People

LGBT Aboriginal people – diversity at the margins

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and transgender Aboriginal people represent diversity within the already diverse Aboriginal culture. But they also belong to some of the most marginalised groups in Australia.

Sistergirls & Brotherboys: transgender and queer Aboriginal people

What do these abbreviations stand for?

LGBQTI = Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Queer, Transgender and Intersex.
GLBTIQ = Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer.
Queer was originally a derogative term for ‘gay’, now being reclaimed by some gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people as a self-affirming umbrella term. [5]
Intersex(‘in-between sex’) people are born with external genitalia, internal reproductive organs, and/or endocrine system that are different from most other people. Most identify as either sex. [5]

Transgender people have been part of Aboriginal culture long before European invasion [1].

Usually called sistergirls or brotherboys (also spelled Sista Girls, Brotha Boys), transgender Aboriginal people are among the most marginalised in Australia. While sistergirls identify with their female side, communities often still see the boys who they witnessed growing up and discriminate the ‘new’ woman in their midst.

They gave themselves the name ‘sistergirls’ because they are all girls trapped in a male body, and they treat each other like sisters, sticking together and helping each other [2]. Once a reference solely for transgender Aboriginal people, ‘sistergirls’ now more widely also describes “those who are queer”. [3]

A group of colourfully clothed sistergirls from Tiwi Island Tiwi Island sistergirls showing the colourful outfits they prepared for their participation in Sydney's Mardi Gras. Image: Twitter

Isolation is common among transgender Aboriginal people,and they have to fight to be accepted in their communities for who they are. They feel stigmatised or unaccepted by the older generations.

“To have [our Elders] here and to hear them say ‘we accept you’ [to the Brotherboys and Sistergirls] was so important,” says Lisa O’Brien, the sistergirl and brotherboy representative to the Anwenekenhe National HIV Alliance [4].

Transgender man Kai Clancy explains: “I thought I might have to sacrifice my culture just to be happy in my body, but that’s not the case. Culture means the most to me; a lot of Aboriginal people feel that way. Acceptance in my own community is vital.” [4]

The Tiwi Islands, about 80 kms north of Darwin, are home to Australia’s largest per capita transgender population, with locals claiming that up to 5% of approximately 3,000 residents identify as transgender, gay, lesbian or bisexual.[3] The first resident publicly identified as transgender in the 1970s. There are about 50 transgender women on the Tiwi Islands [4], traditionally known as yimpininni, who live as “outcasts” among the inhabitants of the islands. Similar communities exist elsewhere in Australia, for example on Palm Island.

A well-known sistergirl is Foxxy Empire, the alter-ego of Tiwi Islander Jason De Santis.

“In Aboriginal communities, if you are a sista girl, you’re expected to play the role of a woman,” explains transgender woman Lillian in the documentary Sistergirls [2]. “That means long, very big long t-shirts, big long shorts, hair done up, you know, they’re your sista girls. The sista girl is expected to find herself a ‘real’ man, a straight man.”

Sistergirls tell stories where their father wanted to shoot them, and of suicides among them with the dead being denied the traditional death rites [4].

Behind [the female part] are the little boys that they grew up [from] and the community that looks on them as boys, not as women.—Bindi Cole, Aboriginal photographer [3]

Challenges for transgender Aboriginal people

The biggest challenges for transgender Aboriginal people are racism, sexual health, lifestyle, suicide, mental problems, self-esteem and identity, but also changing one’s name and a lack of support [2].

Often excluded from mainstream health programmes, they are more likely to be at risk for violence, sexual abuse, HIV and AIDS [4] and experience much higher rates of self harm and suicide [6].

“I think if you add in homophobia for GLBTIQ people that is just another extra burden that people have to bear and something they have to respond to in their lives,” explains Steven Ross, a gay Aboriginal man [1].

Having to go to the male ward of a health clinic or hospital makes sistergirls uncomfortable as they might meet other male relatives of their extended families. Eventually they are too afraid to use them.

Some sistergirls experience physical violence and abuse, especially if they have to go to prison where other inmates might consider them as “a piece of property” [2].

Being transgender in remote Aboriginal communities often means going against strictly observed cultural practices defined by, and for, male and female gender roles. In many cases it also means having to go against strictly held religious beliefs in the same communities.

Coming out is never easy, and even more difficult for Aboriginal transgender people. Dr Sandy O’Sullivan, from Brisbane, is a lesbian. “I can say from my experience that it did make it harder and part of that was other people’s expectations, some very old fashioned ideas, that this wasn’t how we lived, you know, pre-colonisation and so on, but that’s really challenged,” says Dr O’Sullivan [1].

There's a lot of work to be done within mainstream GLBTIQ communities about Indigenous people, racism exists within those communities just as much as it does in mainstream straight communities.—Steven Ross, gay Aboriginal man [1]

In 2010 film-makers Andy Canny and Donna McCrum shot Eye documenting the sistergirls on Tiwi Island. At the beginning the film caused a lot of problems because it was so controversial, but it has since turned into “a really beautiful healing tool”. [3]

I was born as a male but I've got a woman's spirit inside of me.—Lillian [2]

Tip There is a Facebook support group called Sistergirls Brotherboys. And Black Rainbow helps Aboriginal LGBQTI people who are at risk of suicide and to ease the burden of youth homelessness.

Watch brother boys yarn about their experiences

Kai Clancy, 18, and Dean, 50, first told the world about their lives in a video screened during the 20th International AIDS Conference held in Melbourne in July 2014.

Some well-known gay & lesbian Aboriginal people

Some gay Aboriginal artists include Destiny Deacon, Karla Dickens, Jenny Fraser, Clint Lingard, Arone Meeks, Clinton Nain, Peter Waples-Crowe and Jeffrey Samuels. Jack Charles is a gay actor.

Kerrianne Cox “chose” to be homosexual because after being abused as a child she didn’t trust men anymore [7].

Lou Bennett, who co-founded the group Tiddas, is a gay singer and artist.

Wesley Enoch is a gay playwright (e.g. Black Diggers, The Story of the Miracles at Cookie’s Table), son of an Aboriginal man and a white mother.

Andrea Fraiser has been working with Aboriginal Media in various capacities, including film, television and radio.

David Page, the musical heart of Bangarra Dance Theatre, came out as being gay during the season of his play Page 8.

James Saunders is from the Killcare clan of the Gunditjmara nation in south west Victoria and calls himself “a proud Wiradjuri man”. He runs his own digital PR agency, Mopoke Media, aiming to promote the Aboriginal community from a positive angle. James is also a member of the Sydney Convicts, Australia’s first gay rugby team. [8]

Footnotes

View article sources (8)

[1] 'Colouring the Rainbow: Book shares perspectives of Aboriginal LGBTIQ community', ABC News 22/11/2015
[2] 'Sistergirls', DVD by acon.org.au
[3] 'The remote Aussie islands with the highest transgender population in the country', news.com.au, 3/3/2017
[4] 'Meet Australia's Indigenous Trans Men, 'Brotherboys'' - advocate.com 9/12/2014
[5] see UrbanDictionary.com
[6] 'New Report Shows Need For Indigenous LGBTQI Suicide Prevention Measures', Same Same, 21/2/2017, http://www.samesame.com.au/news/15186/New-Report-Shows-Need-For-Indigenous-LGBTQI-Suicide-Prevention-Measures, retrieved 22/2/2017
[7] Kerrianne Cox, "Defining Moments" series (ABC), Message Sticks Film Festival Sydney, 2013
[8] '20 Inspiring Indigenous Australians Changing The Face Of A Nation', BuzzFeed 6/5/2014

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Aboriginal culture - People - LGBT Aboriginal people – diversity at the margins, retrieved 21 September 2017