SBS VICELAND’s rich new documentary series Australiana takes viewers into the underexposed cultural crannies of the Australian experience. The second episode is set 80km off the coast of the Northern Territory, on the Tiwi Islands, home to the nation’s largest community of gay and transgender Indigenous people. Members of this community are known as "Sistergirls".
Our introduction to Sistergirl living is Laura, a 33-year-old transgender woman who wants nothing more than to partake in its Gender Confirmation Surgery. From the age of nine, Laura has lived the inner life of a female, and in her late teens set her sights on hormone replacement therapy. Well over a decade later, and after a confusing rejection from a doctor, Laura is finally taking the necessary steps towards her coveted transition.
Life hasn’t been easy on Laura. Her parents were grossly disapproving of her truest self and often beat her with the business end of a rubber hose. It wasn’t until years later, after the death of her mother, that her father finally came around to some version of acceptance. While Laura still wears these wounds, she maintains a kind and gentle — if not understandably restless — spirit.
Familiar yet foreign
In many ways, the pair of land masses (Bathurst and Melville) that make up the Tiwi Islands are a microcosm for the nation’s LGBTQIA experience. The community is separated into those who accept and defend the Sistergirls, and those who go out of their way to see them oppressed and silenced.
For every outspoken supporter who stands up to instances of discrimination, you’ve got someone who refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of gay and trans identity. Many Sistergirls must face the daily threat of violence, and while most bravely continue to live out their true natures in public, some reserve such expressions for when travelling to safer spaces.
This division is not merely apparent within the local community, but within individual families. Sistergirls are often shunned or even abused by certain family members, while at the same time supported and respected by others.
Touchingly, the Sistergirls keep each other thriving. Members of the group help to maintain each other’s sanity and safety, despite the lack of support services in the remote area. When a Sistergirl is experiencing suicidal thoughts due to discrimination, the group comes to her rescue with unconditional love and support, stripping away her feelings of self-hate and isolation, and validating her place in the world.
Those in support of the Sistergirls are attempting to see them integrated into Indigenous tradition. For instance, usually it is only those born as women who head out into the mangroves to pick shellfish for the community. As time has gone on, it is now not uncommon for Sistergirls to be included in this cultural practice. But there’s still a long way to go.
Home and away
All these women want is the ability to be who they know they are. They fight to live openly, joyously and without fear of judgement or disdain. Some Sistergirls believe their salvation lies within the urban sprawl of bigger Aussie cities, while some long to visit the more progressive Thailand in order to take advantage of less expensive medical procedures.
Then again, many of these same women lament the rare beauty of their Sistergirl community and often grow sad at the idea of living anywhere else. It’s in this internal struggle that we see how far we have to go in terms of creating an atmosphere where the LGBTQIA community can live, love and thrive peacefully, just like anyone else.
Watch Australiana: Island Queens on Sunday 3 September at 9:25pm on SBS VICELAND.
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