Book review: Colouring the Rainbow – Blak Queer and Trans Perspectives: Life Stories and Essays by First Nations People of Australia

Book review: Colouring the Rainbow – Blak Queer and Trans Perspectives: Life Stories and Essays by First Nations People of Australia

HIV Australia | Vol. 13 No. 3 | December 2015

Colouring the Rainbow – Blak Queer and Trans Perspectives: Life Stories and Essays by First Nations People of Australia  Edited by Dino Hodge.

Wakefield Press, Adelaide.

Reviewed by Gregory Phillips

The contributors identify as sistergirl, brotherboy, lesbian, gay and queer, and they are strong leaders, change agents, intellectuals, artists, survivors and sportspeople.

The tome is organised into three sections: life stories, public emergence, and academic analysis of the socio-political forces that impact on Aboriginal Queer realities.

Crystal Johnson’s life story is a perfect opening to the collection because her story illustrates how important it is for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to define and share their own cultural, sexual and gender belongings.

As a sistergirl, her story illustrates how being Tiwi (Aboriginal), trans, Christian, an HIV educator and a keeper of traditional Tiwi knowledge can all exist at the same time in one Beautiful Blak body! Her selfmeanings are what is powerful and piercing.

While Kai Clancy, Ben Gertz and others’ stories portray the real struggles involved in self-acceptance and dealing with bigotry, they are also stunning and sweet pictures of family acceptance, cultural mentorship, and pride in political activism.

The contributors in the second section on public emergence tell of raw strength, community action, and the beauty of working with communities in an empowering way.

The late Rodney Junga-Williams’, and Brett Mooney’s, stories are perhaps particularly relevant to the readership of HIV Australia, because they confront HIV head-on as activists, educators and leaders. They break down barriers, open hearts and educate minds.

All of the stories in this section represent a turning point in Aboriginal Queer lived realities.

Far from being the tragic and romanticised people others sometimes want them to be, the contributors here are examples of brave hearts and true souls – not just because they overcome the degradation that racism, sexism and heteronormativity seeks to impose on them in multiple and regular ways, but because they render colonisation and patriarchy starkly bare; exposing its guts and skin through sheer determination and the will to speak truth to power.

In finely honed analyses, the contributors in the third section point out that while Queer communities are also marginalised, the largely white, middle class, male keepers of power in Queer movements are often complicit in the ongoing colonial project.

The writers suggest that liberation is not only about overcoming racism in the white community, homophobia and transphobia in Aboriginal communities, or sexism and heterosexism in both, but about revealing that the power relations of the colonial project are still alive today, and inform all of these forms of bigotry.

Maddee Clark writes, ‘Aboriginal sexual histories are often written by settlers with an anxious investment in believing that white settlement is justified, largely peaceful, and necessary’ (p. 239).

Importantly, Oscar Monaghan asserts that overcoming this legacy will require an intersection of Aboriginal and Queer activism, where white Queers support Aboriginal sovereignty, and Aboriginal movements continue to support sexual and gender diversity.

Essentially, each of the stories in this collection is saying that white views on what constitutes culture, sexuality, gender and tradition ought to be irrelevant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lived realities.

While white society continues to attempt to define, shape and control Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, especially in terms of the onslaught of HIV and other newer waves of mass trauma, these stories illustrate beautifully the power and groundedness of returning home.

Returning to, or re-creating, one’s cultural, familial, spiritual, social or political belongings – however self-defined – is an essential act for all humans. These leaders exemplify it.

A final note on editorship is necessary. As an Aboriginal Queer academic myself, I question why a non-Aboriginal man has come to edit such a powerful collection of stories.

While there may have been invitations issued for him to do so, at the very least, co-editorship with Aboriginal editors could have been considered. Are some white academics taking up space, voice and editorial power that should and could be filled by Blackfullas?

Should non-Aboriginal writers and editors step back and allow space for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to decide and edit what our own collections of stories look like? Yes.

Otherwise, white power can get reinscribed in apparent acts of allegiance, demonstrating what contributors in this book call out.

That said, these twenty-two Blak Queer leaders, working with Dino Hodge, have delivered finely nuanced and powerful stories that the social, literary and cultural world desperately needs. They are all to be congratulated.

Associate Professor Gregory Phillips, PhD, is a Research Fellow in Aboriginal Health at the Baker IDI Heart & Diabetes Institute.