"If it sounds miserable and bleak, that's because it is miserable and bleak."
By
Samuel Leighton-Dore

9 Jul 2018 - 1:29 PM  UPDATED 9 Jul 2018 - 2:12 PM

Esther Montgomery is a Mardudhunera woman from the northwest Pilbara region of Western Australia. When we speak, Esther is sitting in her parked car, nursing a mug of hot milo.

It's getting cold, she says - even in WA.

A proud and open lesbian since her early teens, Montgomery is a lifelong advocate for Aboriginal members of the LGBTIQ+ community, paying special attention to those struggling with isolation in remote parts of her home state, Western Australia.

It's hard, she says, particularly when local communities are "20 to 30 years behind the East coast" on issues affecting LGBTIQ+ people.

"The challenge at the moment, certainly in Western Australia, is really getting Aboriginal organisations on board," Montgomery says. "Getting them to understand that there are LGBTIQ+ Aboriginal people, and getting them to deliver a service that is inclusive of all Aboriginal people walking through their door.

"I don’t think we’ll see meaningful changes in my lifetime, it’s going to be a really slow process."

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Still, she's doing her bit to hurry it along.

Following a call-out from Deputy Premier of Western Australia Roger Cook last year, Montgomery was appointed to the reference group for a new LGBTIQ+ Health Strategy. According to a WA government website, the strategy aims to provide a framework to "raise awareness of the specific health and mental health challenges of LGBTI people."

"I use that position, not for me, I use it for the community," she tells SBS Sexuality.

"This is the first time that Aboriginal LGBTIQ+ people have had a seat at a table that is government funded," Montogomery says, adding that it will be expensive to conduct the necessary research in remote Western Australian communities.

"They’ve got the money to do it, but it needs to be done properly or not at all," she says.

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When asked whether she struggles with the pressure of representing several marginalised communities, Esther laughs, then says "no".

"Look, I'm a 5-foot-8, big Aboriginal woman."

She adds: "I'm deaf in one, ear so I'm automatically loud - I've locked horns with some of the best in the business."

Unafraid of voicing her concerns at the reference group's monthly meetings, Montgomery says that it's important for the department of health to understand that "this is about closing the gap."

"It's not separate to that, it's one and the same," she says.

"The problem is that nobody has ever included us in that [process]. We are dealing with racism in these remote communities - racism makes people sick. We are dealing with chronic disease. We are dealing with isolation — one road in, one road out."

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Montgomery continues: "Some of these communities have no water. Some of these communities run off a single generator. In some of these communities you need a four-wheel drive. You can break down on one of those main roads and not see anybody for a week and a half.

"This is the sort of isolation I'm talking about. There is no phone coverage. There are no services. If it sounds miserable and bleak, that's because it is miserable and it’s bleak."

"Which is why this health strategy really needs to be done properly," she says.

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Having come out at the age of 13, Montgomery hopes that young Aboriginal LGBTIQ+ people in remote WA communities will stop leaving for Sydney and Melbourne and start educating those back home.

"It’s a band-aid to the issue," she says. "It's unfinished business."

She continues: "They still haven’t opened up about it. They come back into hostility. They need to understand that running away to Sydney, in particular, is not going to solve the issues around their sexuality.

"They've got to remain in the community. I know it’s very hard, but there are a number of people, myself included, trying to get the word out there while we have momentum."

Thanks to scholarships from the Victorian AIDS Council, Montgomery and three young colleagues will this week be travelling to Melbourne to participate in the LGBTIQ+ Women's Health Conference.

"The conference is going to be wonderful," Montgomery says.

"We don't have conferences like this in WA, we’ve always got to travel."

"Its such a great opportunity, I’ll be learning," she says.

"But they’ll be learning off me too."