Still Here, Still Queer, Still Invisible – by Mandy Henningham

Complications to queer indigenous Australian research

Queer Indigenous people often experiences a conflict in identity between long-standing cultures and new LGBTIQ spaces, particularly brotherboys and sistergirls (Kerry, 2015); however, conflicts are being increasingly challenged as new generations consider decolonising ideas about heteronormativity. In this piece I explore how my queer Indigenous research story also involves conflict around cultural identities, reflecting the wellbeing issues highlighted in current queer Indigenous research and my aims to contribute to the emerging queer Indigenous studies field.

Re/searching for queer indigenous identity

I am forever feeling like I am staring at my own culture through the looking glass. Like I am at a museum. I am both inside and outside of my own culture. This is an experience common to other Indigenous Australians who have had taken or adopted family members (like mine) and have subsequently had shattered community and cultural connections. Not quite knowing where we have come from, with no one to pass on cultural histories, stories and traditions. It has been a decade long journey to find cultural acceptance and understanding.

Whilst my familial cultural connections are fractured, I am involved and accepted in the Indigenous community at the University of Sydney from my time there teaching and studying intersex populations. I have worked as a teaching fellow and an ITAS tutor in the Faculty of Health Science working with a number of Indigenous students of all levels to further their skills in academic development. Through this role, I worked closely with other Indigenous staff at the university. I made myself available for mentoring to students who sought guidance through university. I am a valued and respected part of both the ITAS tutoring team, have built some amazing relationships there with fellow Indigenous staff. Further, I spent most of last year working on a multi-disciplinary project assessing what research is being done with Indigenous Australians, as well as researching and developing strategies for improving Indigenous student recruitment and retention. I have always been very eager to expand my engagement and work in other Australian Indigenous communities.

Towards the end of my final year of my PhD, I began to attend the new Indigenous postgraduate events for students which made me feel truly accepted as an Indigenous woman amongst my peers at the University. Some research has previously highlighted the importance of how building relationships at University is vital to success in higher education for Indigenous Australians (Hill, Winmar & Woods, 2018).

As part of my own cultural journey, I have sought and started to attend cultural classes where I can share my story and learn cultural practices and traditions where I can yarn with other Indigenous people who may have shared a similar history to mine. I have experienced a turbulent journey through my PhD candidature (being required to move faculties and supervisors multiple times). At the same time, I have experienced a difficult time in seeking ‘official recognition’ as an Indigenous person through my mother’s lineage, but these difficulties have built a strong sense of resilience. I use this sense of resilience to push myself further in my career, as well as using it as a building block to mentor other Indigenous students and researchers. Resilience is a strong trait of Indigenous Australians that is required to survive and thrive at university (Hall, Maughan, Wilkes, Thorpe, Forrest & Harrison, 2015). My experiences of colonialism blockading ‘official recognition’ or even cultural acceptance or access is a shared experience amongst many Indigenous Australians, it feels like everyone has a story. Sharing these stories makes us stronger together and builds our collective resilience as a community.

Re/searching for queer indigenous work

Since the submission of my PhD, I have been seeking full time work. Last year, I was working in an academic position on a project at the University of Sydney to develop a greater understanding of Aboriginal student experiences. I developed an audit of Aboriginal research being done by both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal researchers with the aim of drawing together a research Network to facilitate networking for staff and students alike who had interest in these areas. This was to create a more collaborative environment in this research space as well as to bring Indigenous academics together. This year, I have been working part-time on some Aboriginal research projects at the University of Sydney particularly in the ethics application and literature review phases. I have been working on these projects to strengthen my skills in Aboriginal research and to gain experience on working with ethics applications involving the AH&MRC and multiple organisations. This is a way I can give back to my culture and learn from it simultaneously; it allows me to feel accepted in a community and to culturally grow.

Sometimes I experience great acceptance in universities. Other times Indigenous identified university roles have identification proof requirements that are difficult for me to meet, due to a history of adoption in the family. At times, gathering this ‘proof’ of my identity has been invasive. It can be personally upsetting for myself and my family, as well as being a barrier to gaining work. My skills and experiences in working with marginalised groups like Indigenous and intersex populations do however contribute to my success in attracting work, particularly my experience in working with narratives. Working with narratives to explore the lived experiences of marginalised groups allows for an intimate navigation of experiences that quantitative approaches may not identify. Further, working with mentors who have vast experience in working with transgender and gender diverse populations as well as working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations has been key.

I had always known that I would do LGBTIQ research, in one capacity or another. During my Masters degree in sexual health, I became intensely passionate about the medical mistreatment of people with intersex variations and became an advocate and researcher in the area. During my PhD, I worked on some other sexual health projects and began to develop my skills in LGBTIQ research. As an employee, I took it upon myself to become involved in the Ally Network steering committee which advocated for LGBTIQ staff and students on campus. I was never approached for this engagement, I had to seek out these services on campus on my own to see what was being done in the LGBTIQ space; a situation I often find myself in as a ‘straight-passing’ queer woman.

Conflicting cultural identities

Clark (2014) discussed their own experiences of disclosing sexuality and race; people had asked about them about difficulties of being both queer and Aboriginal or had even questioned that people like us exist. The very questioning of both identities signals the idea that being queer and being Aboriginal are incompatible cultures. Similar to Clark, I too am met with intrigue at either my race or sexuality, sitting ‘on the fence’ of both; a pale-skinned Aboriginal woman disconnected from culture and navigating my own living experiences of bi-erasure. Clark’s (2014) experiences and my own are subjective but not isolated incidences. There is power in the collection of narratives, and I share my story in this paper to reflect the diversity of experiences had by queer Aboriginal people. Clark (2014) discussed how there are various queer Aboriginal narratives, yet people are often still not listening to them. A blind eye is turned to the multiplicities of culture, lived experiences, and community.

Navigating my queerness is not unlike navigating my cultural journey. My biological makeup and my cis-het relationship status do enable me to retain white and heterosexual privilege which does assist in protecting myself from certain discriminations or unsafe scenarios. However, this socially administered ‘safety net’ places me on the fringes of both cultures. Many bisexual/pansexual/queer people find themselves excluded from heterosexual groups and biphobic safe queer spaces (Li, Dobinson, Scheim & Ross, 2013) and support groups or experience internalised biphobia (Chard, Finnernan, Sullivan & Stephenson, 2015); never feeling or being accepted as ‘queer enough’ or feeling like they have something to prove. It is a double-edged sword of both privilege and isolation. In my own experiences, I feel the same about approaching Indigenous cultural events and queer events. I am not ‘gay enough’ for queer culture and feel too disconnected to be accepted into Indigenous Australian culture. Repeated attempts at building social and work connections require a certain resilience, when outcomes are so uncertain.

Historically, the queer community has struggled to welcome Indigenous voices in Australia, which has also been seen in how queer theory often does not acknowledge the colonial and violent epistemology some queer identities are associated with (Clark, 2014). For example, Clark (2014) discussed commentary surrounding the inclusion of a gay character on Aboriginal television show, ‘Redfern Now’. Comments about the character sparked online debates on what is and is not ‘real’ Aboriginal culture in terms of accepting queerness. Arguments included that Aboriginal culture either ties a person to the savagery and conservatism on one end of the spectrum (barbarism comments including how ancestors would ‘have their heads’ for it), and ‘civilisation’ or western acceptance of sexual diversity on the other (that accepting homosexuality is a Western idea, that you ‘enjoy being Western’). This highlighted the perceived ‘incompatibility’ of queer and Aboriginal cultural identities; there is a need for a queer Aboriginal studies addressing the intersectional experiences and identities of queer Aboriginal people.

Problems for and in research

Existing studies largely group together all Indigenous LGBTIQ people, as it is difficult obtaining enough participants from any single group for quantitative research. There is not data specific only to Indigenous Australian intersex people for example. An Australian study on LGBTIQ youth found 3% were Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander; matching broader population figures for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (Hillier, Jones, Monagle, Overton, Gahan, Blackman & Mitchell, 2010). It found that the Aboriginal participants were less likely to complete school education and less likely to live in their family homes than the broader LGBTIQ youth population (Hillier, et al. 2010). This highlighted an intersectional barrier to schooling and stability for queer Indigenous youth. Research suggests that bisexual people experience poorer mental health than those who are heterosexual, gay or lesbian (Loi, Lea & Howard, 2017; McNair, Kavanagh, Agius & Tong, 2005; Persson, Pfaus, Ryder, 2015; Taylor, 2019). Bi-erasure and bullying is common in Australian schools (Jones & Hillier, 2016). A Canadian paper suggested a two-spirit antibullying model encompassing a spectrum of queer identities in a fluid, cyclical model rather than a colonial and dichotomous model (Robinson, 2014)—Australian work could consider local options.

Both the trans and gender diverse youth population and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth population experience high rates of depression and suicide. Almost half of Australian trans and gender diverse youth have been diagnosed with depression and 38% experienced thoughts of suicide (Smith, Jones, Ward, Dixon, Mitchell, & Hillier 2014). Overall 4% of participants were Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander or both; a higher population percentage than in the broader population census and a population the researchers emphasised in calls for future research. Research specific to brotherboys and sistergirls is scarce and little is being done to support this group. Sistergirls hold traditional roles such as being medicine people, second mothers to brother-cousins and sister-cousins, and storytellers, yet are often misunderstood in contemporary society (Brown, 2004). A discourse analysis by Kerry (2015) explored research between 1994 and 2012 to explore the differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous transgender Australians. Kerry (2015) found that Indigenous transgender Australians experienced issues such as difficulty with community engagement, identity, HIV exposure, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and substance abuse (including alcohol). Indigenous transgender Australians additionally experience racism within broader communities as well as in the LBGTI community (Kerry, 2015).

There is a large struggle of identity within this population, particularly as some western definitions of transgender do not apply to brotherboys and sistergirls (Kerry, 2017). A change in identity may result in being rejected by their community and they may be forced to move away from country, however, they are then faced with racism if moving to a larger city. Either of these options can lead to inner conflict and may lead to depression or suicide (Kerry, 2017). An analysis of existing media on Sistergirls found that sistergirls spoke heavily of familial acceptance and rejection, as well as negative responses from community members when discussing their specific roles within community (Kerry, 2018). This reinforces the notion that sistergirls (and brotherboys) face ostracisation from their own communities, where ties to country are vital. Baylis (2015) discussed how the gender and sexual diversity of Aboriginal people is scarcely mentioned in Australian histories which reinforces the heterocentric literature surrounding historic Aboriginal cultures. However, sistergirls in particular have long been a part of communities since before colonisation (Riggs & Toone, 2017). Given the high rates of depression and suicide in the overall trans and gender diverse studies, combined with the high rates of depression and suicide in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population (Fryer, 2019; Korff, 2019), there is a strong need to further explore the needs of brother boys and sistergirls in Australia.

An emerging field from our oldest cultures

Several academics are now pioneering the new field of Indigenous Queer studies drawing on intersections of new Queer ideas with the world’s oldest cultures. This is demonstrated via the offering of relevant and progressive units of study including the highly anticipated Macquarie University ABST1030 Introduction to Indigenous Queer Studies, the Forum for Indigenous Research Excellence which often holds spaces for Queer Indigenous students and staff such as the symposium on ‘Queer Indigeneity in Higher Education’; University of Western Sydney’s advertising for academics across the intersection and various community and allied academics studying in LGBTI research as it intersects with Indigenous identities and Indigenous studies as it intersects with Queer. It is an exciting time in research to be contributing to this emerging field for queer and Indigenous academics across an array of disciplines.


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From Bent Street 3