In his first feature interview for television, self-described “sexy man” performer Steven Oliver opens-up about his sexuality and how he broke the news to his family.
Steven will grace our screens this week as host of “Looky Looky Here Comes Cooky” - a new documentary screening on NITV which gives a First Nations perspective on the Cook narrative and debunks the myth of his so called “discovery” of Australia.
Most will recognise Steven for his roles on the television show “Black Comedy” and for being the quiz master on “Faboriginal”. But this cheeky showman has been performing since he was a young boy growing up in Far North Queensland.
“I'd have a family member like my grandfather or granny waking me up and they'd be like, 'Here boy, come show this mob, show them how you dance,' and I started being in the backyard as a five year old, dancing up for a mob and they'd all be sitting around watching me,” Steven said.
The young Steven Oliver moved to Perth to take up a performing arts scholarship at the prestigious Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA). Attending WAAPA was in itself a journey of self-discovery for this versatile performer.
“It was about being more and being better and refining. And I guess that in a way, if you're going to say you're a performer then really, I think what you're doing is that when you're refining who you are as a performer, you're also refining who you are as a person because it's an integral part of your being.
"I think in essence, it not only just taught me about what I could do, but who's Steven Oliver? And who Steven Oliver is. I still find that as I'm performing, as I'm getting older, the way I tell stories, how I tell stories, what matters to me. I'm still learning all that.”
A letter to his mother
Not only did he learn about refining his craft as a performer but Steven also discovered who he was as a person and then there was coming to terms with his sexuality.
While Steven had come out amongst his circle of friends in Perth, there came a point where he realised that he needed to let his family know about this secret that he had been keeping from them.
His mother was due to study a block release program in Perth. It was then that Steven realised he needed to be the first to tell his mum before she had heard it elsewhere. He thought long and hard about how he would tell his mother and what he would say to her.
“I started just writing down this thing about my sexuality and stuff, and it turned into a four-page letter. Back then, back in the day, I never had email or anything, so I sent the four-page letter from Perth and it would take four days for mail to get from Perth to Townsville back in those days.”
After sending the letter, Steven telephoned his mother to alert her that the letter was on its way. He recalls the phone call like it was yesterday.
“I'd be talking like, 'Oh you know, I love you. And da-da-da,' and she's like, 'What's wrong with you?' I'm like,'"What do you mean?' She goes, 'Something's up with you. What is it?' I said, 'Well, I sent you a letter. You'll know all about it.'
“She finally got the letter and she'd rung me and she said, 'I got your letter.' And I said, 'How are you?' And she goes, 'You're my son, I love you.' And then mum was great. She protected me in the way of rather than me having to go to every family member and tell them, she sat down with them. She sat down with my siblings, she sat down with my uncles and aunties and stuff like that and said, 'Steven's gay.'
"And it was that kind of way too, I think of her going, 'If you have a problem with Steven, you're going to have a problem with me.'"
"she said, 'I got your letter.' And I said, 'How are you?' And she goes, 'You're my son, I love you.'"
Steven recalls talking to his Aunty Charmaine on the phone after the family were told he was gay. It was talking about this moment that brought a tear to Steven’s eyes.
“I remember ringing her from the phone booth and I was running out of money and I said, 'Aunty Charmaine, I got to go now.' I said, 'My money's running out,' and she goes, 'Before you go, boy,' she goes, 'I just want you to know that we know...' But she said, 'Yeah, when your mother told us,' she said, 'We cried.' She said, 'But we didn't cry because you're gay,' she said, 'We cried because you thought you had to hide it from us, and what you must've been going through.'"
Steven said he is very aware that he is blessed to have such an accepting family because many young people coming out often get rejected. He says there needs to be more support services and organisations to assist homeless gay youth because their parents don’t want anything to do with them when they come out.
Steven also recalls talking to his Uncle Sonny about why he though he couldn’t tell the family about being gay.
"We grew up in a society where thankfully, it's changing now, but when people say words like, 'Look at that faggot,' or, 'Look at that poor girl,' or what that does to you every time because of the way it's said, it's telling you, there is something wrong with that. So then when you start thinking, 'Oh God, I'm that,' you start reverting back into yourself. You feel it's this bad thing because it's always been used in such a negative, horrible way. And so you revert back into yourself and you don't want to talk about it.”
'Weight off my shoulders'
Steven said the fear of rejection amongst young people can be extremely hard and difficult to cope with especially if you are black and gay. He stresses that for him being an Indigenous Australian, having that sense of connection to his own people helped him with acceptance and to fight that fear of rejection because when you connect with mob it brings you closer.
After opening-up to his family about his sexuality he felt a sense of relief.
“I actually said that to Aunty Charmaine. I said, 'Aunty Charmaine, that's such a weight off my shoulders.' And it was because it allowed a freedom. And at first, it was me who had the problem talking openly about it. Because I just wasn't used to it, but they'd always be like, 'Who's your man? You met a man?' and I would find trouble with that. But yeah, no, it was this ability to be able to just say even the simple things like saying I've met someone.
"Because you want to tell people that and if you feel like you can't even tell people that you've found this happiness, but you can't share that happiness, that's isolating too. And we all want to share happy news with mob because we want mob to be happy for us.”
"You feel it's this bad thing because it's always been used in such a negative, horrible way. And so you revert back into yourself and you don't want to talk about it."
Steven said coming out to his family also gave him a sense of freedom both personally and professionally.
“Just being able to talk about it, and write about it, and be open about it, and that was the thing of as often as this term gets thrown around, but it's a thing of like, you can't be what you can't see kind of stuff.”
While Steven is known for both being a poet and his comedic story-telling, he is also an inspiration to many young black gay men and women around the country.
“I've been telling them, be proud of who you are. Love, who you are, don't let other people make you feel ashamed of who you are. If anything, they should be ashamed. If they're trying to make you feel bad just because you're gay or because you're black, that's their issue, they need to be ashamed of being horrible. Don't be ashamed of being gay, don't be ashamed of being black, be proud of it. Find the beauty in it because we are, we're beautiful. We don't hear that enough.”
– Watch Steven Oliver speak with Karla Grant on NITV’s Living Black via On Demand about his life and career, and his role in creating a new songline for the 21st century in the documentary “Looky Looky Here Comes Cooky”.