Interview with Andrew Farrell

Indigenous Queer Studies academic, Andrew Farrell, talks with Bent Street editor Tiffany Jones about their development of world-first Aboriginal Queer University Units. Andrew Farrell is a Wodi Wodi person and Queer identified academic whose research is focused on LGBTIQA+ Aboriginal peoples and social media. Andrew has also developed projects such as the Archiving the Aboriginal Rainbow blog, an online portal that addresses the absence of a digital space that catalogues Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sexual and gender diversity by sharing links to contemporary and historical audio, images, articles, art, and various other items found across the web (Farrell, 2014). The blog prioritises the perspectives of Indigenous LGBTIQ+ peoples as decolonising agents within Nakata’s (2007, in Farrell, 2015) ‘Cultural Interface’—in which Indigenous LGBTIQ knowledge, experiences and challenges filter through complex terrains of knowing and unknowing—transforming how we may see and know this unique and diverse community. Bent Street caught up with Andrew Farrell to discuss their latest contribution in developing and co-ordinating world-first units in Aboriginal Queer Studies commencing in 2020 at Macquarie University.

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Tiffany Jones: Tell us about your role at Macquarie?

Andrew Farrell: I am both a PhD student here at Macquarie as well as a lecturer/tutor. I am in a fellowship position which is made up of largely tutoring, lecturing, and research projects within my department. It has given me the opportunity to advance my academic qualifications and undertake new and exciting roles, such as designing courses, lectures, and conference speaking while at the same time building my own specialised area of research. It’s a fabulous fluid space!

As an undergraduate student, I had a lot of growing pains to work through in finding my academic career path. Moving into an honours and deciding to undertake a PhD housed within Indigenous Studies I have found a place to thrive, create, and find my place in academia. It works alongside my family obligations. I wear many hats! The Macquarie fellowship role fits into that lifestyle as its flexibility facilitates the shifting demands of learning, teaching, and cultural life.

Tiffany Jones: What new ground are you adding to Indigenous LGBTIQ+ academia in this role? Or, do you find, your work is in adding to the ground itself?

Andrew Farrell: I am adding to the developing stages of this field of inquiry. There is some academic work in the field but it is sparse. I see it as a space full of opportunity … the word ‘potential’ comes to mind! Between and across the humanities are these ‘potentially’ overlapping fields of knowledge to explore: LGBTIQ+ Studies, Indigenous Studies, Gender Studies and so on. These overlapping spaces are a reflection of the realities of being Indigenous and Queer and relating to multiple communities—Indigenous communities, LGBTIQ+ communities, and Indigenous LGBTIQ+ communities. My work is about acknowledging these dynamics and undertaking projects that flow between fields and bringing new challenges to established fields of inquiry—Indigenising Queer Studies and Queering Indigenous Studies.

Tiffany Jones: Speaking of doing Queer differently, your article ‘Lipstick Clapsticks: A yarn and a Kiki with an Aboriginal drag queen’ (Farrell, 2016) provides a very personalised introduction of Indigenous themes in Queer writing. Tell us about the importance of yarns and kikis?

Andrew Farrell: These are both cultural and colloquial terms used across Indigenous and LGBTIQ+ communities. We, Aboriginal peoples, use the word ‘yarn’ to describe how we relate to each-other on an interpersonal level within Aboriginal communities. Coming from the Queer community—particularly the Black and Latin Queer communities in the US—the term ‘kiki’ refers to interpersonal queer relationships. I use those terms to basically say ‘I trust and acknowledge you as my kin: you are my friend, sister or brother’.

Interestingly, these terms are not necessarily gendered. Yarning does not imply or describe particular gendered interaction. Having a kiki also brings additional meaning to the already de-gendered interpersonal connection. I wanted to bring these ideas together to reflect my involvement in multiple cultural, social, and political arenas to signal my identity across both. I also used both terms to invite people from Queer and Indigenous communities to feel they could lean in and observe a snapshot of my life as both Queer and Indigenous.

My PhD thesis is looking at LGBTIQ Indigenous people on social media. As an Indigenous researcher, I have a responsibility to identify my position within these communities first in order to then undertake further research. As an Aboriginal person it is always necessary to start with identifying who you are, what community and culture you belong to. As I contribute to the LGBTIQ Indigenous space I want to reassure mob that it is a Queer identified Aboriginal person doing the research rather than an outsider looking in.

Tiffany Jones: Would you like to tell our readers a little bit more about how you identify?

Andrew Farrell: Sure. I come from the Jerrinja Aboriginal community on the South Coast of NSW. I identify as Queer as I like the potential and ambiguity in that word. Growing up I have identified as gay, gender-fluid, non-binary … and just kind of ended up at the term Queer. Where I am from I didn’t always have the language to articulate that, so it has taken me some time to finally say that I am Queer.

I knew that I was different as a child but it wasn’t until my university years that I began to seek out and identify as gender and sexually diverse. To give some context, this happened through undergraduate years in visual arts doing sculpture, drawing, a tiny bit of painting. My artistic practices moved with me into drag, in which I became involved with my local LGBTIQ+ scene. Being involved with the Queer student community, I was able to finally discuss what being ‘gay’ meant and what further possibilities I could explore in terms of gender. I think all of that has been important in determining my path, both positive and negative. As I came to terms with my gender and sexuality I also felt further isolation from my Aboriginal community because these ideas, these ways of identifying, are not understood and thereby not fully accepted.

I still have a lot of wonderful relationships with my community. They have not let go of me, and I have not let go of them. Our cultural ties are strong enough to withstand these kinds of differences for the most part. I am not discouraged by these challenges but I want to navigate them as safely as possible. It is hard work and it has taken a lot out of me. I have only reached my 30s but I am the first born in my mother’s side of my family, so I have never known a time where I did not have many responsibilities to my family.

These challenges have informed my priorities for where I want to go in my career, starting with my family. For Aboriginal academics, our priorities often start with maintaining our families and communities. As a Queer person that must also account for the specific challenges and experiences of this intersecting and complex social and cultural space.

Tiffany Jones: Yes, for queer academics our work can be very emotionally entwined with our experiences and our drive to reflect or impact them. Is there some area where you especially feel a drive to make an impact in particular?

Andrew Farrell: I personally would like to see improvements in the self-worth and value of Queer Indigenous people. I want them to be valued, loved, supported, and given opportunities to participate and have their say. I definitely have issues with my self-worth and value based on the trauma that I have experienced in relation to my identity. I want people to be able to feel it is okay to be both Indigenous and Queer. I don’t aim to be a role model and am not confident enough to say ‘I stand for particular values’ or to have people comparing themselves to me, but to know there are many parts of myself that may have relevance and value to others identifying in a similar way or ways. I don’t like to set limits on myself; I think that is the main thing. If I stand to represent anything I want it to reflect that diversity is possible.

Tiffany Jones: This position of a non-position or anti-answer, where it is not so much about presenting a specific example but not putting limits on identities that are possible, is in some ways the very best of Queer’s offerings! A frustrating thing is when Queer is accidentally authoritarian.

Andrew Farrell: Yes! It is my responsibility as an Aboriginal Queer person in academia to be cautious and promote diversity for all of its offerings and understand its pitfalls. One of my biggest worries is the issue of gatekeeping around identity as it exists across and between multiple communities. Drawing from Indigenous LGBTIQ+ standpoints we can begin to discuss these issues. What it means to be Queer and Aboriginal in a settler-colonial state is deeply political and pushes multiple boundaries, norms, and so on. We need to challenge and unpack these topics and reassert existing ways of thinking to push the boundaries on issues such as racism, queerphobia, heteronormativity, and various prevalent social issues. Queer Indigenous perspectives may seem new to a lot of people but our existence is entrenched in ancient and living cultures. In our classes we will discuss the rise of marginalised peoples, face issues such as acceptance, and examine how both the Indigenous and LGBTIQ community is implicated.

Tiffany Jones: Are there other cultural terms or ideas you draw on?

Andrew Farrell: As far as incorporating cultural ideas, we will do that throughout our course content. We are currently building the thematic flow for our units. All of them rest in similar politics of wanting to revive Indigenous ways of knowing, not to say these are dead or dormant, but to demonstrate that they are valued, viable, and critical contributions to knowledge about gender and sexual diversity.

In the Australian context, it is important to include, for example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander transgender communities’ use of terms like ‘Sistergirl’ and ‘Brotherboy’ which uniquely identifies being both transgender and Indigenous. These terms have utility across this vastly diverse continent which is home to over 250 distinct Indigenous language (and cultural) groups in Australia. In that regard I aim to respect the unique, distinct, and varied genders and sexualities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait cultures in the exact same way I would aim to value and respect the diversity of international Indigenous cultures, and bring to light conversations that tie these margins together.

Many Indigenous cultures around the globe are reasserting the importance of culturally informed and self-determined gender and sexual diversities. Whether these voices are from here in Australia, Two-Spirit peoples in Turtle Island (US & Canada), and Takatāpui in Aotearoa (New Zealand), LGBTIQ+ Indigenous cultural resurgence is gaining visibility and traction across the globe. My role, and the work of Queer Indigenous Studies, is to recognise this heterogeneity and mobilise it against oppressive forces, beginning in the classroom.

 

Tiffany Jones: Is there an aspect of decolonising work in Australian Queer context that engages with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander diversity, in breaking away from British punitive approaches to homosexuality for example, in the way that this frame seems to be called upon in South African or other colonised nations?

 

Andrew Farrell: From the outset, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples challenge to settler colonialism is, in part, about maintaining our cultural autonomy and rights. Gender and sexuality have always been components of that struggle.

We have been significantly impacted by dominant representations of our peoples. We have been forced into the gender binary. Through my personal experience categories interpreted as ‘men and women’s business’ do not reflect the lived realities and complexities in my culture. I view them as rigid and imposed assumptions about our societies which have had a significant impact on us. It has reimagined us for the sole purpose of control … the coloniser told us that ‘this is who we were, and this is who we should be’.

Against that, it has been important for me to resist by, for example, acknowledging that my grandmother was the head of our household! That we continue to function upon what I can only articulate as a matriarchal system! Even where power balances and imbalances are present they do not sit within a Western gender binary paradigm. Aboriginal women are and will always be powerful! Much of that power rests in the relationality of Indigenous society. It is impressive, but not surprising, Aboriginal women continue to navigate the challenges of settler-colonial patriarchy while maintaining culturally distinct forms of leadership.

While we continue to assert our strength, the Queer community in Australia must recognise historical injustices and work against the ways that they may perpetuate ideas about Indigenous peoples as guests and benefactors of settler colonialism. There are a range of issues to discuss within the context of Queer movements and I think a good starting place is building a literacy and awareness of the issues that play out and challenging them.

 

Tiffany Jones: Yes! There can be comparatively less power for women within the Colonising Discourse and systems of rule in Australia. If you think of how much women in top roles such as Julie Bishop for example—as recently one of the most powerful women within its systems—said she struggled to be accepted in a role of power, it is quite striking. She couldn’t stay in that role in power, and talked in interviews about how she struggled at first with expressing her femininity, hid herself in a kind of masculine coding just to be there, and had to at all times hide any feeling of ambition … It’s interesting how Indigenous societies, that have been here for so much longer, empower Indigenous womens’ leadership.

 

Andrew Farrell: Bishop’s example is a reminder that patriarchy and settler colonialism is in full force. This system needs to be challenged. There is a lot to learn from Aboriginal cultures through the one example of women. Pushing that further there is also a lot to learn from Aboriginal transgender women; women who explicitly resist essentialist and colonial ideas about womanhood while also performing cultural obligations as Aboriginal women. Aboriginal women face the colonial regime and subvert it in ways that empower the community as a whole. It is beyond the scope of what has been identified as a weakness in feminism identified as ‘white feminism.’ Aboriginal scholars such as Aileen Moreton-Robinson have been critical in the identification and criticism of patriarchy in tandem with colonialism in Australia, which now must account for positions beyond the gender binary. These are the kinds of critical inquiry we will undertake in our courses.

Tiffany Jones: Are these courses that anyone can take? Do you need to mediate what you put into the course to protect certain groups or knowledges?

Andrew Farrell: In designing these courses we’re constantly navigating ethical issues such as accessibility, accountability, care and responsibility. We’re very much mindful of the limitations of work we can and should include across LGBTIQ+ Indigenous topics. One of the features of our courses will be having guest lecturers who consent to sharing their expertise and experience through lectures and resources. There is a dearth of historical resources on the topic more broadly, however in recent years there has been a resurgence of articles, books, and all manner of text which represent the experiences of Indigenous LGBTIQ + people in this country. I aim to hand the platform to as many people across our communities with the resources I have available to me.

Tiffany Jones: Yes, there is an element of care-taking in how we present our communities. Also for example we can have young queer people be just so overly generous with their information in ways that do not look after themselves in times where their identities are politicised, so we may hold back some of their information that they may just hand out freely in a publication without understanding the impact (things like phone numbers or personal details they don’t need ‘out there’)!

Andrew Farrell: Yes. Indigenous Queer Studies in Australia is new ethical ground. In my own experience of putting together human ethics applications for my work I have faced issues such as ethics boards not having experience in the ethical terrains of multiple minority groups. There are not necessarily people within the system who know exactly what constitutes best ethical practice for LGBTIQ+ Indigenous peoples. I have to magnify and intensify being self-critical, for example, in how I go about seeking data from the community. This increased pressure is also a reflection of my personal integrity to the ethics process and responsibility to community. As this field grows, we will need to have people in the system who are capable and qualified.

Tiffany Jones: The inclusion of these communities in research is highly sensitive. For outsiders, there is a feeling of not wanting to do the wrong thing. Do you think the work should be led by Aboriginal Queer people?

Andrew Farrell: I think that Indigenous LGBTIQ+ peoples should be at the helm of all research relating to them. I also think that non-Indigenous and/or non-queer researchers have a responsibility to engage with the research and use their privileges to join us in the expanding of research into this field. I am already in contact with undergraduate students, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, queer and non-queer, who are interested in this field of research, some of whom may go into the future as researchers who may contribute to the field.

Across Australian universities I have noticed little representation of LGBTIQ+ Aboriginal gender and sexuality topics in curriculum, for example, in womens studies, Indigenous studies, and across the broader Arts and Humanities. Often times Indigenous gender and sexuality topics are situated within the ‘narratives of the nation’ or ‘the making of Australia’ … and Aboriginal LGBTIQ voices are seldom included. We are making space to address those absences within the institution. The onus to get this field of study up and running will, as most areas of study based on marginalised peoples, be through the labour of that marginalised group.

Tiffany Jones: Exactly! And it is so exciting that you are bringing such units into being, can you tell our readers about them?

Andrew Farrell: As it currently stands, we are moving forward with three Indigenous Queer units of study which will be available on campus and through Open Access Universities.

Next year, in 2020, we are starting ABST1030 (Introduction to Indigenous Queer Studies). It is an introductory course that focuses in on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander gender and sexual diversities, perspectives, and issues in Australia.

Then we will have ABST2035 (Global Indigenous Queer Identities). It is a course that is made up of international case studies. We will explore LGBTIQ+ Indigenous case studies in Australia, Aotearoa (New Zealand) and the Pacific region, and Turtle Island (US and Canada). This course is about important global conversations and connections.

The third is ABST3035 (Indigenous Queer Theory and Practice). It operates on a much more theoretical level. It will be a dense, in-depth course for students to explore ideas such as intersectionality, violence, decolonisation, and so on.

Tiffany Jones: I love that! It’s a fantastic progression. So then studying these courses, what do people need to be enrolled in?

Andrew Farrell: At this point the first unit is accessible to students wanting to take it as an elective across Australia. We will deliver it both on campus and to students nationwide through Open Universities. I think it would be good to be able to tailor the course to flexible learning rather than limiting it to only those privileged to be able to study on campus.

Having the course online is a response to modern living. We are all online! I place a lot of value in online learning as I have found, through the internet, the ability to network with my community and have found resources online which have significantly shaped my research. I have learned the value of text outside of the ivory tower of paywalled journal articles and expensive textbooks.

Tiffany Jones: It’s an activist act to use those texts as well … it’s where that knowledge is and where knowledge is heading, it makes ideas accessible to more people and changes the valuing process in academia.

Andrew Farrell: As a student and academic fellow I am doing my thesis by publication. While an odd path, it has given me a lot of insight into academic research. I am also doing a thesis by publication to test how I can potentially make my work more accessible as the community is largely outside of the academy. I wish to find some way to produce my work where the community is. It is not uncommon to see Indigenous LGBTIQ+ content produced online in Queer news sites, social media, and Indigenous media such as Koorimail and IndigenousX, so we need to follow the community and see what the community uses to depict themselves.

Tiffany Jones: We’ve taken so much of your time but is there anything else you wanted to say?

Andrew Farrell: I think what I wanted to emphasise is the support underpinning what I do. I think that it is important to have allies who function as ‘accomplices’; people who take risks, who use whatever is afforded them to lend a hand to others.

At Macquarie I have been given a space to expand Indigenous Queer Studies through the Indigenous Studies Department which is led by Professor Bronwyn Carlson. She has been a mentor to me for many years now. Her vision for Indigenous Studies and research is to open it up to diverse Indigenous perspectives. She wants to see Indigenous Studies expand into new and exciting territories. We have this in common.

I am ready to explore all that this future has in store. I know there will be backlash and future challenges but I also know that I have the support to be unapologetically Queer and Aboriginal. 

References

Farrell, A. (2014). Archiving the Aboriginal Rainbow. Accessed on 4.1.17. Retrieved from: https://indigblackgold.wordpress.com/

Farrell, A. (2015). ‘Can You See Me? Queer Margins in Aboriginal Communities’, Journal of Global Indigeneity, 1(1). Accessed on 15.1.16. Retrieved from: http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1010&context=jgi

Farrell, A. (2016). Lipstick Clapsticks: A yarn and a Kiki with an Aboriginal drag queen. AlterNative, 12(5). pp.574-585.

Farrell, A. (2017). Archiving the Aboriginal Rainbow: Building an Aboriginal LGBTIQ Portal. Australasian Journal of Information Systems, 21(1). pp.2-14.

Andrew Farrell is an Indigenous Early Career Academic Fellow in the Department for Indigenous Studies, Macquarie University. Andrew is a Wodi Wodi descendant from Jerrinja Aboriginal community on the South Coast of NSW. Their research is multidisciplinary with a focus on Aboriginal LGBTIQ gender and sexualities, media and online studies, and drag performance. Andrew is also undertaking a PhD project titled Aboriginal LGBTIQ peoples online. You can find their online blog at https://indigblackgold.wordpress.com/

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