Wadeye is a remote Aboriginal community situated in the Top End of Australia's Northern Territory (NT). For the past two and a half years, it's been home to council worker Kellum Steele. Originally from Melbourne, the 35-year-old moved to this isolated town to learn about Aboriginal culture, having grown up with the non-Indigenous side of his family. He spent over 20 years searching for his Aboriginal mother, from whom he was taken as a child, only to meet her just once before she passed away.
Steele is a brotherboy, a term that refers to an Indigenous transgender man. He came to the realization about his gender while living in Wadeye, after having always known that he had a male spirit living within a female body.
When he began to transition, Steele felt lucky to be a member of the Kamilaroi/Goomeroi tribe. His first step was approaching the community elders, who were very accepting of his choice and announced to the rest of the town what was going to happen. "Now all the kids tell me, 'You're a boy.' Whereas before they were asking, 'Are you a boy or a girl?'" he said.
But it's not as easy for all brotherboys and sistergirls (the Indigenous term for someone who has undergone a male to female transition). For many there is a lack of acceptance within their community, which can lead to mental health issues, drug and alcohol problems, homelessness, and even suicide.
These issues stem from the lack of services available for people transitioning in remote communities or within the Northern Territory as a whole. "I went to Darwin Hospital and they basically told me to go to Sydney or Melbourne and try and get help," Steele explained.
Like many brotherboys, Steele felt like he was the only person in his situation. He began researching transgender people in remote communities on the internet and found a TEDx speech by Starlady, a transgender activist from Alice Springs. Steele sent a message to Starlady and they began speaking over the phone. "Starlady sort of opened the doors. She was really helpful," Steele remarked.
Starlady is a transgender woman, who began her journey to find her identity while traveling to local and then remote Aboriginal communities in the Red Centre area of the Northern Territory, performing with a collective of people during the winters of 2000 to 2005.
After discovering her trans identity and finding acceptance in the desert, she left behind her life in Melbourne and moved to Alice Springs. She began running a mobile hairdressing salon that travelled to these remote communities. "Once I started, the kids were addictive. They were fun and playful and they loved it. I was really happy when I was working in those communities, so I started to make it my life," she recalled.
Starlady is a founding member of Sisters and Brothers NT (S&BNT), an advocacy group for people of diverse gender, sex, and sexuality. The organization is non-funded and run by volunteers, which now include Steele. S&BNT provide support to sistergirls, brotherboys, and Indigenous and non-Indigenous members of the local LGBTIQ community. They've recently produced a series of cross-cultural resources, which are desperately needed in the region, as up until now those available neglected the Indigenous communities.
The group is also campaigning for much needed transgender, gender diverse, and intersex focused peer support services. "There needs to be major structural change in the NT and services need to be more inclusive of the LGBTIQ community, including out [in the] bush," Starlady outlined, adding that the NT government has, "massive levels of homophobia and transphobia that are blocking services to the community, including indigenous youth."
But there are some services such as non-governmental organization Northern Territory Aids and Hepatitis Council (NTAHC) and the Alice Springs Women's Shelter that have been collaborating with S&BNT. According to NTAHC executive director Kim Gates there are no funded services for LGBTIQ specific needs in the NT, leaving the community to access mainstream services, which is often difficult due to discrimination.
"Access to health services is difficult for transgender people, particularly those living in remote communities, where clinics are established as male and female spaces," Gates told VICE. "When transgender or intersex people do access health services there is limited knowledge within the health profession on how to deliver services to this client group or where to refer them."
NTAHC are currently in consultations with the LGBTIQ community, including S&BNT, over the "need for peer-led gender services in the NT to provide social support to transgender and intersex people." They aim to lodge a funding submission with NT Minister of Health John Elferink and the Department of Health.
Georgie Yovanovic, an Alice Springs resident of four years, joined S&BNT a year ago. She's an intersex advocate, who identifies as female, and is campaigning for the end of medical intervention on intersex people without their consent. She claims these procedures, which are performed upon adolescents, are human rights abuses that cause mental health issues and trauma. Yovanovic is not alone; in 2013 the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture condemned the practice in a report.
Intersex people are "born with atypical physical sex characteristics" and are estimated to make up 1.7 percent of the population. And it's very common for them to undergo these interventions, which are also referred to as normalizing surgery.
"That's what shocked me, normalizing surgery is a regular standard procedure for any child born with an intersex variation," Yovanovic said and went onto explain her own experience. "I had medical intervention from 13 until 18. They basically put fear into my parents to normalize me, to turn me into a man, which doesn't work. I've been on medication since to counteract it."
According to Yovanovic, the crux of the problem is that the medical profession is trying to surgically make intersex people normal, rather than recognizing they already are. "It's a natural biology and there's been intersex people around as long as humans have been around. We're just a variation of something in between the male and female, and always have been."
A 2013 Senate committee recommended that medical interventions should be deferred until an individual can give fully informed consent. Yovanovic believes this recommendation should be enacted into law.
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