In Conversation with Kon Karapanagiotidis

Erica Em

CW: r*pe, abuse, violence, suicide, self-harm, bullying, homophobic slurs

Kon Karapanagiotidis is the founder and CEO of the Australian Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), an asylum seeker support page. Since establishing the organisation in 2001, Kon has been one of Australia’s most vocal and prominent figures in providing aid and justice for those who struggle against the tides when seeking asylum.

VERTIGO: The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre recently celebrated its 16th birthday. Has it been smooth sailing?

KON KARAPANAGIOTIDIS: There have been thousands and thousands of people who got us here. I was just a part of it. Over the last 16 years, close to 15,000 people have come through our doors and thousands of people’s lives have been saved through ASRC’s work. Tens of thousands of people have been able to connect and mobilise and devolve this issue because of the opportunity to participate in some way. Refugees are far more resilient than me and they’re the true heroes in these stories. It’s just a huge honor to be apart of it.

V: Are there any refugee stereotypes that really get under your skin? Perhaps the repetitive rhetoric of “stopping the boat people”? Is it upsetting to hear what the public and certain political figures have said about such a marginalised group?

KK: There are so many. Using words like “asylum seeker” are poisonous because all people hear is “illegal queue jumper”. We don’t talk about boats because that’s a way of dehumanising refugees. We talk about people seeking asylum. We talk about humanising refugees, and our shared values and identities. We’re sick and tired of having to justify the right of refugees to live. Many of us are so privileged that when conversations to do with refugees are instigated, it ends up feeling like this abstract thing where people sit there thinking it’s a problem they don’t have to worry about, which is where the problem lies. We have to take away that abstract.

V: You’re a prominent figure on social media. How would you describe your overall experiences?

KK: People don’t get the power of social media. When you look at the social media of the ASRC, it took a good eight to nine years to develop it. Initially, I focused on talking about refugees and then I started sharing all the things I personally cared about. Twitter is such an incredible space; on one hand, it connects you with all these amazing, supportive people while on the other hand, it’s an incredibly dark and ugly place. I see the worst of humanity by the mere fact that I work with refugees and all the people against the movement, but Twitter is also a dark space where there is so much racism, bigotry, sexism, misogyny, and all that sort of stuff. People are always trying to tear you down, but what I experience as a man is one-hundredth of what a woman would get, and one-thousandth compared to a woman of colour.

Every day someone’s threatening you or sending you abuse. I get people tweeting me, saying that they want to kill my family or slit my throat. Most of it just trying to emasculate me, believing I care what other men think of me. For women, it’s much more direct with threats stating, “I want to rape you, kill you”. That’s what troubles me most about online platforms. I think men have an obligation to speak out. All the abuse and violence women go through is a men’s issue, not only a women’s issue. There’s nothing I’m saying that women of colour haven’t said a thousand times before me. The reality is, when I speak out as a man, I’m going to get all this unwarranted attention because of my privilege. Although I’m not deserving of it, I have a responsibility to use it in a good, positive way.

V: What is your definition of toxic masculinity and fragility? How would you explain that to someone who has never come across that term?

KK: We raise our boys and men to be emotionally disconnected from themselves, their bodies, their emotions, and their relationships with women. We raise our boys and men to have gendered relationships that are rooted in the idea of the ‘feminine’, and women being less than men. At the heart of that is the dynamic where we see 2,000 men a year kill themselves. These men are raised with an idea of masculinity that’s so dysfunctional that it’s driving a record number of men into self-harm while also driving record numbers of men into harming women. These gendered relationships somehow continue to be locked in, no matter how progressive or affirmative that woman is. You see it in the way in which men attack, degrade, and erase — gender issues around violence. You see it in how men are threatened by strong women; any women with an opinion or any sort of perspective. On social media, men will threaten to kill, rape, or harm her because male masculinity is so fragile that they cannot fathom the idea that women are equal.

The way men around me use words like, “cunt”, “faggot”, “mangina” — all thrown around with the purpose of emasculating. Fragile masculinity is the idea that we are continuing to raise dysfunctional men who think power and control over women is a success story. Women don’t have an identity outside of the one men bestow upon them as a piece of property, which then engages with male privilege, male identity, male sense of ownership, and a male sense of control.

I grew up in an environment where most of the extended men in my family were emotionally abusive alcoholics. My dad himself was a very loving man and he did his very best, but he grew up in a brutal time where the idea of affection or communication wasn’t discussed. I remember having to teach myself in my twenties to hug or hold people, as I was never taught touch and displays of affection. I remember being called a faggot because I admitted to reading as a boy, going to the library and doing my homework. The sad thing is that men don’t understand that they’re losing just as much as women by continuing to perpetuate these ideals. There is nothing more pro-man than feminism. It goes without saying that your natural state as a man is not someone who is violent or abusive. Your natural state is someone who is loving and kind.

V: Is there any advice that you can share with young people who are passionate about advocating change, as it can be so daunting and often emotionally demanding?

KK: One of the most challenging things we face as activists is our emotional self-care. You just have to push through and it inevitably impacts on your physical and mental health. It wears you out and the real challenge within this is that long-term resilience. One of the most critical things is surrounding yourself with people that believe in you. Surround yourself with an ecosystem of support that nurtures and supports you. You need to practice good self-care too. In previous years, I did things like stand-up comedy, massage therapy, and cooking; all things that allowed me to disconnect from my work at ASRC. It’s hard to disconnect because there’s no such thing as 9 to 5 anymore, so how you manage your social footprint and how you set boundaries for yourself are important. Always stick to your values and be gentle and kind to yourself because no one is perfect.

*This interview  has been edited for length and clarity.