ANU PhD student Renee Dixson. Photo: Tina Dixson

Giving a voice to forced LGBTIQ migrants

Renee Dixson is making sure the voices of forced LGBTIQ migrants are not erased from history, Evana Ho writes. 

The dominant narrative about asylum seekers and refugees has always bothered Renee Dixson, whose pronouns are they/them. They describe this narrative as a “single story of displacement” that’s usually about heterosexual people of colour fleeing war. “I knew that was not the only story,” Dixson says.   

Dixson knew because that story wasn’t theirs — or their partner Tina’s. Or that of many people they’ve known and helped. The pair, who are both PhD students at ANU, were working as human rights advocates when they were forced to leave their country of origin.   

In 2013, they were granted protection visas by Australia. Here, they’ve resumed their advocacy work with renewed vigour, including running the first conference in Australia about LGBTIQ forced displacement. They have also established the Forcibly Displaced People Network, an organisation dedicated to issues of LGBTIQ forced displacement and driven by people with lived experience.  

Dixson is developing the world’s first archive of oral histories of LGBTIQ people who have been forcibly displaced. This project was driven by gaps Dixson identified in existing archives. Marginalised groups haven’t been prioritised when institutions have digitised stories and multimedia. Where LGBTIQ archival collections have been created, they typically feature white, cis-gender, gay men.   

I want to use this opportunity to save this story and to legitimise our lives.

“When I tried to find information about people of colour, culturally, linguistically diverse people who are migrants or refugees, unfortunately I couldn’t find much,” Dixson says.

“The other absence is the stories of these people in their own voices. What forcibly displaced people actually want to communicate isn’t heard. Instead, there are gatekeepers and filters — usually journalists and lawyers — resulting in certain narratives being privileged and becoming mainstream.  

“I want to preserve people’s voices and the stories they want to tell. I survived through forced displacement and I want to use this opportunity to save this story and to legitimise our lives through this form of knowledge.”  

Dixson began collecting oral histories just before COVID-19 hit, but remains committed to conducting all interviews in person. “When we talk about LGBTIQ forced displacement, it can bring up a lot of traumatic memories and experiences. That’s why I prefer to be with the person if it triggers something.”  

Dixson has completed mental health first aid training and tries to make interview participants feel safe and supported as they recount their experiences fleeing from countries such as Iran, Malaysia and Russia. They also build awareness of support services and take time to discuss what the participant wants to happen if the interview is upsetting. “Some people want a piece of chocolate. Some want to have a break. Or we just sit next to each other and don’t talk for some time.”   

On some occasions Dixson has also been triggered as they have been through similar traumas. So they ensure the participant is aware of what type of support they need too. “That gives us a mutual understanding and reduces the awkwardness of the situation when we’re both crying.”  

Participants decide if they want to be on camera or have their face blurred. They decide if only their voice is recorded or if their voice is changed. They have final say about what goes into the archive, if any material is changed or omitted, or if they want to withdraw altogether.

For many participants, giving an interview for the archive is an “act of resistance” against being “erased from history, from everywhere,” Dixson says. “When you are invisible, you can be ignored. You can be killed and no one will pay attention. But when you decide to speak up, you take the risk of exposure and other kinds of risks. I talk about these risks with people and how we can at least minimise them.”  

The risk of exposure comes from the fact that the archive, when it is ready, will be online and openly available. This accessibility is important to Dixson, who says that archives are typically difficult to access and located in “elitist places” where you need to have a certain amount of privilege to travel to and education to understand how archives operate. “I don’t want to create the archive only for academics. I want people with different backgrounds and different levels of education to be able to come and find different stories.”  

Dixson recognises that people who have been forcibly displaced take a variety of pathways to reach safety, not just as asylum seekers, and is keen to hear from more people. If a person “can’t feel comfortable and live their life to its fullest potential” in their home country because of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, choosing to study and stay in another country is one pathway.   

Fostering pride and hope for the future for forced migrants is an important part of the archive project for Dixson. “I’m always trying to finish the conversation with the question of what they’re proud of. And what their dreams are for the future. It’s very important.”  

People wishing to participate in Renee Dixson’s digital archive of LGBTIQ oral histories about forced migration, or otherwise support the project, can get in contact via email.