“When people ask you to share your story, they think that they come from this well-intentioned place of ‘raising awareness’, but the only thing it does is re-traumatise you because you have to relive that experience,” says Tina. “What the listener gets out of this is one of two things: affirmation of feeling ‘lucky’ to live in Australia, or, vicarious traumatisation because our experience is something beyond their comprehension.”
By
Ben Strum

12 Jul 2017 - 10:34 AM  UPDATED 13 Jul 2017 - 11:18 AM

When Canberra-based couple Tina and Renee perceive a social injustice, they throw themselves into finding a creative solution.

After moving overseas to Sydney nearly five years ago, the pair dealt with their feelings of isolation and unacceptance by establishing a travelling art exhibition entitled ’Stories About Hope’. Produced by Renee and supported by Tina in a communications capacity, their project celebrates the courage of people who have undertaken diverse journeys to Australia.

For Renee, a multi-disciplinary artist working with photography and film, the lens of her camera wields the power to drive social cohesion. “I wanted to show successful stories of people from refugee backgrounds,” says Renee. “I found that success is when you can wake up every morning, dress up, smile and live your life. It’s that simple.”

However, carving out a successful life in Australia was not that simple for Renee and Tina. The pair were initially optimistic about finding work, but the process proved challenging. “We had all this international experience and I thought that the first job I applied for I would get,” says Tina. “But I ended up working in a supermarket for two years.”

The pair’s illustrious careers are testament to a courageous, fighting spirit. Renee founded the first LGBTIQA+ human rights organisation in her home country at the age of 21. It was there that she met Tina, and in 2011 they drafted and presented the Shadow Report on human rights violations of local LBT women at the UN in Geneva.

Sadly, employment discrimination became just one of the many challenges Renee and Tina have experienced as foreigners in a new land. With an ocean separating them from past abuses, the couple were surprised that life in Australia came with its own brand of dehumanisation.

“There were many times that people introduced us by saying: this is Tina and Renee and they are refugees,” says Tina. “For me this was so reductive because I disagree with the idea that your temporal experience in the past should override who you are in the present.”

Stories About Hope is only one of a number of projects the pair have sunk their teeth into since arriving in Australia. Renee has been hard at work on her own photography business and beginning her Masters of Museum and Heritage Studies at ANU. Tina was recently appointed Policy Officer at the Australian Women Against Violence Alliance and is undertaking a PHD at ACU.

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Despite their various strengths and achievements, Renee and Tina frequently face the daunting task of answering sensitive questions posed by strangers.

“When people ask you to share your story, they think that they come from this well-intentioned place of ‘raising awareness’, but the only thing it does is re-traumatise you because you have to relive that experience,” says Tina. “What the listener gets out of this is one of two things: affirmation of feeling ‘lucky’ to live in Australia, or, vicarious traumatisation because our experience is something beyond their comprehension.”

Subtle forms of othering have continued to snake their way through Renee and Tina’s everyday interactions. When another woman in the human rights sector asked about the hardest aspects of coming to Australia, the advice that followed was most unwelcome. “She said if I had a 'hyphen, Smith' surname, my chances of getting a job would be increased,” says Tina.

Pressure to fit into an Anglo heterosexist framework has also come from media outlets, some of which pursue a singular narrative of the queer refugee experience. “The only story they were interested in was the horrible time you’ve had with the department of immigration,” recalls Tina.

“When I would say, 'it wasn’t that bad in our case and it’s also important to speak about racism in the LGBT+ community and homophobia in the refugee community', they would say, 'we’ll find someone else'.”

Misconceptions about queer refugee identities are prevalent even within the community itself. The colloquial term ‘rainbow refugee’ is commonly used, without much consideration for the traumas and displacement inherent to this experience. “It’s like, oh cute. You can be gay and a refugee,” says Tina. “No, you are subject to lifelong violence and oppression and discrimination.”

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Tina and Renee are particularly passionate about addressing the lack of resources available to Queer residents from non-English speaking backgrounds. Even in Sydney, LGBT+ people can be turned away from refugee support services on the grounds of sexuality or gender expression. On the other hand, certain LGBT+ organisations lack the resources to hold conversations via interpreters or provide trauma-informed support and care.

“You end up sort of nowhere because there is no one that can comprehend both sides of your experience,” explains Tina. “As long as we are not making decisions ourselves, it is how it is… There should be people with lived experiences at the forefront of all decisions.”

At the forefront of Stories About Hope is of course Renee, whose visceral black and white photographs are a highlight of the show. One image depicts her and Tina silhouetted against the seashore. Tina is climbing on top of Renee and they are swinging around on the spot so fast their bodies are blurred together.

“The image represents that you are neither here nor there,” explains Renee. “It’s important to have support and to turn around the conversation about people seeking asylum.”

Tina and Renee are contributing proactively to this conversation. Alongside the Stories About Hope exhibit they run educational workshops exploring advocacy, language and themes of home and belonging.

“Many people have told us it was eye-opening for them and they will stop asking ‘where are you from’ forever,” says Tina. “Let’s see the human in front of us and not the stereotype.”

Stories About Hope runs from July 12-23 at the Chrissie Cotter Gallery. Book tickets to attend Tina and Renee Dixson’s Workshop on Sunday June 15 here.