Queer and present danger is a three-part series written in response to the cancellation of queer events across 2023.
Many a battle has been won but, as this year has shown us, glory and progress are fragile and easily stripped away.
As we move into Part 2 of Queer and present danger, we step into the new millennium and away from the supposed safe harbours of our inner cities.
My island home
Found 80 kilometres north of Darwin and bordering the Timor Sea, the Tiwi Islands comprise two main islands, Bathurst and Melville. Off the beaten track, they exist pretty much as they did before European invasion. As far removed as they may be from our inner cities’ supposed safe harbours and despite their heavy Catholic influences – a hang-up from colonisation, here exists a community strong in its trans representation.
ArtsHub speaks with community elder and leader Crystal Love, who says, ‘The Tiwi islands is a very laid-back community. In a cultural sense, Sistagirls are respected as a mother, cousin, sister or grandmother; it’s the way.
‘We still do the cultural things like going out fishing and hunting. We still have our ceremonies – like when people pass away, we have a ceremony for the living and for the dead.
‘Every school holiday we still take the kids out hunting and teaching them about nature. That’s the only life we live; it’s still the same as it was at the dawn of time.’
Despite the Tiwi Island community being ‘laid-back’, Love adds that it can still be ‘hard to be an LGBTQI person’.
‘We don’t always get the chance to be who we are in our community because of the discrimination and because we are a minority in our own community.
‘Add to this all the changes that have happened since first settlement and how that has affected our people.
‘How I started was because my LGBTQI people were suffering. I had to do it because it was affecting me as well. Being a leader is about making change, and empowering other people to make change. When you empower those people, they could become the next Sistagirl leader like me.’
More than just stagecraft
Love herself, a seasoned performer, regularly takes to the stage at Throb Nightclub – Darwin’s only queer venue – as well as down south in Melbourne, where this writer first met Love a few years ago. Like many others, I was under her spell the moment she took the stage.
As she explains, however, drag for her is more than just stagecraft. ‘Sometimes people say to me that drag is about who you are and want you want to be, and about showing your talent. I show my talent, but I also show my culture. It is part of me, but it is also part of my spirituality as well.
‘Doing drag is like doing our traditional dance. When we put on our traditional dances, put on our body art, it’s the same as putting on makeup; it’s part of our spirituality.’
Pausing for a second, Love continues, saying that it’s important to ‘be proud of who you are’.
‘Drag for me is not just drag, it’s different. It’s like going into a trance, but it also connects you to the land. Your spirit goes right down through the cement and connects you with the land.
‘It’s hard to explain, because people don’t believe that connection is a big part of being Aboriginal and being a drag performer.’
When we think back to the 2000s and to the broader context of Australian history, we must stop to acknowledge the 2008 ‘Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples’ for the Stolen Generations, delivered on 13 February that year by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who described the Stolen Generations period as a ‘blemished chapter in our nation’s history’:
‘The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future. We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians…’
Reflecting on this speech and what it meant for Aboriginal communities, Love tells ArtsHub, ‘Well, one thing is with the Stolen Generations, it was OK to apologise, but it’s not going to give our people stability nor ground them. A lot of Indigenous people have been taken away from their people and from their country – it’s still going on and it’s all still the same.
‘They needed to apologise, and compensation is one thing, but money isn’t the only answer. “Sorry” comes in all shapes and sizes; we need to also honour these people and their stories.’
Concluding, Love says that she ‘hopes this story empowers other people as well’.
‘When people write these stories it empowers our people, you are empowered by your thoughts and your words.’
On 21 August 2010, the Australian Labor Government under the leadership of Julia Gillard, won the federal election, but only by a narrow margin, forming a minority government with the support of three crossbenchers and one Greens MP.
It was a tumultuous time for Australian politics, marked by an ever-revolving door of prime ministers. It would only be another three years before the Liberal Party regained control, marking the beginning of a barrage of attacks by the party on the rights of Rainbow Communities.
Born out of hate to bring love to the world
Moving from the steamy Northern Territory to the somewhat cooler climes of Canberra, we move into the 2010s as the political landscape of Australia begins to heat up once more. Here, fierce First Nations drag queen Mama MadB takes a deep dive into the era that brought us the now defunded Safe Schools Program and the 2017 Marriage Plebiscite.
Mama MadB’s catchphrase is ‘born out of hate to bring love to the world’. They are first and foremost a parent and carer, and have a youth work and arts background.
Having previously worked with youth to address substance abuse on Cape York, they have raised four kids and now have an additional four children of their own as well as ‘about 70 drag kids’.
‘I am a bit of a maternal one,’ they explain with a warm smile.
‘For me, drag is all about education, and about bringing magic and queer love to the world.
‘My mob are Djabugandji and I’m adopted by Kaurareg, which is Torres Strait Islander. Growing up in the housing commission in Cairns, I did a lot of youth work on Cape York. Then I did the whole “in a relationship with a woman”, had children, then kicked down the closet door when we broke up.
‘Cairns is an interesting town, sort of like Canberra, where you have all these different socioeconomic parts. Growing up queer, I was safe in the rougher suburbs. I always had someone who had my back even if I was being loud and queer.
‘But I was sort of in denial as well…
‘Because my youngest one has a high-level intellectual disability, we moved down to Canberra when the NDIS [National Disability Insurance Scheme] was first being rolled out,’ they say.
‘When we moved to Canberra, I was searching for my community, but I was looking around and there were all these intersecting communities. They’d look at me and question, “You’re a black fella, but you’re gay or bi, and you have kids?” They didn’t know where to put me.
‘You also have those intersections where I’m adopted by the Torres Straits, but I’m also Aboriginal, and have to always educate people where the Torres Straits is.
‘I exist as a black fella and a queer human in mainstream society and also in Indigenous society before we even jump into queer society.’
Having relocated to Canberra in around 2010 because they wanted to be close to family in Sydney ‘but not too close’, Mama MadB moved into a share house with a friend. Not long after they became involved in their children’s school as a single parent. It was at the same time that the Safe Schools program was beginning to be rolled out nationally.
The program was run by the Safe Schools Coalition Australia – a national coalition of organisations and schools. It was intended that these networks would ‘work together to create safe and inclusive school environments for same sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse students’.
‘I went to one protest in a dress and that was the birth of Mama MadB,’ they recall. ‘At this protest there was a group called the Party for Freedom; they filmed me that day without permission. From that footage they launched a public hate campaign against me. At the time they and other far right groups were becoming very vocal against the Safe Schools Program here in the ACT.’
‘If you Google any of the protests in Canberra during this time, you will see some big loud drag queen with their voice half gone; that would be me. It just turned out that way. I would turn up and people would just hand me a megaphone.’
Mama MadB and their kids were forced to move home soon after they had secured public housing. They describe the two years it took for the transfer to new suitable housing as ‘scary’ and they had to stay out of the public eye during this time.
‘I still have moments of PTSD from that time; that’s one of the major impacts on my mental health these days,’ they say.
Described by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott as ‘social engineering’, the Safe Schools Program saw opposition to it grow louder and louder during this period. Mama MadB says that the public and very vocal opposition was, as is often the case, ‘down to misinformation’.
‘At the time it was when the far right was just starting to become very vocal and spreading misinformation,’ they say.
For Rainbow Communities, this was just the beginning of a time that was marred by constant attacks levelled at our very existence.
White picket fences all of our own
Taking office on 15 September 2015, after ousting Abbott in a hasty party room leadership vote, Malcom Turnbull within a year would introduce the Plebiscite (Same Sex) Marriage Bill 2016 to the House Of Representatives, paving the way for the plebiscite one year later that would finally grant same sex couples the right to marry.
It was during the campaign for the “yes vote” that Mama MadB fell madly in love with their partner and the couple are set to marry on 28 October this year.
‘My then 10-year-old, that was their main thing for the plebiscite. They came to all the Parliament House mornings. I hadn’t even met my husband by then, but as soon as she knew I was gay, she was determined there was going to be a gay wedding. Every man we met I was allowed to marry them and that was that,’ says Mama MadB.
‘My child’s approach has become my whole approach to life. We are all equal, as long as we aren’t hurting anybody.’
After years of campaigning and protests, on 15 November 2017 it was announced that more than 61% of those who voted in the plebiscite had voted “yes”. This historic day was met with jubilation and celebration by Rainbow Communities across the country.
Recalling that day, Mama MadB tells ArtsHub, ‘I was so fragile by this point, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go down to the street party. But the moment I heard it was a “yes”, we jumped in the taxi and joined everyone else and partied for I don’t know how many hours.
‘[Senator for South Australia and Minister for Foreign Affairs] Penny Wong and everyone else was there. I don’t even know how to describe all the emotions; it was just a mess of love and happiness.’
Later this year Australians will once again head to the polls to vote in the 2023 Australian Indigenous Voice referendum. Mama MadB says, ‘At this point I’m literally still a neutral party on this matter with all the misinformation being fed from both sides.
‘The white voices getting louder and louder are blocking the whole reason behind the referendum of us black fellas getting a voice for ourselves,’ they add.
Holding similar views as Mama MadB, Crystal Love says in conclusion that the Australian Government ‘needs to come out to Aboriginal communities and talk about it’, adding that they are currently ‘only talking to people in the cities’.
‘Australia has a big population of people living in remote areas. They need to learn how to go out to Indigenous communities, and hire Indigenous people, to make sure they understand. A lot of people don’t understand politics and the way it may affect our everyday lives.’
In Part 3 of Queer and present danger, we move into the 2020s and head down to Melbourne, discussing how, in the wake of the COVID pandemic, drag went digital with Linh Uendo and Kitty Obsidian.
These two young drag artists will also discuss how growing alt right threats and protests, which saw the Nazi salute performed on the steps of the Victorian State Parliament, have led to a number of performance events cancelled by local councils across 2023.