Gay and homosexually active Aboriginal men in Sydney


 Aboriginal gay milieu

In the following analysis the micro levels of Aboriginal gay milieus are not fully drawn out. What is addressed is the complication that regionality and migration make to such an inquiry.  

Barry, who grew up in Sydney's [working-class] western suburbs: 

I just relied on the gay community when I first came out . . . went to the clubs and met men to express that I wasn't the only one . . . that I wasn't sick so to speak. But personally I've never relied on the gay community. I knew I had to work with straight [Aboriginal] people and I didn't want to segregate myself. 
Gary came from rural New South Wales: 
I moved to Sydney because of my sexual, uh, inclinations . . . my spiritual and sexual walk. I don't think there is such a thing as a romantic type of love on the gay scene. I was with this guy for the security purposes only. He taught me a lot in regards to drug addicts in general and the gay scene. The gay scene is too superficial. I drop in on Friday night and see the crew at [an inner Sydney pub] but now that my girlfriend has had a fight with [cousin] we don't go there any more . . . I go alone and see him and other friends. 
Daryl, who grew up in regional New South Wales towns, says he came to Sydney: 
not necessarily for being gay just to get out of a country area and get back in a better direction. 
He recalls his early participation in the inner-city gay scene: 
you'd just go out and meet people and then you meet their friend and carry on from there. 
Daryl, who now shares a flat with 'two drag queens', does not think there are many gay or bisexual Aboriginal men in Sydney. He thinks he knows of about 20. Daryl, who says he has not experienced racism, comments on his friends in the gay community: 
they're older . . . I'd only say that I would consider three people close friends in Sydney . . . most of them are shallow relationships. Basically all my life's spent with gays except work. 
Despite his social life being conducted in a gay milieu, Daryl hedges on committing himself to any particular identity: 'I consider myself a member of society'. 
Peter and Martin: Gay Aboriginal men don't live in Redfern [the inner-city Aboriginal area]. Because we don't live in Redfern, we might work here, again we don't fit in with the idea of community, we're criticised. 
Bruce comments that perceived success, in terms of career and financial security, is also part of this perception of difference: 
I was told not to hang out in Redfern because they'd bash me up because I was an up-town nigger [i.e. successful or better off financially, or considers himself to be].  

Philip: It's the tall poppy syndrome too.  

James: My identity as a Koori I always knew, I mean so there wasn't a problem in that sense . . . but as a gay person it was the biggest priority because I hung out with Murris [Aboriginal people from Queensland and part of the Northern Territory] wherever I went. My sexuality was a huge thing I had to deal with. I wasn't heavily influenced like within the gay scene. I've never been one to really go out there with the gay scene and sort of take on that façade. 

Michael has a long history of social and sexual engagement with Sydney's gay community but also a strong criticism of it. He recalls the sense of community that he found in the formative years, before gay liberation: 
People said let's have a party and everybody from the hotel went . . . it was a kind of family where everybody knew each other, and when the new boys came in . . . god we latched like you know nobody's business. 
The impact of the gay liberation movement, often referred to as 'post-Stonewall', arrived in Australian cities in the 1970s and political action coincided with increased possibilities for social interaction between gay men (Altman 1979). The historical contribution of the radical gay movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s has informed the reification of 'gayness' as we know it today and opened up social and sexual space for homosexual men in general (Altman 1982; Herdt 1992). In promoting the homophile proposition of 'permanent homosexuality' the radical gay movement was, at the same time, also 'co- creating sexual identities' (Meijer 1993: 134-5). This very essentialised notion of gayness in terms of core identity, the result of an effective political strategy, is now open to questioning and may well yet prove to emanate from a privileged class and cultural position. However, the influence of this historic and cultural process can be said to have touched the lives of some of the men in this research. The dynamics of inclusion and exclusion are relevant to this context.  

Michael recalled the Aboriginal social group that met regularly in the 1970s: 

The Oxford Hotel. That was a very good thing because it did congregate blacks ... not in a positive manner when it came to being aware of your environment because a lot of people who came to that corner were ridiculed by white people . . . and when that moved that's when the sexuality changed. 
Mark also mentioned this era: 
There were I would say up to thirty-three other Aboriginal gay men around at that time when I was about eighteen to nineteen. I would be able to count about twenty-three gay Aboriginal men from throughout Australia. The Oxford Hotel was one place. It was like the black pub and we used to hang around there ... it was like a few years later, AIDS came on the scene and from that group of people there are now three of us left, all the rest have passed away. 
Mark discussed what he thinks happened when this particular milieu disbanded: 
It's just moved premises and it's actually split up ... gone into many areas within Sydney that gays are meant to go, it's not even specifically gay- orientated pubs any more ... what happened is that you find there's many factions of gay Aboriginal men and they have their own tight units . . . they'll support each other, rarely will they invite anyone else in too and [they] only get together at say Mardi Gras. In actual fact it works, it's just adapted, changed with the times. They're around still, they're there. They are gay Aboriginal men, they identify as such, they have no fear, they've come out, that's a difference nowadays. 
Bruce reflected: 
If you went out by yourself you knew where to find them . . . that's totally changed and everyone's got their own little groups that they hang out with. We acknowledge each other and we respect the fact that we have our own little groups. 
Michael offered: 
If the gay scene moved in a positive manner as in the non-racism stuff, black people would have more move in the gay scene, more involvement within the Mardi Gras and not feel inhibited to any degree. I mean I never go in there once without debating with someone the injust that is there. 
Much of the contestation around emergent Aboriginal gay identity has occurred within the context of the collectivity in cities like Sydney. John thinks that choosing to live as a gay Aboriginal man requires moving to a place like Sydney. John stresses that these men can't be 'who they are' in their own communities and that this migration to the gay centres means that they are 'actually removed from Aboriginal society'. John describes this removal in terms of: 
stepping into a sexual level. So therefore it's not the cultural issues they're looking at, it's their sexual history and by doing that they may segregate themselves from other people based on fear and based on judgment of what might happen to them. Like Aboriginal men are subjected to discrimination on lots of different levels. 
John is aware that most Aboriginal people coming to Sydney find themselves socialising and often working with other Aboriginal people. Some of the tension inherent in dealing with conflicting identities is revealed in John's discussion of the need for gay Aboriginal men to form friendship networks, which he says largely operate exclusively and independently from the wider Aboriginal community. 
John: You are not going to get Aboriginal gay men, you know, being pally with Aboriginal heterosexual men. They're going to stick together.  

Philip: I was in [Queensland town] and this young fellow came up to me in this bar and said: 'you've really inspired me to come out but I won't do it here, I've got to come to Sydney'.  

Bruce: I think, for me, regardless of whether you're homosexual, heterosexual, black, white or brindled, especially black people, they need positive role models. When I was at school the only thing we saw was Aboriginal people coming in the afternoon, single file, drop all their kids on the nature strip [grass verge] and go to the pub . . . I think the Aboriginals who are gay need that support system, you need to have a network around you.  

John: It's like all right, they'll come into the cities. Openly gay have no problems but once they leave the city and go back to the community, bang up goes the facades, the masks and it's back into the community jargon and living that way. . . that's an issue that has to be addressed. 
I think if you move from out of one group you might not be allowed back in . . . it's very rare to see individual Aboriginal men out by themselves . . . we go out in a group and we stick together all night . . . it's a form of security, it's a form of safety .. . against you know rejection . . . the feeling of being the odd one out and also financially it's a major issue . . . unemployment benefits or government-dependent. 
The moving out of that community and moving somewhere they can be themselves . . . this schizophrenic personality . . . what they do in Sydney they might never do back in their own town . . . they might not even socialise with anybody ... they don't even go out drinking ... they don't want to be confronted by anybody ... so they live a totally separate world/existence to what they would do in Sydney. Nine times out often the family do know they're different but it's just a fact that's never been said.  

Bruce: I would go home and pretend ... I just wouldn't show interest in people that I normally would, um openly. 

What can be further explored is the 'contextual seduction of the gay movement' and the self-construction by homosexually active persons themselves (Meijer 1993: 133). 
Mark: It was just like you know the game of life, it was just part of it, it was just the way it was. I think I was so conceited within myself. . . I thought I like this game . . . I wouldn't have cared if my family did find out, it wouldn't have mattered, it was like I'm all fight, I know who I am, but I had these obligations to my family and you know maybe that was there as well, stopping me . . . overall I was like quite happy with my lifestyle. 
It was my mid twenties when I started to realise that gay Aboriginal were not any different to white gay men. I kind of realised that I'd stereotyped gay Aboriginal men myself I think that's the big problem. What a lot of gay Aboriginal men here now do is stereotype other gay-active men and it's pretty scary to listen to them. It's realistic in a way because it's exactly what I used to do . . . it's just the process. ' 
Some of the best known Aboriginal gay groups are the ones that have formed in the performing arts community, which has always been a focus for gay Aboriginal people, providing both a work and social environment. John says these groups are often exclusive and unwelcoming of outsiders: 
I think a lot of people are intimidated because if you move out of one group you might not be allowed back into it.  

Colin: I wanted to go there 'cause I'd seen all the boys, you know all the girls and I wanted to be amongst it [cultural organisation]. 
But the friends that I have are mainly ex-boyfriends and they keep up contact. They're usually dancers . . . I've gone out with a couple of dancers, black Aboriginal gay dancers . . . but there are very few Aboriginal gay men who've got it together. 

Not wanting to feel the odd one out and financial realities such as being benefit-dependent are also given as explanations of the need to form and socialise in groups. The other obvious reason is that Aboriginal gay men socialise in an often racist gay community.  

Barry talks about his interaction with other Aboriginal homosexually active men: 

we all have our own little set of friends that we always keep in contact with . . . [but] on the scene I meet a lot. Can sit there and dance together, have a drink together. We see each other in the street we say hello. They always come talk to you if they know you're Aboriginal. I like the company of my Aboriginal friends every now and then. I feel comfortable in that environment. We talk about where we are from and the proudness of you know the culture. 
The social setting for the interactions of many Aboriginal gay men is the hotels and clubs of inner Sydney. Drugs and alcohol are part of this scene, as is the case for most gay men, and Michael is well aware of the centrality of this experience: 
I love 'em! And I've had a gutful of them. And I had lots of it . . . but I put myself in the degree of being ruled by drugs. Because I mentally can't say no when I come to the city. 

© HIV, AIDS and Society Publications 1996 
This report may not be copied without the express permission of the copyright holder. 
ISBN 085837 832 9