Rainbow nations

Equality Minister Harriet Shing and Greater Dandenong resident Aminui hoist the rainbow colours on IDAHOBIT Day in Harmony Square, Dandenong. 407401_23 Picture: STEWART CHAMBERS

by Cam Lucadou-Wells

LGBTIQA+ asylum seekers and refugees in the South East may be set for more support as part of a funding announcement in Dandenong on Friday 17 May.

Equality Minister Harriet Shing announced recipients from the new funding program LGBTIQA+ Sector Strengthening during a rainbow flag-raising at Harmony Square on Friday 17 May.

It was Greater Dandenong’s fifth year of raising the rainbow flag as part of the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT).

And part of the council’s ongoing efforts to lift flagging support in the region for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and gender diverse, intersex, queer and asexual (LGBTIQA+) equality.

Many Coloured Sky (MCS) will use the grant to expand its support for asylum seekers and refugees in outer suburbia and regional Victoria.

Greater Dandenong, Casey and Cardinia were among the front-runners for the expanded service’s three new regions, chief executive Ian Seal said.

Other options were Melbourne’s North, Melbourne’s West, Greater Shepparton and Greater Mildura.

“The core of our work is to have safe, social spaces for members to come together where they can make friends, raise concerns and share their dreams,” Seal said.

“Sadly the majority of our members have become cut off from their own families and broader cultural communities.

“They may not have the means or feel safe to access mainstream LBGTIQA+ services. They’re stuck in a hard place.”

Activities include peer-mentoring sessions and fortnightly drop-in dinners, as well as case-work support.

MCS also liaises with health and housing services which may not fully understand their members’ challenges.

“The kinds of short-term and emergency accommodation are highly gendered. There’s a set of apartments for refugee women, another for refugee men, another for families.

“But many of our members may not be safe or welcome in these highly gendered spaces.

“For new arrivals who are placed with people of the same cultural backgrounds, that means they’re placed with people of the same cultural beliefs that were persecuting them in their own country.”

There have been signs that Greater Dandenong residents are slow to support LGBTIQA+ equality.

By the council’s own report in late 2019, many of its LGBTIQA+ residents felt excluded and isolated, with increasing rates of victimisation.

In 2018, parts of Greater Dandenong bucked Australia’s overwhelming support for legalising same-sex marriage.

During the 2020 elections, about a third of councillor candidates fully or partially supported the Victorian Pride Lobby’s ‘Rainbow Pledge’.

Seal said Greater Dandenong was possibly “late” to recognise its LGBTIQA+ residents but “certainly not the last”.

“I want to congratulate City of Greater Dandenong for doing this (rainbow flag-raising), for creating a public event and creating publicity around this issue.

“By inviting us to be part of the event today, they’re recognizing that this intersectional community has needs and that queer people from newly-arrived backgrounds need to feel safe and welcome here.”

Queer asylum-seeker ‘Kye’ – not his real name – says the support from MCS was vital.

He originally lived at Mt Hotham then moved to Melbourne to “start over”, meet and connect with queer people.

However, Kye felt isolated from his Indonesian diaspora in Australia. And doubly isolated from mainstream LGBTIQA+ services due to his cultural background.

The peer support group at MCS instead became his new “family”, he says.

Kye has since joined the group’s advisory committee and taken up a humanitarian scholarship at Monash University.

“Everyone needs family, peers and company. It’s an organization I can go to and be safe.

“Two years later my life is much better. Friends accept me as I am and I never had that in the past.”

The 29-year-old sought asylum after realising during a working holiday in Australia that gay people were safe here.

“I’d never accepted that part of myself. I was conflicted in my beliefs from growing up in a religious boarding house.

“It was the hardest thing throwing away my life in Indonesia and I couldn’t go back. It’s cost me my older life – the people, the places and the culture that I grew up in.

“But otherwise I couldn’t live with the whole of me.

“The people I grew up with – if they found out, they wouldn’t accept it.”

Twelve groups shared $800,000 in grants as part of the new LGBTIQA+ Sector Strengthening program.

“We have always supported LGBTIQA+ communities in Victoria and these new grants are designed to support the growth, vitality and sustainability of the LGBTIQA+ sector for years to come,” Shing said.

“Now more than ever, it’s important we are supporting Victorian LGBTIQA+ groups and organisations to connect and thrive as we continue our work to ensure that in Victoria, equality is not negotiable.”