Broken Promise of Safety

The original of this post was published for It’s Not a Compliment.

I grew up in a country where rigid gender stereotypes, sexual harassment and violence against women were normalised. When I was in year 3, we had an end of year dance at school. Two boys started a fight, unable to choose who would dance with me. I wanted neither. Yet the dance was cancelled, having barely begun, and I was made the reason for it.

“Couldn’t you just do it?”, my grandma asked me as I was crying in the kitchen, ashamed and confused. I was, in Sara Ahmed’s terms, a killjoy who dared to protect her own body integrity at the cost of everyone’s happiness. 

Throughout middle school, there was a boy obsessed with me. For several years he was pursuing me relentlessly, groping me and trying to kiss me in front of everyone. My refusal to be touched was seen as rudeness. “He is such a nice boy, why can’t you just be thankful for the attention. He’s chosen you.”

As a bullied kid at school, you are socialised into believing that any attention is good. You have to be grateful for it. You are taught that boys’ attention is to be accepted no matter how it is displayed. You learn that sometimes it is safer to agree and surrender than reject and risk being forcefully violated. I’ve never seen the difference between those choices anyway. 

At my first job in agriculture sales at 17, every second phone call would turn into those farmers on the other end of the line fantasising about what they’d do to me out loud. My boss did not care as long as the deal was closed.

When I came out, the nature of the sexual harassment changed. You are no longer a desired object for a man. You are a stray that needs to be brought back into the grip of hetero patriarchy. Men’s attention is now presented to you as ‘a cure’ or as a tangible threat that you will be brought back to ‘where you should be’.

At 24, together with my wife I became a refugee (You can read more about it here). Having survived the unimaginable and having been punished and violated for simply who you are and who you love, LGBTIQ+ people seeking asylum have an expectation that a protection visa comes in a package with safety. Yet, our experiences of harassment and discrimination persist – but now they just take different forms.

The most recent report by the Australian Human Rights Commission identified that: 

  • People who identify as non-binary people are very likely (89%) to have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetimes;
  •  83% of people who identify as gay or lesbian and 90% of people who identify as bisexual compared to 70% of people who identify as heterosexual have experienced sexual harassment over the course of their lifetimes.

Sexual harassment occurs not only in the context where male privilege and entitlement to women’s bodies is normalised; it is also driven by homophobia and transphobia. For LGBTIQ+ people, experiences of sexual harassment include unwanted questions about their sexual life, receiving unwelcome verbal sexual advances and being subjected to acts like touching or groping. For those who are also from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, those experiences are often more heightened

Being a refugee is not why so many LGBTIQ+ women are experiencing sexual harassment in Australia, yet it determines whether they can access justice when it does occur. Through the work of the Queer Sisterhood Project run by the Forcibly Displaced People Network, I’ve personally seen how pervasive sexual harassment is towards LGBTIQ+ refugee women and how little can be done to address it. 

Prior to seeking safety in Australia, so many of us were constantly harassed on the streets. I remember being followed by a black car. My partner was groped in public on multiple occasions. In Australia, for us as cisgender women such experiences became less extreme, although they did not disappear completely. Yet for trans women, and in particular trans women of color, are almost 20 percent more likely to experience multiple instances of sexual harassment. 

In cases like these, street harassment becomes yet another reminder that safety for LGBTIQ+ women from refugee backgrounds is never absolute. It is also much harder to hold perpetrators accountable in these instances.  

Many queer women also reported unwanted sexual comments and offers, questions regarding their sexuality, threats of outing them and threats of sexual violence in their workplaces (often casual and precarious employment). 

‘Why do you not have a boyfriend? Let me find you one.’

‘Why do you cut your hair so short like a boy?’ 

‘Have you tried it with a man? Maybe you should.’ 

‘How do you do it?’

Migration policy in Australia places people seeking asylum in precarious situations. With no income support and difficulties in finding a stable job on a bridging visa, many people seeking asylum are relying on whatever income they can get. This means that often they are working in casual employment for minimum wage (if you’re lucky enough to find a decent employer). This means that they are often too scared to complain or report any wrongdoing against them, as this could mean losing a job or having your shifts cut. There are additional barriers to reporting experiences of sexual harassment too. 

Not knowing your rights not only creates a fear of losing a job but also a fear of deportation. As women, we have always been blamed for violence inflicted on us throughout our life – why would we think any differently now? We worry that, by complaining, we might seem ungrateful, and no one wants an ungrateful refugee. 

Coming from countries where violence against women is normalised, we are also unaware that justice and redress can be achieved. For example, an English language workbook given by the Navitas English college for refugees only talks about family violence being a crime, and even then, only in heterosexual terms. There are no mentions of sexual harassment, sexual violence, homophobia or transphobia. 

Reporting sexual harassment would also mean outing yourself as queer to your ethnic community. When no other support is available, many still rely on their ethnic communities to survive here. Yet that reliance comes with the price of having to hide who you are. 

Reporting sexual harassment means admitting that, even here in Australia, you are still not safe.

As a society, we must all act to end sexual harassment. When we say that we welcome refugees, we must also address the violence against women and LGBTIQ+ people that continues to be inflicted on them. When we work to address violence against women, we cannot be successful unless we are unpacking how one’s migration status creates barriers to achieve justice and safety.

written by Tina Dixson.