Somewhere over the rainbow

The LGBTIQ rainbow symbolically covers all diversity within its arches. It is an open, bright and positively welcoming flag that many of us, who stand somewhere within its colours, are proud to fly. But what of women and trans people from the LGBTIQ rainbow who are also from a migrant and refugee community? How do we experience the colours and diversity within? To what extent are our intersectional experiences of gender, sexuality and ethnic diversity understood within our LGBTIQ and migrant/refugee communities?

Diversity is the key of course – we all experience and feel belonging in our own ways. But some experiences of LGBTIQ people from migrant and refugee communities have been documented and vividly express a spectrum of identity and shared experience. Three words stand out: invisibility, visibility, contradiction.

To start with invisibility: imagine not being recognised within your identified community as ‘one of us’. This happens in both the LGBTI and migrant communities. We live in a very visual world which relies heavily on symbolism and stereotypes and if you don’t quite fit the look expected of you, you can literally be overlooked. And let’s not underestimate the impact of racism in the LGBTI community, and transphobia and homophobia in migrant/refugee communities, in the creation of invisibility. If I don’t respect you I can pretend not to see you, or only see the things that fit. So do you change your look, or do you change the way your community sees you?

Visibility is the second key word. Uniqueness is a wonderful thing, but being the only one of an identity in your community – the only Muslim lesbian, the only trans Chilean, the only young, working class, Sri Lankan, bisexual woman in the village – certainly makes you visible, extrovert or not. So do you keep some of your identities to yourself, strategically and depending on the context, or do you let it all just be, wherever you are, whatever the risks?

Contradiction sums it up. Belonging to community holds contradictory experiences, which are often intensified by the intersections of structural disadvantage. This is precisely because, even within those intersections and overlaps of communities, we are asked to choose one identity at a time. As Audre Lorde, writer and poet, lesbian and daughter of Caribbean immigrants, has put it:

There’s always someone asking you to underline one piece of yourself – whether it’s Black, woman, mother, dyke, teacher, etc. – because that’s the piece that they need to key in to. They want to dismiss everything else. But once you do that, then you’ve lost because then you become acquired or bought by that particular essence of yourself, and you’ve denied yourself all of the energy that it takes to keep all those others in jail. Only by learning to live in harmony with your contradictions can you keep it all afloat.

Belonging is a wonderful thing. Belonging generates wellbeing, it preserves and maintains mental health, and brings fun, joy and shared experience into our lives. It generates the harmony that Lorde talks about and makes the contradictions meaningful and important. In the face of contradiction, it is belonging across communities that is needed to bring life to the rainbow.

MCWH is currently looking for a part-time Health Promotion and Research Project Officer to conduct a newly funded project that promotes the health and wellbeing of same-sex attracted women from immigrant and refugee backgrounds. Click here for more information.