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'We want to be heard': NT Sistergirls say plebiscite ignores them

Members of the Tiwi Islands’ Sistergirls community have criticised the government’s marriage equality plebiscite, saying their community won’t get a say and that the money could be better spent on education and services to improve their daily lives. 

Marriage is “the big thing we still struggle with”, Sistergirl Shaun Kerinauia told Fairfax Media ahead of the Darwin premiere on Tuesday of a new Vice documentary on the islands’ LGBT community and the daily challenges its members face. 

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Trailer: Island Queens

‘Island Queens’, the second VICE documentary in its Australiana series, follows the Tiwi Islands’ thriving gay and transgender community known as the Sistergirls.

“A lot of girls that want to settle down and want to have a partner they love, they can’t express their love for someone else openly. A lot of girls struggle to find that soulmate. At the end of the day, we would love to have an open relationship in the open community, out there in public,” Shaun said.

Shaun, who is gender-ambiguous but identifies as a gay Sistergirl and drag performer, and is happy to be called Mister, Miss, “he/him” and “they/them”, features in the documentary along with fellow Sistergirls Crystal Love and Laura, who both identify as transgender women. Although the trio say the island has seen significant progress on LGBT issues over the years, they still struggle with acceptance in the remote community where Sistergirls make up about 5 per cent of the population. 

While they support marriage equality, they don’t believe their views will be counted in the postal survey. Shaun says like most people who live on Tiwi, he collects mail from the post office rather than a personal address, which could leave him without a say. 

But there is more to the issue than having a personal address. Crystal, who Shaun describes as one of the elders who “paved the way” for the Sistergirl community, points out that language and education is a huge barrier to participation among remote Aboriginal communities, who “don’t understand about the plebiscite”.

“The government doesn’t realise that, you know, it’s hard work. It’s about translating English into language, going into communities and actually talking to our Indigenous counterparts.

“They should be employing people to go out to the communities and talking to them and telling them how to vote and what the vote is for.”

All of which would cost even more than the $ 122 million already being spent on the non-binding postal survey. Crystal would prefer to see the money spent on education and support for LGBT people in remote Indigenous communities. 

Speaking in the Senate last week, NT Labor senator Malarndirri McCarthy rubbished the plebiscite as “discriminatory” and questioned what consideration the government had given to “the over 100 Aboriginal languages” and the “42 town camps, 72 remote Indigenous communities and 500 homelands” in the NT where individuals may not have home addresses recorded. 

“It’s disgraceful – when you think of half a billion dollars cut to our organisations over the last couple of years, and the incredible need there is in terms of those very important areas of daily living, housing, the care for our children, the issues around detention, the high jail rates. We know that money can be so much better spent,” Senator McCarthy said.

Daniel Alderman, the co-chair of Darwin Pride and men’s coordinator of care and support program at NT AIDS and Hepatitis Council, said the government’s priorities were “skewed”. He doesn’t believe marriage equality will make much of a difference for LGBT people in remote communities who “are usually facing multiple physical and mental health issues at the one time” and are desperately in need of services.  

But the plebiscite debate has brought more vitriol to Darwin, which is already home to many vulnerable Indigenous LGBT people who’ve had to leave their communities, he added. 

“A lot of what we do see is people being socially isolated and feeling that they cannot life their life in their communities, and what this plebiscite has done in Darwin is it’s unleashed really nasty, hateful graffiti all over town.”

Crystal feels ignored by the campaign and the plebiscite, which she sees as aimed predominantly at white people in urban areas. While marriage equality could help her community, too, much more work needs to be done to improve awareness and understanding, she said. 

“We still have our culture, they still won’t accept us to marry a man. We could marry a man in closed doors. We can’t walk with them on the street, we can’t share our money with them, because no… we still have that cultural ban which stops us. It’s the same with gay men, lesbians, bisexual men, and sistergirls and brotherboys. It’s hard because they still will not accept you as who you are.

“But marriage equality could help, it’s the lock and education is the key. If we start educating and showing that if white people can do it, so can black people.”

Shaun just wants to get it over with. “It’s dragging on too long,” he said. 

“We want acceptance, we want to be heard, we want our rights and we just want our freedoms that everyone else has. We are human beings also.”

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