Individual Aboriginal people have participated in Sydney’s Mardi Gras parade since its inception in 1978. In 1982, for example, Roger McKay marched alone in the parade carrying the Aboriginal flag. He was determined to make the point that, no matter how much Oxford Street was seen as the gay ‘Golden Mile’, it was still on Aboriginal land.
But 1988 was the first year that queer Indigenous Australians participated as a visible group.
There is great significance not only in their participation but also in the year that they chose to do so.1988 was the year in which Australia’s bi-centennial was celebrated.
At least by some. For others it represented the anniversary of a British invasion. And that invasion led to the mass slaughter and disempowerment of the continent’s indigenous population.
Almost from the day the First Fleet landed, Aboriginal people were systematically killed, exploited and marginalised by white settlers. Two hundred years later the brutality may have been less obvious but the marginalisation still existed. And that marginalisation made itself felt in Australia’s queer communities too.
I was a Social Worker on Australia’s largest AIDS Unit at the time, and one of my clients was a gay Aboriginal man. He was admitted with a condition that was not considered life-threatening. Yet three days later he was dead. And as he died he was convinced he could see the flames of Hell were rising up around him. This was the consequence of a childhood spent on an outback mission, where white Christians taught him that black people were inferior to whites and homosexuals were an abomination.
When he arrived at our Unit he was homeless and a seething mass of internalised homophobia and racism. To this day, I believe that that is what killed him. It made him believe that he deserved to die and that, in turn, made him believe that he deserved to die. As I’ve already said, his clinical diagnosis – oral thrush – wasn’t a life-threatening one. *
So when the first Aboriginal float was entered in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade, it’s significance was not lost on me. 1988 – the year in which the bicentenary of white settlement was being celebrated – was also the year that queer Aborigines chose for their very public coming out.
A number of people were involved in organising the float; men and women, Aborigines, Torres Strait Islanders and South Sea Islanders. A lot of the money for the float came from customers and management of the Toxteth pub in Glebe. Central to this fund-raising were Josie King from Lismore and her partner at the time Libby Clinch, a Noongar woman from Western Australia.
Media attention was focused on the ‘Captain Cook’ element of the float. Malcolm Cole, a professional dancer, was dressed as Captain James Cook, the Englishman who supposedly ‘discovered’ Australia. Beside him were other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men, dressed in outfits that the original white settlers would have worn. They travelled in a long boat, pulled by white men.
The notion of an Aboriginal Captain Cook – in a year when White Australia was celebrating its bicentennial – clearly attracted the most attention. Sadly, this meant that the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who were also present – in equal, if not greater numbers – were overlooked.
But for Indigenous men and women alike, participation in Sydney’s largest and most famous queer event was no reflection of their participation in Sydney’s queer community. As Malcolm Cole told the Sydney Morning Herald, growing up black and gay meant battling against two of society’s strongest prejudices:
“Gay Aborigines have had to battle prejudice from within their own community, which traditionally does not recognise homosexuality as a lifestyle, as well as fight for acceptance from the largely middle class gay culture. Many of them can relate to experiences of being refused entrance to gay clubs, ostensibly for being drunk, though no more so than their white companions.”
It would be a further three years before the first Asian gay men’s float, Asians and Friends, appeared and a further four before the first Sydney Asian Lesbian Network float.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: My thanks to Esther Montgomery, for providing detailed, first-hand information about this event.
- There’s more information about my experiences on the AIDS Unit in my book. More details here.