interpreters, and how sometimes trauma counselling services turn people away because sexuality is apparently an issue. I talk about the need to stop parading victimhood and vulnerability and represent people seeking asylum with dignity. I talk how to be a refugee should not override your identity, should not erase who you are, or be the only topic to talk about. I also talk about the need to have real leadership opportunities for people from refugee backgrounds, and for refugee organizations not to be led by white people with no experiences of seeking asylum.
You know we don’t want Putin or Trump, and I hate mentioning their names today, to be presidents forever, so why not for CEOs and Board directors to have expiry dates in their contracts to let the others lead? But when I do that, I am forgotten to be CC’ed in emails. I am told that particular points of my speech are too confronting. I am deemed radical and too difficult to deal with.
When my story doesn’t fit into the pervasive narratives of victimhood and vulnerability, or a single story of a refugee of a particular gender, sexuality, religion or ethnicity, when my story speaks about human agency, or even when it offers solutions, I get silenced. I get no place to belong. The unintelligible combination of my gender, sexuality, and the experience of seeking asylum renders me completely invisible. But it shouldn’t be always like that.
My voice can be heard, and I need your support in this. Stand with me but let me speak for myself. Don’t call me a refugee. I am a human full of dreams, hopes, aspirations who was just forced to search for a home. And even when home and exile become one, let me belong to this place. Don’t ask me where I come from and accept with no judgement that I come from Newtown. Let me be me, and a part of you. Thank you.