Gay and homosexually active Aboriginal men in Sydney


 Sexual practice

This section contains certain themes that emerged in the research process, but it is not a thorough account of the complex issues that are inherent in any understanding of Aboriginal sexuality, including homosexuality. Regionality, migration and changes over time are three issues that require further investigation. Travel back and forth between urban and rural areas or regional centres is a feature of many Aboriginal people's lives, including some of the men in this study.  

An Aboriginal community health worker has stated that homosexuality and bisexuality are 

real issues and that they do exist in the Black community, as is the case across all cultures and throughout history. . . . I say things like: 
'When he says "Darling, I never once touched another woman" he may be telling you the truth. Because when he says that he was only out with the boys, he was out with the boys alright but in a way that many may not want to know about' (Smith 1992: 19-20). 
Peter heard this speech at a conference and he recalls: 'People laughed and identified with it - they knew it happened'. 
Peter: We need re-education of our history to include initiation and bisexuality. Older men taught the boys lots of things including sex. I enjoy giving people this information when I give my talks because they don't know.  

Gary: You say you and another initiated guy, you're in the bush together for a long time away from all the other crew, I mean you're gonna do something aren't youse ... to satisfy each other in some way. I mean if you're with a group of straight black guys and they all get drunk and you walk home. You ended up leaving the pub . . . walking home with a friend . . . with another black guy and you stop in the park somewhere and you have another little drink and you start talking about sex and women and stuff I mean they turn out that they want it all the time . . . I haven't had many black guys like that . . . but it goes on heaps. I mean getting off is getting off. . . I mean you don't care who is down there as long as it . . . if it was a young guy who was going down on me . . . I'd let him go for it.  

James: They know that they would like to experience boys or they have. It is more accepting, of course, traditionally in other places, more in some places than others. My uncle once came up and said 'you know bring up your other half and I said well it's a boy and my uncle said 'well, I like boys too'.  

Michael McCloud: In the areas of say men who have sex with men but don't identify as being gay. Now they're very curious about . . . many areas, but too scared to say about . . . to come out openly . . . I'd say I've probably had around twenty-four or twenty-five cases of Aboriginal men who have contacted me with those issues . . . there will always be that reference . . . but 'I've got a family' and that's about all they'll touch on.  

John: I actually think there are a lot of Aboriginal gay men but there is an even bigger population of Aboriginal bisexual men. Now whether they're bisexual because they don't actually want to live as gay men-there are a lot of Aboriginal men who are in relationships with women who have children and who also have sex with other men . . . in the community there is not one Aboriginal person who identifies as gay who has not had a relationship, sexual relationship with women. 

Despite the overstatement of John's claim, several interviewees recalled their experience of heterosexuality. Colin had sex with women when he was younger: 
Colin: Distant cousins which is so common. My sister says I have a couple of strays [children] on the Gold Coast, but I don't know, it could be just bullshit.  

Philip: I know a few people like in a community where I'd see it. The marriage . . . the guy didn't have any children, they just have other people's children, not their own. 

One reading of Philip's comment could be that he is describing a tactic used to avoid the need to disclose homosexuality; it is interesting if it does indeed reveal a pragmatic manoeuvre in this context. Michael found his experiments with women at 15 'not enjoyable at all' but says that fathering black children was something he still thought about. Conversely, Gary, the only practising bisexual in the sample, says that as a teenager he couldn't get women so he 'started directing sexual feelings towards men'. Currently he is living with a white girlfriend and he describes the sexual negotiation of this relationship: 
She's told me openly that I can go and have sex with another man if I choose to . . . I'm not exactly open about it. I keep denying it to those curious. 
Bruce married a black woman at 21, a relationship which lasted for five years, and says that the original motivation was to try to resolve his indecision about his sexual preference: 
I was thinking well, you know, can't make a decision unless you've known both sides of the fence. 
Bruce considers bisexuality: 
rampant, absolutely rampant. You know, 'that one will play' and all that sort of thing. The only difference between a straight man and a gay man is a bottle of scotch. It never stopped me. I mean, you know, it's like- oh what a handsome man. I want one like that. 
John suggests that there are social and political pressures in the Aboriginal community to maintain a heterosexual identity. He suggests that many homosexually active Aboriginal men 'sit on the fence' in regard to their sexual practice and identity. Part of John's concern is that he meets these men frequently at beats and his views on their nondisclosure also reflect his own investment in a sexual identity. He explains his idea of institutional pressure: 
I really do think that in the Aboriginal community it's much easier to create a diversion than to actually put yourself out on a chopping block as to who you are. 
Peter's comments appear to describe a regional dynamic but perhaps also the stereotyping of sexual identity: 
Openly gay people will go back but these are usually the 'Queenies' and they are accessible to men generally. People make excuses about their behaviour like 'I was drunk at the time'. 

Sex work

Sex work is one pattern that some Aboriginal men follow in coming to Sydney. Although it reflects the reality of low educational status and related employment difficulties, it also has benefits socially. Daryl says he made gay frends through his work in an escort agency. Mark speaks of the work as a lifestyle that provided financial and social benefits and he says: 'it just became part of my life'. What is interesting here is that, in a way, sexuality is produced in this work, and developed and constructed. Barry, who is currently still a sex worker, has a long history of this employment in both Sydney and Melbourne. Stating that his sisters and a male cousin are also sex workers, he says: 'It sort of runs in the family'. 
I worked on the streets at the weekend and back to school on week days. For eleven years I did that. . . Parlours. In the seventies you're talking about an era when we've basically just got the right to vote ... we still weren't considered human or part of Australia and here's a group of Aboriginal men who also are declaring that they're gay. If you really look at the situation I think you'll find the majority of those gay Aboriginal men back then were either street workers, selling themselves so that they could really just support themselves. There are Aboriginal men who are coming from the rural areas to major population areas and thinking 'oh this is wonderful' but being broke as well; now this was the only way they could survive. 
John states that there are 'kids that are on the street who are not only stealing but are also sex working'. John commented that this particular group are 'put in the too-hard basket' as far as Aboriginal institutional response is concerned and that he has heard comments like 'well they shouldn't have run away from home'.  

Michael provides valuable contextualising evidence of the embodiment of Aboriginal 'gay' sexuality. Michael is proud of his proficiency as a sex worker and his work in Kings Cross in the late 1960s and early 1970s is recalled with pride and pleasure. What is also notable in this account is Michael's transformation from an unskilled labourer to someone sought after for sexual and, later on, theatrical skills. The 'empowerment' Michael felt should not only be seen in the context of earning power, or in terms of resistance, though they were no doubt important, but in relation to the identity it gave him as a gay sex worker and self-esteem as an Aboriginal gay man. 

And I did it in its most wonderful form, I wore hats, braces and things with baggy pants, and I worked it and maybe it's an American thing but I tell you what, I kept my fuckin' head above water and I survived the fucker b-e-a-u-t-i- f-u-l-l-y. I say beautifully because I did. And those adjectives also because I talk about my sexuality which was an intricate part of me and I'm not ashamed of it. No it was lush and good. 
To date, the literature on Aboriginal sexuality has constructed it in terms of exploitation and focused on gender, stressing powerlessness and domination. Contesting this, Tracey Moffat's 1988 film Nice Coloured Girls has been analysed as challenging the representation of Aboriginal women as objects of sexual relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, 'as victims of their racial and gender positions in Australian society', as either ' "wanton strumpets" or "shy maids" ' (Jennings and Hollinsworth 1988: 129). The exploration and documentation of the phenomenon of 'finding a captain' in this film is not only specific to Aboriginal women seeking firm and profit from the white men they pick up, it is also relevant to the practices of some homosexually active Aboriginal men.  

The parallel that can be found between these men's experience and the one represented in Moffat's film is in the context of the active negotiation of the exchange and the understanding of 'its terms ... and [manipulation] of the balance of payments' (Jennings and Hollinsworth 1988: 129). Michael recalls his sense of power in these negotiations: 

I had it down pat . . . I could be in a club with my friends, where we'd all run out of money. I'd walk down the street, have a coffee, do a quick head job or be fucked up the arse, walk away from there with $150 and go back and enjoy the thing . . . I played there and I knew the Cross [Sydney's red-light district] like the back of my hand. 

 White fellas! White fellas! I was brought up with white fellas! I've called a few 'blue veins' [referring to the white penis]. You know. Fuck me . . . and I loved it, I didn't mind. 


Black-White sexual relationships and practices

'Coming out' as a homosexual is a complex issue in general and even more so when ethnic or cultural proscriptions exist (Sedgwick 1990). Aboriginal communities appear divided over the issue of homosexuality: some see it as a colonial import and not part of traditional culture and life (Murray 1993 :29; Gay and Lesbian Aboriginal Alliance 1993 : 28-9). At the same time the devastating dislocation and tearing apart of families by colonial governments have reinforced the significance of family in contemporary Aboriginal communities.  

John was caught up in a difficult negotiation about his sexual identification and its interplay with race and he found resolution by 'coming out' in London: 

I was always attracted to men from a very early age but I was also having experiences with women to cover up ... Aboriginal people don't exactly accept homosexuality. And um I didn't have the fear of whether a cousin saw me, whether a sister saw me, 'cause basically I went to a place where there were no Aboriginals. 
What is noticeable in John's accounts as a young Aboriginal gay man coming out in cosmopolitan London, where there would be a relative discursive silence around Aboriginality, is his very real sense of agency: 
people would ask: 'well which way does yow door swing?' ... I basically said well I'm into men . . . I was young at the time . . . I was different . . . I was a totally different look to everything else around the city. 
A theme that emerged prominently in the interviews was the 'difficulty' of relationships with white lovers. Michael talks of his conflict around a choice between white and black lovers: 
. . . that's why I do speak up of the injustice too of living with a white man. Not just the injust[ice], but the understanding of the two individuals as in culturalist concepts. 
I'm now thinking of having black lovers and only because of the mental thing that is in today's society and only because of the racism within Oxford Street [core of Sydney's gay area]. And that's why I talk very strongly about a black man having a black man as a lover, because black men can only understand another black man. 
Colin talks about how his first relationship with a white man ended in violence, brought about by a clash of cultures, to do with 'time and space': 
I said to him where are you coming from culturally . . . and he didn't have an answer . . . it's so easy for a race to pass on a negative attitude about racism . . . it's automatic. I've noticed that when I do happen to pick men up it was their first impression that I'm Aboriginal. So, that's another thing that's put me off gay community. 'Boong', 'Abo'- you're scum really not as good as them . . . they wouldn't mind going to bed with me but they don't because it's not the look. 
Currently Colin is in a long-term relationship with another Aboriginal man ('traditional guy') and this has won approval, unlike the previous relationship, from his family, because 'they can see where he's coming from'. He is non-monogamous and goes to KKK and Bodyline (saunas and sex venues in Sydney) occasionally. Colin and his partner have had a few threesomes with another Aboriginal. 'It was someone we know and it was quite cool.'  

Gary describes his teenage sex with men in rural New South Wales: 'I got what I wanted. It was quite good. We were drunk.' When he was introduced to Sydney hotels (I.e. bars) and sex venues, Gary started having sex with both black and white men but 'more white than black'. He talks of 'plenty of good talent' in the sex venues; the implication was that he did not disclose his visits to these places to his (female) partner.  

Daryl stated that he preferred white lovers and that he was not interested in Aboriginal men. He recalls his early years : 

Before I was fifteen . . . until seventeen I used to do beats, but I found Oxford Street, used to go there and meet people in bars or go to the sauna or back room places . . . but then moved so didn't go very much after that. 
Barry's first lover was white and his current lover is an older HIV-positive white man. He says: 
I'm not attracted to dark-featured men . . . I have been with dark Aboriginal guys but they were just sort of flings . . . I'm not attracted to women, they're too possessive. I mean I'm too possessive with my lover. When my lovers find out I'm Aboriginal, they try to get involved and ask questions . . . a lot of them are fascinated by it. 
John, who describes himself as 'very sexually active', said that he prefers his Aboriginal lovers to be young: 'probably 20 under'. Sex with other Aboriginal men has only been a recent development for him: 
prior to that I wasn't because I was discriminating against them . . . well this is my brother . . . it was like sleeping with your brother. 
John has not had sex with women since 1988 and currently he says he has a 'fetish' for 'Mediterranean' and 'Arabic' men. John finds these men in sex venues.  

The notion that sex with other Aboriginal men was a recent dynamic, perhaps a generational one, in the Sydney scene was referred to by several interviewees. 

Bruce: It's a huge change. I mean I'm still quite - not shocked but it's like whooh, OK, fine. It takes me by surprise every now and then. I mean when I was growing up it was very much a thing like if I sleep with a black person it's like sleeping with my father or brother. 
James has had a relationship with an Aboriginal man previously, a man who had left his wife and children for the relationship. After this relationship, James had a long-term relationship with a Maltese man and currently is seeing a white man. He says: 
It was really good to go out with another Koori [Aboriginal1] person, you didn't have the racist problem. I've always gone out with men of different cultures ... the fellow I'm seeing at the moment, he's Anglo and that's interesting because I've never had any problems with my Aboriginality with anyone else before. 
Mark explored the Sydney inner-city gay scene from an early age: 
I did the pub crawls, you know up Oxford Street, that was like my second home, in most cases it was my first home. I actually started going out there when I was about ten . . . it was just the circumstances. I was actually on the street . . . basically I had sugar daddies all the time that looked after me . . . I was a state ward so it was like I worked on the streets during the weekends. Just men . . . we'd be looking at ah I'd say ethnic and white . . . I've not had a relationship with another Aboriginal man. 
You become so entrenched and I didn't think there could be any other way of life then and I didn't care, you know the booze and drugs ran freely and there were a lot of white men. 
Why don't Aboriginal gay men have relationships with other Aboriginal gay men? I think the big thing is there's a stigma attached to being an Aboriginal gay man . . . the other big thing here is that drug and alcohol has an amazing effect, a massive effect upon Aboriginal gay men . . . it's endemic within the gay society and it was one part that Aboriginal gay men could actually forget about being Aboriginal. I think that was a big thing for an Aboriginal gay man too . . . a gay Aboriginal man to have any social status was to go out with a white man, a white gay man who had some kind of social standing, that was partly being socially accepted within our community, I'm talking about gay community .. . so I think that's where the stigma comes from . . . there are now young gay youth who are going out with other gay Aboriginal men, that cycle has actually been broken ... social status. The biggest concern you would be looking at now is gay Aboriginal men who are going out with gay Aboriginal men but still like going out with white men because it's still not safe . . . and you wonder how you're going to target that group. 
Alcohol was a major theme in Gary's recollection of childhood in a rural Christian mission settlement, and although he downplays his current use, he admits to a gambling problem. He talks about his views on Aboriginal people in general: 
a lot of Koori people brag on about ... being the most spiritual people or culture on the earth . . . but do they really know spirituality? What is it to them. . . the afterlife . . . meditation. They're either doped up . . . stoned . . . And you can't get a Koori these days away from the TV. 

Safe sex

Daryl says that he only started using condoms in the previous year: 'two years ago it sort of didn't occur to me'. When asked about how he perceived safer sex information in the Aboriginal communities he stated that reasons why Aboriginal people might not practise safer sex were: 'lack of education or basically lack of wanting to'. Daryl says that condom use eventuated though a casual negotiation in his current relationship: 'don't know, [we] just did one day'. Daryl, who is tested every three to six months by his doctor, a well-known gay GP, says he gets his condoms from 'other people'.  

Colin does not use condoms in either his regular relationship or in his casual sex encounters. With his partner he has entered into a strategy of 'negotiated safety' that is not reliant on testing (Kippax et al. 1993). His strategy with his casual partners is that he does not engage in penetration. He recalls an unsafe sex encounter with a white man at [a sex venue]: 

I just had this sexual drive - I like being with different people at times . . . Am I addicted to sex? I know I'd come close to something really dangerous like catching AIDS. 
He obviously knew he had it, cause he was on a drinking and fucking binge. Why do they do that? He started planning that if I'm HIV-positive too, we'd have unsafe sex 'cause we were really, really, really attracted to each other'. 
The reference to drug and alcohol use is something that Colin sees as integral to his own 'fucking binge' and although he says that he is 'surrounded by people that indulge a lot' he has 'cleaned up [his] act now'.  

John thinks that Aboriginal people are a high-risk group for HIV transmission because: 

they are sexually active at young age, fuck like rabbits. STDs, a lot of Kooris don't use condoms ... now whether it's because they're seen as having a disease or ... these old messages 'I can't feel it you know', 'I get rubber burns' . . . safe sex is not a reality for a lot of sexually active Koori people. 

 Drugs and alcohol have a lot to do with it . . . it does escalate your sexual pleasures . . . and you may do things you wouldn't do if you weren't intoxicated. I do things when I'm intoxicated . . . I wouldn't normally do that if I didn't have alcohol or those things running through me. 

John is regularly tested by his GP. Re his test results: 'sometimes I think they should be positive. I felt guilty that I wasn't HIV positive.'  

Barry prioritises his lovers over his sex work. He says he prefers partners that are also positive. He doesn't disclose to his clients: 

If the need of a condom comes in, usually see the client pulls it out. I mean I haven't been offered more to do it with a condom. But a few guys have actually fucked me without a condom and I couldn't be bothered telling them . . . it was probably a bit safer for them . . . because none of them are big boys. So they're not gonna rip me apart . . . I've fucked [client] for years without a condom. And he's still negative . . . doesn't know I'm positive . . . They think I'm too healthy. 
Gary thinks that he would notice symptoms of positivity: 
if he looked a bit sick, a bit abnormal, a bit thin, I'd feel around, really suss it out. 

 I think a fairly wide rectum is quite safe . . . very loose very wide . . . I think it's quite safe . . . yeah where there's no blood. And I think withdrawal is safe. 

The references in this section to ideas on what is 'safe sex' and what is not, and the social circumstances of casual sex encounters, have resonance with the findings for non- Aboriginal men in the Couples Study and Seroconversion Study currently in progress in the Centre. 

1 Strictly the term 'Koori' applies to a group of southeastem Australian tribes, but it is often used loosely in Sydney to mean Aboriginal people in general.

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