Discussing Visibility and Outness

Over the past two months I have been visiting communities that are providing support to people who are facing difficulties because of their immigration status. Most of the time this has meant sheltering people from being located or detained by the federal police, and at other times this has meant providing material assistance to people who might need support in terms of resources or finances because of situations directly related to their immigration status.

Some communities have been very open about their actions whilst others have decided to avoid publicity and go about their work quietly. Some communities engage directly with politics on either a local or national level, but other groups have decided to move away from traditional political involvement. Likewise, some people who are facing persecution, criminalisation, or deportation have decided to be ‘out’ about their immigration status to call attention to the issue, whilst others have decided they would prefer to keep to themselves.

On one hand, there is an argument that being visible means being able to offer a platform on which change can be built. This has meant that some communities decide to come forward with their difficulties and attempt to gain visibility in the hope that being ‘out’ might mean better opportunities to receive assistance or further the cause. On the other hand, some communities prefer to remain less visible about their situation because they feel that being noticed is very much related to being targeted and being put in a position of unsafety. They might also question whether visibility has any realistic benefits beyond rhetoric.

Similar situations play out across communities that have a history of persecution – in LGBT+ circles there remains a huge debate over the idea of being ‘out’ about one’s sexuality or gender identity. Some people argue that being visible is a way to instigate social change and promote pride, but others might feel uncomfortable sharing something that might attract negative attention. There is no one ‘right’ answer to these questions, and it is important to recognise that intersecting contexts, personal decisions, and beliefs characterise and inform the decisions that surround visibility in any circumstance.

On the topic of political engagement, it needs to be recognised that being involved in traditional democratic processes is exhausting, overwhelming, and at times entirely dangerous for certain groups. There is a presumptuous and privileged idea that changing the world is as simple as walking to the polling station and casting a vote, when the very attempt to participate can bring all manner of difficulties. This does not mean that people who choose to participate are any better than those who decide not to, or who might be unable to participate altogether.

Whilst crossing borders is important, it is a decision that people must be able to make freely and as a reflection of their position in life and their personal experiences. Any movement which focuses on preaching a single ‘right’ way of being risks alienating and excluding huge numbers of people.

By Simon Fern

Image: JMW Turner, Bell Rock Lighthouse

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