LGBTIQ Theatre and mental health: DRAMA queens

White house pride

By now, we have all heard of the US ruling from the Supreme Court legalising same-sex marriage nationwide. This is a long-sought victory for the mainstream gay and lesbian rights movement in the US and it will be interesting to see what effect this has on the discussion of LGBTIQ rights in Australia. For LGBTIQ asylum seekers, refugees or newly arrived migrants in Australia, LGBTIQ rights cannot be separated from a larger discussion of migrant and refugee rights. Mentall health and well-being is rarely talked about when it comes to LGBTIQ women from migrant and refugee backgrounds and much work is needed to improve understanding and support.

So what can the creative arts offer our mental health? Quite a lot it seems! Theatre and the creative arts have much value in discussions around mental health and identity. They can help us to articulate and embody the complexities and subtleties of ourselves and our relationships that sometimes can’t be communicated in just words. Performance is evocative, symbolic and can help us communicate in ways that transcend just writing it down or talking about it. It’s about thinking of creative ways to broach those difficult conversations that are often so hard to have with our families or in our communities.

And this is a topic that we need to talk about, especially when it comes to young same-sex attracted women from refugee and migrant backgrounds. According to Queerspace psychologist David Belasic “there’s a higher rate of mental health problems amongst the GLBTIQ community – double the general population”.  Adding to this, LGBTIQ people affiliated with particular cultural and religious groups may be at increased risk of physical and mental ill-health. Studies show that not only do they deal with heterosexist beliefs both within and outside of their own cultural or religious communities, they also often deal with racism and religious intolerance from within LGBTIQ communities. What’s clear is that we’re not very informed about the effect this has on refugee and migrant women’s experiences of being LGBTIQ and what it means to negotiate sexual feelings and gender identities within this context.

Talking about mental health still holds a lot of stigma, and not just in refugee and culturally diverse migrant communities. The thing is, it’s often hard to talk about mental health without making yourself vulnerable, or feeling weak. It becomes easy to remain isolated, avoid talking about it, and not seek help.

Using community-based arts projects is one way that we can start to connect young same-sex attracted women from refugee and migrant backgrounds, the process of creating being just as important as the final product. Getting people talking about mental health and wellbeing will be the important first steps in creating new spaces and communities that are able to support and connect women.

A new project at MCWH is using creative arts and performance to explore what it means to be a same-sex attracted woman from a refugee or culturally diverse migrant background in Australia. The Our Voices, Changing Cultures project is currently working with a diverse group of women to discuss themes such as the idea of culture being a grounding force, the idea of coming out, visibility in LGBTIQ scenes, language, and mental health and wellbeing. Using performance, the women will get creative in their attempt to explore these issues, producing something as a collective that can be shared with a wider audience.

We are still doing a call-out for women who would like to be involved in this project. For more information on the Our Voices, Changing Cultures Project you can contact Monique Hameed at or call 03 9418 0915.

60 seconds with Monique Hameed


Australian Indigenous Studies Tutor and MCWH Project Officer

What are you enjoying doing at the moment?
Working at the MCWH! Also I’ve been enjoying my work with the Undercurrent Community Education Project doing workshops around sex and consent in the western suburbs of Melbourne. It’s great getting to meet young men and women and talk to them about their lives.

What is the best thing that happened to you today?
I ran into my friend on my way to work and she shared some of her amazing breakfast with me.

What talent would you most like to possess?
Invisibility. The possibilities seem endless!

What is the best part of your day?
Through my role at MCWH I will have the opportunity to meet with young woman and hear about their experiences of being same-sex attracted woman from migrant or refugee backgrounds. I’m excited to meet and be inspired by these young women.

What do you most value in your friends?
Their ability to make me laugh! It doesn’t matter how bad my mood is they can always make me smile!

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a woman from an immigrant or refugee background?
I guess to be able to talk about my place in Australia. As someone with darker skin I find that I’m often treated as a foreigner, or someone who is not “from here”. As a kid growing up in Australia I found that hard and it affected how I thought about belonging and identity in Australia. Being able to talk about Aboriginal sovereignty as a woman from a migrant background has been really important to me when thinking about these things – it’s a constant challenge. I’m interested in talking about the ways that migrants in Australia profit off the colonisation of this land and thinking about ways that we can show solidarity.

For you, what’s the best thing about being a woman from an immigrant/refugee background?
Having access to a culture that isn’t just the dominant Western one. I’m proud of my big extended family and have learnt so much from them and their experiences of living both in Australia and their countries of origin.

If you could invite any woman (dead or living) to dinner tonight, who would it be?
Arundhati Roy or Rihanna. I feel like both of these women would know how to have a good time!

Tell me about an amazing woman you know.
Joan Nestle – activist, writer, historian and founder of the lesbian herstory archives. She lives in Melbourne and continues to be involved in local political and community events. I have learnt so much from her written work on her experiences of being a lesbian Jew from working-class roots and a femme feminist queer from the 1950’s. Even at seventy-four she is still teaching and learning and I find her open-mindedness inspirational.

Name a book or film that changed your life.
I’ll name a book and a film:

Talkin Up to the White Woman – Aileen Moreton Robinson. This book changed the way I thought about feminism and colonialism in Australia.

Saving Face – This movie was the first time I had seen a same sex attracted relationship depicted on screen between two women who weren’t white. It meant a lot to me at the time. Apparently the screen writer had to fight quite hard to ensure that the actors who played their characters remained Chinese-American as the producers kept pushing for one character to be white arguing that otherwise people wouldn’t be able to relate!

What are you reading right now?
Susan Sontag’s AIDS and its Metaphors (about how attitudes to disease are formed in society) and Peter Polites Ornaments from Two Countries: GLBTIQ Stories of Difference from Western Sydney and Regional NSW (an anthology of essays, poetry and memoir).

Do you have a song/music that inspires and motivates you?
I love listening to Bodu Beru drumming, a traditional form of Maldivian music. I also get lots of inspiration from Mariah Carey!

What could you never be without?
My friends, music, a necklace given to me by my grandmother.

Somewhere over the rainbow

My rainbow is finally complete! (Daniela Goulart/flickr)

My rainbow is finally complete! (Daniela Goulart/flickr)


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.

Ticking all the boxes

Asian Pride:2011 NYC Pride image courtesy of Jason Pier in DC on flickr

Asian Pride:2011 NYC Pride image courtesy of Jason Pier in DC on flickr

Budi Sudarto, is gay, Asian and proud. And at the 8th National LGBTI Health in Difference conference a few weeks ago we heard him, a peer education coordinator from the Victorian AIDS Council, make the interesting observation that “we live in a society that puts us into a box”. You’d expect that the ‘us’ here is referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex (LGBTI) folk, but actually ‘us’ can stand for any number of identities that are too frequently stereotyped, marginalised, or overlooked.

As if being unknowingly shoved into a box isn’t bad enough, it starts feeling really crowded when we have multiple ‘boxed’ identities (try ‘female’, ‘queer’, ‘Chinese-Malaysian’ and ‘Indian-English’ for example). Regardless of whether there are many little boxes or just one very cramped one, the point is that being labelled can be limiting. Budi’s words shed light on what it’s like to live at the intersection of LGBTI identity and a marginalised ethnic/cultural identity. His ‘us’ referred to his racial identity and the marginalisation of non-Anglo-Saxon races experienced not only within Australian society as a whole, but within a minority—the LGBTI community—as well.

There are multiple experiences and issues for LGBTI individuals from an immigrant and refugee background that are never fully addressed or understood within either the LGBTI or multicultural communities. Perhaps because LGBTI immigrants and refugees often tick a lot of the boxes, we don’t really fit into any—and that can be both liberating and isolating. One of the clearest examples of how cultural diversity and sexuality intersect is in “coming out”. While there is often pressure from the LGBTI community to ‘come out’ about your sexuality, it’s a very Western perspective on the process and suggests that your sexuality is the only thing that could define you as ‘different’. For LGBTI immigrants and refugees, who carry so many multiple identities, keeping close family connections and cultural identity can often be vitally important to our sense of self, and our experience of sharing our sexual identity is better expressed as a ‘coming home’ or as (gradually or selectively) ‘inviting people in.’ (Intrigued? Check out MCWH’sSexuality Report.)

In the wider community, including immigrant and refugee communities, being same-sex attracted, transgender, intersex or gender diverse can sometimes mean a lack of support, and it can be even more isolating for LGBTI people in communities who identifysexual diversity as something that’s specific to Western countries. So LGBTI immigrant and refugees gain a lot from being part of both the LGBTI (is it rolling off your tongue yet?) and ethnic communities which can be very close-knit and supportive. But sadly, if you’re from a non-Western background, racial discrimination doesn’t magically disappear in the LGBTI community itself—and it has the added frustration of exoticisation. Likewise, homophobia persists in the wider community, including in immigrant and refugee communities.

We’ve come a long way in recognising diverse gender and sexual identities but are some parts of the rainbow still left behind? As members of diverse minorities, it’s easy to start seeing ourselves in the boxes we’re put in and to stop looking outside them. But, to paraphrase the wonderful Flavia Tamara Dzodan, “Our feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.” So if you find yourself ticking all the boxes, be proud: we can never be exclusively defined as migrants, as Muslims, as heterosexuals, as queer, as mothers, as educated, as middle class, as middle aged, as mentally ill, as overweight, as workers, as women. In the same way, discussions around sexuality and gender should include the diversity of race, religion and cultural beliefs within the community, not just “to be inclusive”, but because our sexuality is inextricably tied to all these things at the same time.