Gay and homosexually active Aboriginal men in Sydney



Underlying the ambiguity and tension about social integration is the interrelation of homophobia and racism. A evaluation of an Aboriginal health promotion media intervention in the late 1980s found that 'no kid dared admit to being at risk of AIDS, because of homophobia, and fear of being branded gay-so they focused on heterosexual transmission and sharing tattoo needles' (Brady 1993 : 25).  

Homophobia, a concept with a problematic past in terms of its original pathological reference to the irrational fear of homosexuality, still remains a useful tool to describe the social reality of negative evaluations of and violence towards homosexual people (Neilsen and Hill 1993: 11; Watney 1987). It is only recently that the intersections of homophobia and race have been questioned and the wider cultural ramifications analysed (Goldby 1990: 16; Roman 1993: 206) - again largely by American and British black academics. An example that Hooks uses to express the often ambiguous nature of black talk about sexuality in general is that of a congregation listening to a preacher rage against gay people and simply thinking that such views are amusing or outmoded and dismissing them without challenging them (Hooks 1988: 23). The Australian analogy to be made here is with the play Bran Nue Dae, where a similar scenario is acted out (Chi 1991).  

Cultural theorists are now writing that a violent homophobia is necessarily implicated in a particular nationalistic position which, since the late 1960s, has filtered through black communities as a major influence in African-American culture (Harper 1993: 126). Whether such a dynamic is relevant to indigenous Australia remains to be analysed but the analogy serves as a reminder of the power of discourse to shape experience. 

John: AIDS is seen as a gay white disease and I really think a lot of people see themselves as immune to it. 
Would such a scenario as a black parents group marching alongside the National Front in Britain - an example where, Mercer suggests, homophobia 'became hegemonic over racism' (Mercer 1990: 49) - be unlikely to occur in Australia? Such a prospect can be quickly dismissed: witness the 'Cleansing Marches' that the Reverend Fred Nile's Call to Australia Party has led down Oxford Street in recent years and observe that it is often largely Aboriginal people, brought in from rural New South Wales, sitting on the back of these trucks.  

In terms of power effects Martin commented about the double bind of being 'outed' as an Aboriginal gay. Matthew spoke of the threat to one's acknowledgment as a representative Aboriginal spokesperson if this were to happen, and of the fear of retaliation: 

The whole fear of labelling and other organisations knowing that this person is gay is that [he] might have a lot of political clout.  

Philip: It amazes me when homosexuality seems to always be portrayed as a negative thing. Your sexuality is only so much . . . they put the minority into the majority and I think that's really wrong. 

The conflation of homosexuality and HIV/AIDS appears to be working well in some Aboriginal communities as it is in the wider community. The fear of sickness and death cannot be discounted.  

The interrelated issue of confidentiality came through strongly in the interviews. As found in earlier studies, the distrust felt by Aboriginal gay men was considered a major impediment in any attempt to promote the use of Aboriginal health and welfare services (Cole 1991). A leading policy maker: 

The issue of confidentiality is critical if we are going to be effective in dealing with HIV/AIDS. All health professionals need to be aware of this (Nangala 1992:4). 
John thinks that the site of testing is a major issue for Aboriginal homosexually active men and that many would choose not to use Aboriginal medical services: 'Confidentiality [the lack of it] is one of the biggest issues that stops people being tested in the first place.' 
Mark: The big problem I think throughout Australia . . . confidentiality with Aboriginal medical services or health services that are mainstream . . . you'll find that if there's any other Aboriginal person within ten miles they won't go.  

Philip: I mean you wouldn't go there in a blue fit really.  

Gary: I don't go to medical centres to get tested because of the problems of confidentiality ... down there is a big problem yeah. Koori [homosexually active] guys and Koori women are just wasting their time trying to fit in . . . I feel they just can't fit in. 
Gay Koori guys would be the most dispossessed because they're caught between not only their sexual preferences for a man or for a woman . . . but they're caught between the white and black world and the straight and the camp - how could I put it? - the camp people of the Koori race you know and I feel that they're not acceptable. They feel that they are the laughing stock . . . yes very isolated at times so they keep secret about it, their whole sexuality they keep secret about the whole thing and they don't tell anybody. It builds up inside . . . where there are suicidal cases. 
. . . we're afraid of talking, I don't talk with her [his girlfriend has gossiped]; I felt betrayed. Now it can't be proven because I'm with a girl. 

It is these strategies of containment and silencing from within the black community that are increasingly being contested by black women, gays and lesbians (Forrest 1995). 'Gay' Aboriginality is an emergent discourse that insists its voice be heard as authentic and distinct and this came through strongly in the research interaction. This insistence is fuelled by concerns around a practical response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. 
Martin: Positive people go home to die or just to see their family. No questions are asked. But why do they originally escape from their communities? To get lost, to find themselves! How do they explain to their families they're gay or IV users or positive? There is very poor info on risk, we need to talk to everyone. 
While it is important to analyse the racist construction of Aboriginality and alongside it the discursive construction of homophobia, it is also important to address the contestation that occurs, from whichever side of the border, about the possibility of the inclusion of homosexuality within its borders. As Mercer states, such a 'cruel rhetoric' as to deny the existence of [Aboriginal] gay men and that some are dying of AIDS, is 'like the psychic mechanism of disavowal (the refusal to believe) on which it is based, [which] can only imply a negation of diversity and difference in black society' (Mercer 1993: 359). Contesting this double bind of black homophobia and gay racism should not be underestimated either, in terms of the psychic resources it demands of the individual in countering such systemic oppression.  

Michael recalls his experience of 'outsider' status and homophobia: 

Aboriginals were disliking people who were HIV and really showing it in terrible quarrels . . . my close friends would drive past me when they found out I had HIV.  

I wore the condom shirt here in Glebe Point Road. A lady who knows I'm HIV called out , 'but that never fuckin' changed you, never fuckin' helped you' ... [another] never saw me for a long time and she said, 'oh god Michael, I thought you were dead!' You know. And death. Because you're HIV. 

The 'spectacle' of sexuality and race, and the level of anxiety about black gay bodies and HIV-positive black gay identity is well described in the above quotations. This dynamic demands further analysis as a critical response to HIV/AIDS. 
James: Um being gay as well, it sort of ostracises me from a lot of my relatives within the Koori community and um a lot of my relatives they rock up in Sydney . . . I don't say anything . . . it's like I'm gay what do you expect. Religion is the biggest flick-up. 
© HIV, AIDS and Society Publications 1996 
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