Boys to men


One of the more confronting issues to arise from the recent Indigenous gay and transgender consultation was that sexual abuse of young boys, often by men from within their own extended families and friendship networks. Gary lee finds voices from within a cultural silence.

Throughout this article I will use the word 'Indigenous'with a capital letter, in much the same manner as Aboriginal is used, that is, to signify Aboriginal Australians, as opposed to other aboriginal and indigenous peoples.

THIS ARTICLE is about a suject which for too long has been kept 'under wraps' and indeed, deliberately ignored and that is, the sexuality and the sexual issues of Indigenous boys. Let me state that I am not talking about youths in terms of the United Nation's definition of 'youth' (a male person between the ages of 12 and 25 years of age). This article is about those males who fall below this definition, and who are between 7 and 11 years of age. I will use the term 'boy' and 'boys' throughout to describe this particular age-group of males. This article is also about some of the findings pertaining to this group which came out of the national consultations conducted for the recently released National Indigenous Gay and Transgender Project's Consultation Report and Sexual Health Strategy.

The information gathered for this document was not easy to acquire or to write up. Decisions were made, due to the sensitivity of some of the material - particularly in relation to the recorded testimonies of the very young males who gave their stories to me - to approach this topic in a particular way.

I will talk here about the 'doing' of the consultations, about some of the boys who told their stories to me, and the kinds of stories they gave.

Doing it: the consultation process
In the initial planning of my field research I knew I wanted to speak not only to Indigenous gays and transgender people but also to members of the broader Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. I also knew that I wanted to speak across all age groups and to a very large extent this is what occurred in the remote, rural and urbanised communities I visited. To that end, I spoke with women's groups, men's groups, high school groups of mixed gender, and groups of elders. (This latter group were not of mixed gender out of respect for Indigenous protocols). The one group with whom I had not initially planned to speak with was those young males whom this paper is about, that is, the ones who come below the United Nations' definition of a 'youth' and who are aged from eleven to seven years of age.

'Something bad, I think'
In the first remote community I visited, I spoke with an eight year old. I had finished my meetings for the day and was sitting watching the sunset with a few of the men from the local Community Development Employment Program group (whom I'd already addressed that day). Some of the younger kids were hanging around and as the men gradually dispersed for the day one of the boys started talking to me. I was shocked to hear him casually bring up the 's' word, suicide, when we discussed a child's funeral - his friend's - which had taken place the day before.

His casual demeanour whilst talking about suicide became more apparent when it quickly dawned on me that he was actually talking about his own suicide attempt. The implication from this eight year old was that his recently deceased friend had committed suicide and that it wasn't really that unusual to be even talking about it.

I know (about) that. (I) do it before . . . See [shows two lengthy scars on wrist]. X [deceased friend] he done [it]. Some mob [kids] try [that] before. I dunno why that (is). Might-be they got a trouble [or] something. Something bad I think . . .

He went on to talk at length about his family and his friends, but most telling of all was his story about how he came to put the two scars down his wrist. From the age of six, this particular boy has been subjected to sexual abuse and molestation by an older Indigenous male who also was a distant relative. What was also hard to take was the unexpected calmness about, almost a resigned acceptance of, the terrible things he had been subjected to in his very short life. Listening to him chatter on about the most deplorable aspects of his life was more than this hardened researcher could handle at times and even as I write these lines, I cannot but feel the same mixed emotions as I did the first time. To give another extreme example, this time from an urban perspective, a twelve year old had been attacked by two boys, aged fourteen and fifteen in the boy's toilet at their school. This happened during school hours but what was more distressing was that tbe assault was sexual, and this kind of thing had happened before. It was difficult to ascertain the exact nature of the assault due to the distressed state the twelve year old was in. By the time I arrived to speak with him, it had been almost three hours since the assault and he had been kept in the (Aboriginal) student liaison officer's office.

It transpired that one of the attackers was a cousin of the boy. Other, similar attacks had taken place outside the school at other times, three or four according to the twelve year old, and by the same two teenagers. I'd spoken to this boy on previous occasions and was aware of his background: he came from a broken home with a drug-dependent mother. This was the same young man who stated that he was definitely gay but that he dreaded the prospect of what that might mean to him as an adult. As with the eight year old boy whose story I have outlined above, this one had also attempted suicide because he felt there was no one that he could turn to for support and help.

Not Unusual
While these two cases are by no means typical, nor are they unusual. During the seven or so months in which I conducted the national consultations for the Report, I spoke with thirteen boys who ranged in age from twelve to seven years. While my initial brief was to ascertain the primary issues and needs of Indigenous gay and transgendered people as stated earlier, I met and spoke with a wide cross-section of the broader Indigenous community. I had not set out specifically to talk to 'boys', but as opportunities to do so presented themselves, I found myself gathering more and more of their testimonies.

Not all their stories are of sexual abuse and suicide. It takes a lot of courage for a very young male to start talking about very personal, sometimes devastating, events which have and are continuing to occur in their very young lives. This is particularly so because Indigenous gay men and transgendered people are only just beginning to address these issues themselves, yet within the broader Indigenous communities, there is an apparent unwillingness, or cultural reluctance, to do just that. Within this context of shame, cultural taboo, misinformation, fear and apprehension, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boys who exhibit a definite sexuality and sexual drive cannot be comprehended by the rest of the community - especially when these males are under twelve years old.

Sexual preferences
Three of the boys I spoke with expressed a definite sexual preference for, and sexual feelings towards, other males. One boy, in particular, attempted to flirt with me as I recorded his story. This was disconcerting enough, but it became quickly obvious that this nine year old was already somewhat experienced sexually as he gave me one or two (general) examples to prove his sexual 'maturity'.

There is something intrinsically surreal and disturbing about talking with a nine year old boy about a very adult topic - namely, his sexual desires, preferences and activities. What this boy, and the others mentioned in the article, have in common is the fact that they are growing up in a world of sexual abuse, alcohol abuse, and indifferent social and cultural support (if any), and with little hope of support for or a wider understanding of their predicament and the issues which impact on their development as they start on the road to adulthood.

What hope do they have of recognition or understanding? They are a part of a greater voluntary amnesia within Indigenous culture, which pervades Indigenous communities and health service providers around the country. The reality is that for the wider Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, sexual health concerns encompass much broader contexts and issues, and the sexual issues, problems and activities of makes under the age of twelve do not enter that equation.

These issues are starting to be addressed, however, by Indigenous gay men and transgender people themselves, as witnessed at the recent Anwerenekenhe II conference - the second national sexual health conference for Indigenous gay and transgender people. Many of the delegates at the conference had, perhaps for the first time, an open opportunity to consider and freely discuss the sorts of issues I've touched on in this article.

It was generally acknowledged that many of those speaking had in fact experienced these issues as young boys themselves: they were speaking from personal experience, and of personal histories. There were few in attendance who could not relate to what was being openly acknowledged for the first time, and in a very public way. If it means that it is up to Indigenous gay men and transgendered people to start raising awareness about the sexual health issues of these 'boys', then this is a great advance, which it is to be hoped will eventually encourage others to do the same. *

GARY LEE is the Project Officer for the National Indigenous Gay and Transgender/Sista Girl Project. He is the principle author of that project's Consultation Report and Sexual Health Strategy.



Designed by Larrakia artist Gary Lee



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