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9 Apr 20

Aboriginal Feminism and Gender


The works of contemporary Australian artist TextaQueen tackle questions of identity, particularly around ancestry and gender, which are unpacked in drawings in texta (felt-tipped pens). TextaQueen is particularly interested in the bodies and lives of the ‘othered’; that is, brown, queer, transgender and gender-diverse people, such as themself. Their self-portraits deconstruct race and gender, creating a liminal space in which those of us with an identity outside of white-straight-cis culture can find something resembling a home.

In their piece Gandhi returns (Self-portrait), 2013, the father of Indian anti-colonialism is recast in the non-binary space. Texta/Gandhi is wounded and bloody, enfolded by the halo of a martyr; we imagine a martyr’s death. This piece is an invitation to decolonise our minds from binary gender and the influence of religion.

I have never been afraid to hold hands with my girlfriend in any of the remote Aboriginal communities we have visited in the Northern Territory, north Queensland and northern Western Australia, but I have in the cities. That might be the opposite of what you were expecting. It makes me wonder: what is the vector for hate?

It makes me wonder: what is the vector for hate?

Many, if not all, Aboriginal languages in Australia do not have gendered third-person pronouns. In the Noongar language – my ancestral tongue from the south coast of Western Australia – the word ‘baal’ means he, she, they or it; essentially it has the same meaning as the singular ‘they’ in English, yet it is broader, as it is also used to refer to the inanimate. The same word in Warlpiri, spoken mostly in a remote Western Desert community, is ‘nyanungu’.1 ‘Warlpiri’, Ausil.org, http://ausil.org/Dictionary/Warlpiri/index-english/index.htm, accessed 4 Nov. 2019. I will keep searching for an Aboriginal language with gendered third-person pronouns, but I don’t expect to find one. Gendered pronouns appear to be largely a characteristic of Indo-European (most of Europe) languages and Afro-Asiatic (North Africa and the Middle East) languages.

In many dialects of Aboriginal English, ‘him’ has long been a substitute for the original non-gendered third-person pronouns; it is, in fact, used identically to the singular ‘they’ in English (or the older gender-neutral use of male pronouns in older versions of English). Kriol, the language born out of the mission dormitories in Ngukurr in the Northern Territory, also has only one-third person pronoun – ‘im’, a shortened version of the English ‘him’.

I cannot even imagine speakers of an Aboriginal language or Kriol complaining about the rise of the singular ‘they’ in the English language. The use of ‘him’ as a non-gendered pronoun suggests that people for whom an Aboriginal language was the only language or a first language had difficulty with giving those pronouns a gender already. This is in stark opposition to the English speakers having trouble with a singular ‘they’.

I have searched for proof of this but cannot find any except oral confirmation from people who speak an Aboriginal language, and Aboriginal dictionaries, which have only one third-person pronoun for each language. Oral history is important to Indigenous ways of thinking, yet considered relatively worthless by Western academia. Like many things vastly outside of the understanding of Anglo-Saxon or Celtic people it was perhaps not recorded or studied; people studying Aboriginal languages might simply not have thought it as interesting as I do.

This was also true of much women’s business: the anthropologists would not have bothered to record what they saw. They would not have had access to everything; most women’s business was out of bounds to men.2 Phyllis Mary Kaberry, Aboriginal Woman Sacred and Profane, Routledge and Sons, London, 1939, pp. xix–xx. In addition, much of what was alien to their Judaeo-Christian world view was not understood or recorded. I see no reason I would be surprised by the discovery that a transgender, queer or gender-diverse community or existence was also not recorded.

Christianity arrived with the colonisers from Europe in every place they invaded. Whenever colonisation arrived the colonisers also brought their concepts of land ownership, in which land is owned by the individual, not by the collective. We have recorded history in other colonised nations stating that strict gender conformity did not exist before the colonisers came: see the Two Spirit people in North America, or the Fa‘afafine (who are known by other names in other places) in Samoa in the Pacific Islands.

However, we have no direct evidence that a cultural transgenderism or homosexuality existed in Australia when white people came and missionaries enforced their notions of gender and sexuality, nor have we evidence that such a thing did not exist. Cultural and religious prejudices shared by the people recording the information would have ensured that anything not fitting in with their prejudices would never have been collected.

It could be argued that Christianity supports and upholds the materialism and property law of the communities in which it arose. Strict gender roles, along with control of women, were necessary to ensure that men could be certain they would have a long line of sons to inherit their land and money.

It could also be suggested, and has been by many, that Christianity is the source of hatred and non-acceptance of gender and sexual identity in the world, or certainly in the Western world.

We don’t know whether Christian missionaries and anthropologists with a cultural fidelity to Christianity erased queer and gender-diverse identities among Aboriginal Australian peoples, but we do know they did in many other places such as North America3 Walter L. Williams, ‘The “two-spirit” people of indigenous North Americans’, 11 Oct. 2010, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/oct/11/two-spirit-people-north-america, accessed 14 Nov. 2019. and the South Sea Islands.4 Robin Marantz Henig, ‘How science is helping us understand gender’, 22 Oct. 2018, National Geographic, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/01/how-science-helps-us-understand-gender-identity/, accessed 14 Nov. 2019.

We also don’t know for certain that there were gender-diverse people in Aboriginal communities and a societal structure that allowed people who were not cisgender and heterosexual to find a place in culture, but we don’t know that these people and structures to support them did not exist. The anthropologists and missionaries (and some people who were both) might not have recorded this information. We can be certain, however, that trans and gender-diverse people, and other LGBTIQ+ people, exist in Aboriginal populations now.

There are two Aboriginal communities, both of them relatively remote and free from the cultural imperialism that has had a cataclysmic effect on other communities, that have members with endemic trans identities, and enough of them to create unique communities. In the Tiwi Islands, with a population of 3000, there are fifty ‘sistagirls’. The sistagirl culture grew uniquely there and has a lot in common with Western trans culture and identities.

Aboriginal artist Bindi Cole Chocka visited the Tiwi Islands in 2009, and later exhibited a photo series called Sistagirls, 2010, consisting of portraits of trans women from the Islands. It is perhaps telling, then, that her 2013 piece Wolf in sheep’s clothing unpacks and interrogates the damage and evil that Christianity has unleashed on Aboriginal communities and bodies. The work is in the shape of a crucifix and carries story, professing shame at the damage people have done in the name of Jesus.

However, Cole Chocka is herself a Christian, and her politics later took a sharp right turn, leading to an appearance on The Bolt Report where she discussed the change in her views.5 Andrew Bolt, ‘Bindi changes mind, Bindi gets banned’, 6 Dec. 2018, Herald Sun, https://www.heraldsun.com.au/blogs/andrew-bolt/bindi-changes-mind-bindi-gets-banned/news-story/8f3a50851b2a62b5fd4cabfc626d5115, accessed 14 Nov. 2019. She now sits at the opposite end of political spectrum from where she has dwelt most of her life, and is removed from the version of herself who visited Tiwi in 2009, but there’s hope she has personally reconciled her Aboriginality with her Christianity.

Others would find it more difficult.

On Palm Island there are sistagirls, too, who exist despite the open war with police, the violence against them and the damage to culture caused by the wholesale transportation of other Indigenous people: at least 3950 individuals were removed from other parts of Queensland – many of them prisoners who had served their time – onto their island.6 ‘Palm Island’, 21 March 2018, Queensland Government, https://www.qld.gov.au/atsi/cultural-awareness-her-itage-arts/community-histories/community-histories-n-p/community-histories-palm-island, accessed 14 Nov. 2019. The existence of these two communities of trans people in remote Indigenous communities suggests, to me, that as in all peoples in the world, transgenderism and other forms of gender diversity rise spontaneously in my people, too.

Many Australians profess surprise at the existence of LGBTIQ+ Indigenous people in Australia. However, within many of our communities, particularly in urban areas, sexuality and gender diversity is common. In some remote communities homophobia and transphobia seem less common than they are in cities; the lack of cultural hate suggests that such behaviour and thinking came with Christianity.

I did not intend to mention any male artists in this piece, but my reason for doing so is compelling to me, at least. Zaachariaha Fielding, the feminine, blak, gay front person of the band Electric Fields, has lived most of his life in the relatively remote Aboriginal community of Mimili in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands in outback South Australia. There’s a photograph in the NGV Collection by his father Robert Fielding, a painter, photographer and mixed-media artist from Mimili, called In your hands, 2016. In the work, a masculine hand, presumably the artist’s, delicately cradles a butterfly, an animal that has long had a cultural significance for the LGBTIQ+ community as a symbol of hope, of coming out, of emerging into a new beautiful self. The butterfly is safe in that strong hand, despite our certain knowledge that it could be crushed with ease.

Of course, I cannot claim complete understanding of Fielding’s intent with that work, but I do know that Zaachariaha feels safe and protected in Mimili, a remote Aboriginal community.

People of colour, the queer and the gender diverse all need these spaces, these homes within and simultaneously outside of society. Those of us who live and love at the intersections need them even more. Our art is important to our siblings at the margins, but it should also be important to those who live without discrimination. Works made at the intersections can teach everybody how to be better people.

Notes

1

‘Warlpiri’, Ausil.org, http://ausil.org/Dictionary/Warlpiri/index-english/index.htm, accessed 4 Nov. 2019.

2

Phyllis Mary Kaberry, Aboriginal Woman Sacred and Profane, Routledge and Sons, London, 1939, pp. xix–xx.

3

Walter L. Williams, ‘The “two-spirit” people of indigenous North Americans’, 11 Oct. 2010, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/oct/11/two-spirit-people-north-america, accessed 14 Nov. 2019.

4

Robin Marantz Henig, ‘How science is helping us understand gender’, 22 Oct. 2018, National Geographic, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/01/how-science-helps-us-understand-gender-identity/, accessed 14 Nov. 2019.

5

Andrew Bolt, ‘Bindi changes mind, Bindi gets banned’, 6 Dec. 2018, Herald Sun, https://www.heraldsun.com.au/blogs/andrew-bolt/bindi-changes-mind-bindi-gets-banned/news-story/8f3a50851b2a62b5fd4cabfc626d5115, accessed 14 Nov. 2019.