Stories about transgender Australians often focus on coming out or transitioning. For Rusty Nannup, her whole story is worth telling.
Content warning: Contains reference to suicide
“I’d like to tell you about when we used to play Cowboys and Indians.”
Rusty Nannup is perched on a chair in her living room, looking through a pile of photographs chronicling 60 years of life.
A Yamatji Noongar trans woman, she grew up in the small Western Australian town of Cue. She now lives in an apartment in Sydney's inner-west.
“My cousin used to steal the bullets from our uncle, we’d light a fire and he’d throw in the bullets,” she tells SBS News with a wry smile.
“We’d have all these kids running around playing dead and all these live bullets flying around … we used to get flogged for that.”
Crediting the support of family and friends, Rusty says it was them that helped her get through some challenging times.
“I was 16 or 17 years old and I just didn’t know what the hell was going on. I knew I was attracted to men, I knew that I was attracted to women,” she says. “Still, there was nothing there for me."
In her early 20s, she found a turning point, but it wasn’t an easy road.
“I did have suicide attempts when I was young," she says.
And she isn't alone.
I was 16 or 17 years old and I just didn’t know what the hell was going on.
While many transgender, gender diverse and nonbinary adults lead happy lives, a recent study by Melbourne University found 43 per cent have made a suicide attempt at some point.
Luckily for Rusty, she recognised that support was available.
"The last [suicide attempt] I did, I had two old people who told me that they still loved me,” she says.
“My old uncle, who is like a second father to me, he was one of those hard men from that period. He said, ‘You know what? Just go and live your life the way you want to live it and don’t worry about anybody else’.
“For me, that was ok; a hard nut old man telling me to 'let go, do what you need to do'.”
In her mid-20s, Rusty travelled around Australia until she was drawn to Sydney's Kings Cross.
“The Cross was heaven on Earth back then,” she says.
“The freedom ... I thought, this is a place that I’m happy, I liked the people, I liked the vibe, I liked the colour, the bright lights, the pace.”
Rusty was involved in sex work and had a group of friends, but when the seven-night a week partying lifestyle got too much, she began craving a change.
The Cross was heaven on Earth back then.
“I found myself in a refuge,” she says. “It gave me what I needed at that time, which was a safe space without the temptations of work, where you could sleep."
"There were like-minded people who said, 'it’s ok' ... but now I want to straighten myself up a bit.”
She found work as a typist and later studied book-keeping.
“It was hard in those days because being who you are and what you present ... you apply for a job and then you’ve got to show all your previous documentations … it took a stronger woman to stand up for all that.”
“Working in Sydney back then, in the CBD, [there was a sense of] 'it’s ok for girls like you in the cloak of darkness, but we don’t need you here in the workspaces'.
“We used to have some nasty people ringing up and talking to our employers about our past.”
For Rusty, reflecting on the past is bittersweet, but it's all part of her journey.
When she could finally update her gender identity on formal documents, she says she felt free.
“Liberating would be the word for it, because as far as I am concerned, once all of that had been dealt with, I buried that past.
“It's there, it’s memories, it’ll stay there. But to physically go and do that and to physically see that in black and white was also empowering.”
She credits a “strong matriarchal line of black women” when it comes to her strength.
She says in First Nations communities, gender diversity is part of everyday life.
“The lines that society seem to want everyone to conform to just doesn’t work. You’re going to have a kid that’s different or an old person who says, 'I gave my life to my children but now it’s my time'.
“Does that make that person any different [when it comes to] what they do every day in life? So what if she’s a trans woman?"
"We might come from one tree, but it doesn’t mean we’re all the same."
Rusty Nannup will take part in the My Trans Story event on 26 February as part of the 2021 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. It aims to discuss the breadth of the trans narrative.
The Mardi Gras parade will be broadcast live at 6pm AEDT on Saturday 6 March on SBS On Demand or catch the full parade at 7:30pm on SBS and NITV.
Follow the conversation on social media with the hashtag #MardiGras2021 and visit sbs.com.au/mardigras for more stories.
Readers seeking support can contact Lifeline crisis support on 13 11 14, visit lifeline.org.au or find an Aboriginal Medical Service here. Resources for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders can be found at Headspace: Yarn Safe.
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