Esther Montgomery, a 54-year-old Mardudhunera woman and lesbian, had a message for the 600 people attending a national LGBTI conference in Melbourne last week.
"Aboriginal history has to be acknowledged by LGBTI people," she said. "You can’t escape from it."
She recalled to the room a conversation she'd had with a friend, Roger McKay, at the Sydney Mardi Gras parade in 1982.
"I remember standing there in Oxford Street with Roger McKay, bless his heart, he’s now deceased, he was the first Aboriginal person to walk with the [flag] of Aboriginal Australia down Oxford Street," she said.
According to the book Gay in the '80s, McKay was determined to make the point that Oxford Street was on Aboriginal land.
"The comment he made at the time was ‘I don’t know where these people think Oxford Street is’," Montgomery said. "It’s in Australia, on Aboriginal land, on Gadigal land."
Montgomery was one of a number of Aboriginal LGBTI people who attended the Better Together conference last week, where a broad range of issues and LGBTIQ communities were brought to the fore.
Amid sessions on topics such as queer Muslims, disability, rural and regional areas, bisexual visibility, faith and families, Montgomery presented a list of priorities from the Aboriginal caucus at the conference. It included funding for Aboriginal specific LGBTI organisations, for LGBTI groups to be "fair dinkum" about including Aboriginal people in their organisations and, as she outlined with McKay's story, more acknowledgment of history.
Montgomery is from Karratha in WA's Pilbara, but now lives in the small town of Southern Cross about 370km east of Perth. She told BuzzFeed News she wants Aboriginal LGBTI people to have a conference of their own.
"I’m currently trying to organise what will be the first national Aboriginal LGBTI gathering, to sit wholly and solely by ourselves, not come under the umbrella of any organisation," Montgomery told BuzzFeed News.
"The biggest issue is funding ... organising a gathering, or a conference, is not easy today."
Montgomery said it is essential that Aboriginal LGBTI groups and people come together and discuss what she sees as the most pressing issue for her community: mental health and suicide.
"The point for me, as an Aboriginal woman in Australia, there are so many Aboriginal LGBTI people are suffering, really suffering," she said.
"We have a lot of Aboriginal men and women out there, and young people. It’s not just about the young people — in Western Australia we had two 70-year-olds come out. Now can you imagine coming out at 70? Seriously?
"I can’t imagine, because I’ve always been out. I’ve been a lesbian since high school, at Gosnells High School. I was 13 years of age ... I’ve been out for a long long, long time. I’ve heard it all, I’ve seen it all, and we have a massive issue with mental illness."
Indigenous advocate and gay man Casey Conway, who spoke at Better Together on a panel about inclusion in sport, told BuzzFeed News a conference focused on Aboriginal LGBTI people is "definitely needed".
"In all health indicators the Indigenous community are way behind, and when you factor in sexuality and gender diversity it's even worse," he said.
Conway is on the advisory board of Black Rainbow, an organisation run by and for Indigenous LGBTIQ people, which Conway says is sorely lacking in funds. One of its priorities is trying to get some research done on Aboriginal LGBTIQ mental health and suicide.
Led by CEO Dameyon Bonson, the organisation is agitating for such data to be collected via its Contagion of Love project, which also provides micro-grants and phone credit to Aboriginal LGBTIQ people.
"Data’s one of the most important things when it comes to sitting around the table and talking about what to change," Conway said.
Montgomery agreed. "We need to get the data," she said. "We need research." She stressed it needed to be collected by people who understand how to engage with remote communities and Aboriginal elders.
"It will not work, you will not get the data, if you don’t go out to remote communities," she said. "And you can’t whiz in there and have this city attitude of, 'Well, I’m from Melbourne and I want to talk to you about LGBTI' ... you can’t have that city slicker attitude. It doesn’t work in remote areas. You’ve got to go in, humble yourself, sit down with the old people. Don't go 'LGBTI', go 'lesbian'. Tell them what a lesbian woman is."
Montgomery also said Aboriginal organisations must be better at including LGBTI people from their own communities.
Earlier this week, amid heated debate on whether the date of Australia Day should change, Conway tweeted that he wished the LGBTI community was more aware of "how awful how Australia Day is for us Indigenous people".
Though the two communities have been compared – for instance, the postal survey on marriage equality to the 1967 referendum to count Aboriginal people in the census – Conway stressed to BuzzFeed News that the experiences are very different.
"I was at an event where one of the people from the 'yes' campaign stood up in front of a whole group of our community and said the LGBTI community is the most victimised community in Australia," Conway said.
"I nearly fell off my chair. I was so upset and so angry that a gay white man was saying these things, because it’s simply not true."
"It’s one of those things where we want to be a part of the LGBTI community and also the Indigenous community, and sometimes we’re kind of torn because we might have to choose between the two at times," he said.
"That’s a struggle for my personal experience and other LGBTI people I know who are Indigenous."
Conway hopes that the LGBTI community will swing in behind Indigenous activists in solidarity with movements such as those agitating to change the date of Australia Day, and implement the Uluru Statement From The Heart.
"Racism is very much alive in the LGBTI community," he said.
"We often hear in our community that homophobia kills, and that racism can kill. What about people who face racism and homophobia? I say to my friends, you get called a faggot, I get called a black faggot."
Lane Sainty is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney, Australia.
Contact Lane Sainty at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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