A Lived Experience of Aboriginal Knowledges and Perspectives

How Cultural Wisdom Saved My Life

In: Practice Wisdom
Full Access

This is a chapter in a book on practice wisdom. I was invited to write a chapter on practice wisdom from two perspectives: my Indigenous culture as practice, and my life as an individual experience of this culture in my living practice. Each of us brings many perspectives and experiences to how we practise; and none of us fail to bring our unique selves as well as our community belonging into our life and work practices. I take this opportunity to uncover wisdom from within my culture and celebrate the way this wisdom has helped me and others face challenges in our life practices.

I’m a queer Aboriginal person who performs drag. That is, drag king, rather than the better-known queen. I am also, what has become known in recent years, as genderqueer. I deploy the term because it assists in challenging a binary gender assignation that has proven problematic. I am also a lesbian. Are you confused yet? You shouldn’t be; across all of our cultures, the body individually experienced is complex and formative regardless of our outward facing behaviours and societal commitments. The impact of the colonial project cast First Nations’ Peoples as objects to be managed by the state and church. This external management has frequently denied us the subtle complexities of sexuality and gender claimed by mainstream culture in Australia over recent decades (O’Sullivan, 2015).

I use the terms “Indigenous”, “First Nations’ Peoples” and “Aboriginal” interchangeably, and always capitalised to indicate that they form the short form for a proper noun, i.e. Aboriginal Australia, Indigenous Australian, etc. I capitalise Community and Elders as a sign of respect, and as an indication that they also operate as a short form for a proper noun, i.e. Aboriginal Elder, Wiradjuri Elder, Aboriginal Community, etc.

If asserting our complex identities as Indigenous people in all forms is an anti-colonial act of resistance and remonstrance, then it will only be through our own agency over the presentation of the diversity of our lives that we will truly be free of the shackles of colonial oppression. The premise of integration and the removal of the complexity of Aboriginal People was historically framed within the “smoothing the pillow of a dying race” paradigm (Shannon, 2002), in the quiet erasure of our distinctive characteristics. The following discussion reflects on several events that drew me back to some important wisdoms provided from within our Community, that will help us – with the support of mainstream Australia – to challenge the diverse understandings of who we are and who we can be, as we robustly refuse to have our identities erased and homogenised. I’d like to mention that mainstream Australia is not homogenised either and in reflecting on personal and practice wisdom, lack of sameness is a reality to be acknowledged, liberated and valued.

Representation Matters

For First Nations’ Peoples, the externally imposed, narrowed understanding of our identity has frequently shaped our survival. At times, members of our Community have actively participated in the resulting erasure. In 2013, the ABC TV drama, Redfern Now featured an episode showing a gay man and his relationship with his family and the Community. After the episode aired, Aboriginal boxer Anthony Mundine delivered a series of statements through social media and across the news media where he expressed homophobic views and indicated that historically we would have been killed for being gay. He further claimed that his religion and his Aboriginality forbade homosexuality, that positive representation was unacceptable, and made the broad claim that this would not be tolerated in our Community and that it was not cultural (“Anthony Mundine says”, 2013).

There was substantial outcry from within the Community, by the producers, in social media and from mainstream media organisations. Wamba man, Steven Ross (2014), presented a view of both Mundine’s comments and the impact that they would have on queer people living in smaller Communities. In a piece in The Guardian, titled, Not in Our Culture? Open Hearts Helped Me Grow Up Indigenous and Gay, Ross shares the painful experience of both support and abuse that he received as a young man coming to terms with his sexuality. He speaks of the extreme danger in which Mundine’s words intentionally places young people who may be queer or questioning, but also speaks of how this incident – and the television series that prompted the discussion – have galvanised support for better understanding. Ross also asserted that many queer Indigenous people were and are strong leaders across the Community, and that we are accepted by many and we do important work across the Community more broadly, while being visible and “out”. Ross was not the only one to challenge Mundine’s views. A number of presenters on IndigenousX, the national rotating Twitter account followed by some 20,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People devoted several weeks and stories to challenging these perceptions and providing positive stories.

These multiple challengers took on Mundine’s unsubstantiated views that homosexuality was a colonising influence. His claims were both impossible to prove – and he took no steps to prove them beyond the assertion that it is not cultural. Mundine’s words erase every queer Aboriginal person’s life. Perversely, his views buy into the colonial fiction that fails to account for our internal diverse expression as a people. To believe his theory that queer people did not exist in Aboriginal culture prior to invasion, suggests that Aboriginal queers are either not Aboriginal, or our presentation is only a presentation of the colonial mindset. Fortunately, many people are actively challenging these ideas. For example, the work of Yugambeh person, Maddee Clark, who argues extensively not only against the reductive view of Mundine, but also strongly for our capacity to resist categorisation and these notions of authenticity (Clark, 2014).

Like Steve Ross and others, I was concerned about the impact that these statements would have on young people who may be struggling with acceptance within themselves or their families and Communities. Aboriginal people have inordinately high levels of suicide and suicidal ideation; statistics across the mainstream population show higher levels for LGBTIQ+ people across the wider population, and Indigenous suicide rates are also higher than the mainstream population (Bonson, 2017). While there are currently no statistics on the impact of these converging figures, it is reasonable to assume that there is a higher risk in the queer Aboriginal population than for the rest of the country.

All of this was a cause for concern, and this was the tone of most of the community redress, reminding people that the vulnerable should be supported. But as the debate continued – in fact Mundine has stated these views as recently as 2018 – there was also continuing discussion across our Community, often visible across social networking, in everyday conversations and across the media, and it was hard to hear; to have our very existence debated. There were few programs or activities except those existing in isolation to help members of our Community who may be vulnerable to being subjects and objects of these debates. It was during a further spike of this kind of activity that I experienced – after decades of being out and proud, and very clear about my sexuality and Aboriginality – an event that shook me to the core.

In 2017 at the height of a further difficult debate in Australia that would result in marriage equality passing into law, my brother, David Hardy, had a massive stroke. He has since fully recovered, but at the time he was gravely ill and wasn’t expected to live, so friends, colleagues and extended family relied on his social media account to keep updated on his progress. Two years before the stroke, David, who is gay, had authored a book (Hardy, 2015) that detailed the lives of more than 50 older LGBTIQ+ people – Bold. It included a number of First Nations’ Australians and was the first book of its kind. David has a national profile as a leader in the queer community, and so many people were following his profile to see how he was doing and how they could help.

An Aboriginal woman we vaguely knew that David had friended on Facebook, began to write horrifically homophobic posts, and she tagged dozens of people in them. Naturally many people removed the tags and reported her. Her account remained intact and she continued to post. David’s name was tagged to all of her posts. He was, as he lay unconscious, incapable of removing them; neither could I.

A fervent marriage equality advocate, two days before he had the stroke, David was calling constituents urging them to vote “yes” in the national survey. I wrote about this in an IndigenousX post (O’Sullivan, 2017) in an effort to both call out this behaviour, as well as to correct any perception that he was a willing supporter of these homophobic rants. But in spite of this action, I found it shocking and disabling.

Gunya

In the same way that many of us became galvanised against the words of Anthony Mundine, for me this social media attack drew an important perspective into view: Gunya. Gunya is the Wiradjuri word most frequently translated in English to mean home, but the meaning reaches beyond a location or tangible place in the physical world. While terms like “safe harbour” or “haven” invoke some aspects of the meaning in English, Gunya more directly locates an encompassing space of safety than any word found in English. Understanding Gunya, for me, has been a journey of considering the trust I place in my body and in the way that Elders and leaders have supported me in navigating the complexities of identity in a world that often says it wants to understand but does this superficially, without listening.

But it was that moment of the Facebook tagging, that had compounded the commentary around Mundine’s words on our right to exist, that Gunya felt the most threatened. At an essential level, Gunya represents the place where we can be who we are, and it is where we should expect the support of those across our community. Gunya supports lived, real and diverse experiences and it is something and somewhere that we can both demand and expect. It underscores our most essential right to sovereignty over our own bodies, thoughts and lives. Remembering this grounded me, it created an opportunity to locate the challenges and provided opportunities for redress.

I am hurt
and need a place
to heal
to be safe
I am Wiradjuri,
I have Gunya
here I belong
here I find strength
here tomorrow’s path
becomes clearer to me.

Gunya suggests a strategy to locate Mundine’s comments, as well as those actions and rhetoric leading up to the same sex marriage debate; it provides a way to understand the frequent absence of queer representation in mainstream understanding of First Nations’ Peoples. Gunya creates a space where the centralising ontology – who we are, who I am, is centred in my body and my experience. In doing so, Gunya challenges reductive views that are as various as each member of the Community.

Recently (Whittaker, 2015), more than 20 academics and Community members came together to write a book on our experience of being queer: Colouring the Rainbow, Blak Queer and Trans Perspectives: Life Stories and Essays by First Nations People of Australia. This text is powerful, like many more that show our diversity, because it was written by us.

The agency of the text provides a literary Gunya from which to challenge these views as it speaks to the success, struggles and challenges within the community, and to the power of our diverse identities. It provides a lexicon of expression and ideas for community members and those who seek to work with our community. While the text was, in part, written as a direct challenge to the Mundine diatribe, it is more than a protest against the containment of our identity, instead providing markers for engagement, understanding and a commitment to taking back the space that we deserve (Hodge, 2015).

Symbolic Annihilation

Tell them who you are, dont’t let them tell you

In Colouring the Rainbow, Gomeroi woman, Alison Whittaker (2015), uses her essay to worry the idea of erasure, suggesting that many queer people already rejected by their family further compound their sense of alienation from community by failing to identify as Aboriginal, lest they are subject to further rejection. While this exclusion is not explicitly stated in any of our communities or organisations outside of organised and Westernised religious affiliations, she argues that the perception of rejection from a Community has long-lasting effects. The failure to actively include can also result in the kind of symbolic annihilation that we can only challenge by ensuring that our whole Community is supported and included.

Decades ago, I was fortunate to have had someone help me understand the impact of presenting my diverse self. A female Elder, who has since passed away,1 could tell that I struggling with my own sense of identity and direction. When I expressed my concern that others might not see me as authentic, she explicitly stated that I should always “tell them who you are, don’t let them tell you”. “Them” probably meant something specific to her, but her advice has provided an enduring legacy in my life across a lot of “thems”. It has guided my sense of Gunya, my sense of safety and belonging in my Community, and my right to have a complex identity and be an authentic Aboriginal person. Her advice helped me challenge the internal bickering that sometimes happens in Communities and in families, and it helped me ground my work on identity and my work as an Aboriginal academic who has a responsibility to others to support the complex presentations of our identities.

For young people, or people questioning their sexuality, it is essential that we provide them with their own Gunya and their own sense of safety. We can only do this if we challenge the symbolic annihilation of our diverse presentation, challenge people who present direct threats and demonstrate that they cannot kill off what makes us strong: our diversity and our complexity.

As a senior Aboriginal person, who has never been capable nor interested in being gender-conforming, I have a responsibility to speak my own truth and to challenge others who would seek to speak for me.

This is what an Aboriginal person looks like.
My identity isn’t narrowed to a single marker.
I am Wiradjuri,
queer,
genderqueer,
and a senior Aboriginal person.
I am a member of a large and diverse family,
a musician and performer,
an advocate for the rights of all First Nations’ Peoples.
This is what an Aboriginal person looks like.
Note
1

The Elder has since passed away, and I don’t have permission to use her name. It is common to remove the names or use name replacements as a sign of respect for people who have passed away.

References

  • Anthony Mundine says homosexuality and Indigenous culture don’t mix. (2013, November 1). ABC News Online. Retrieved from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-11-01/anthony-mundine-aborigines-homosexual-gay/5063836

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bonson, D. (2017). Voices from the Black Rainbow: The inclusion of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander LGBQTI, Sistergirls and Brotherboys in health, well-being and suicide prevention strategies. Sydney, Australia: Indigenist.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Clark, M. (2014). Against authenticity CAL-Connections: Queer Indigenous identities. Overland, 215, 30.

  • Hardy, D. (2015). Bold: Stories from older lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people. Panton Hill, Australia: The Rag & Bone Man Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hodge, D. (Ed.). (2015). Colouring the rainbow, Blak queer and trans perspectives: Life stories and essays by First Nations People of Australia. Mile End, Australia: Wakefield Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • O’Sullivan, S. (2015). Stranger in a strange land: Aspiration, uniform and the fine edges of identity. In D. Hodge (Ed.), Colouring the rainbow, Blak queer and trans perspectives: Life stories and essays by First Nations People of Australia. Mile End, Australia: Wakefield Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • O’Sullivan, S. (2017, September 24). An open letter to our community about marriage equality. IndigenousX. Retrieved from https://indigenousx.com.au/sandy-osullivan-an-open-letter-to-our-community-about-marriage-equality/

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ross, S. L. (2014, October 31). Not in our culture? Open hearts helped me grow up Indigenous and gay. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/31/not-in-our-culture-open-hearts-helped-me-grow-up-indigenous-and-gay

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Shannon, C. (2002). Acculturation: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nutrition. Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 11, S576-S578.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Whittaker, A. (2015). The border made of mirrors. In D. Hodge (Ed.), Colouring the rainbow, Blak queer and trans perspectives: Life stories and essays by First Nations People of Australia. Mile End, Australia: Wakefield Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

Sandy O’Sullivan (Wiradjuri) PhD (ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0003-2952-4732)

School of Communication and Creative Industries

University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia

Practice Wisdom

Values and Interpretations

Series: