I saw the colours of my own heart, and they were not the colours of isolation and fear.
—Ellen van Neerven, The Only Blak Queer in the World (2020)
In their poem The Only Blak Queer in the World (2020, pp. 20–23), Mununjali Yugambeh poet Ellen van Neerven writes of the pain and loneliness they have experienced as a queer Aboriginal person, having not seen representations of queer Mob or knowing the community to which they would one day belong.
I didn’t know how to tell my family.
I hadn’t seen Steven Oliver can’t even on Black Comedy yet, we hadn’t watched it together over dinner. TV didn’t save me.
As the poem continues, this pain morphs into love and a deepening sense of belonging as they encounter reflections of aspects of their own story in the artistic creations of other queer Mob.
I hadn’t yet read Lisa Bellear. And cried sitting on the carpet in the library over sharply written work that spoke to me and my experience.
They write of learning Blak Queer history, grieving for the loss of their Ancestral kin and being strengthened by the staunch power that is their inheritance. The poem asserts this history just as much as it tells the story of a young Aboriginal person stepping into their whole and sovereign self.
Every chant is a line of a continuing poem and I am learning the words.
To situate myself, I am a non-Indigenous white colonial-settler of largely Welsh ancestry, living as an uninvited guest on Yuggera Ugarapul and Turrbal Land in Meanjin/Brisbane (Australia), although my workplace Macquarie University and the Centre for Global Indigenous Futures is located on Dharug Ngurra. I am trans/non-binary and queer, a musician, scholar, anti-colonial solidarity activist, and community radio producer, and I am also neurodivergent and chronically ill. My research, musicking, community work, and relations are all practices of “companion thinking” (Rottle & Reardon-Smith, 2023): in acknowledging that all thinking is done in-company, I attend to my companions and I know myself to be a companion. Noticing the companions I am thinking-with, the kind of companion I am being, and how I attend to those relationalities are central to an ethic of companion thinking. Such relational thinking is deeply indebted to Indigenous scholarship and musicking, including the work of Ngan’gityemerri Elder Aunty Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann AM (2003) and xwélmexw (Stó:l ō/Skwah) artist, curator, and scholar Dylan Robinson (2020).
I am privileged to be working with Wiradjuri transgender/non-binary Professor Sandy O’Sullivan on their Australian Research Council-funded Senior Future Fellowship Saving Lives: Mapping the Influence of LGBTIQ+ First Nations Creative Artists (O’Sullivan, 2021a). This project challenges intentional and violent symbolic annihilation of Indigenous queerness wrought by colonialism (Finley, 2011; O’Sullivan, 2021b; Whittaker, 2015) through artistic articulations of Indigiqueer futurities (Dillon, 2016; Whitehead, 2020). We are also situated within the Department of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University and its Center for Global Indigenous Futures, which uniquely attends to the diversity of queer and trans Indigenist thinkings, and the challenges of incorporating these into a colonial-settler academic institutional context (Carlson, 2020; Day, 2020; Farrell, 2020).
One component of “Saving Lives” is Queer As…, a dive into complex queer representation on television, which necessarily starts with Indigenous queerness at its center. Centering creative presentations of queer Indigenous being, especially those representations that resist the imperative to cater to “white-possessive” (Moreton-Robinson, 2015) settler consumption and extraction, enables an expansive engagement with the idea of representation. We attend to representations that extend further than encountering a depiction with which a queer Indigenous viewer can identify, to include stories told that are created for that viewer, that take their gaze and lived experience into account. Our interest in representation is therefore not about presenting a palatable diversity for the white, colonial-settler, cis-heteronormative gaze—for white colonial-settler consumption and/or education. As Goenpul and Quandamooka scholar Aileen Moreton Robinson has shown, the logic of possession is central to the construction of whiteness within the colonial-settler nation state (2015, p. 191), and this is something that carries over into an entitlement that presumes all content is created for the possessive white gaze. Too often, even in cases where it might be professed otherwise, the white gaze takes precedence (Martin, 2020). Munanjahli and South Sea Islander scholar Chelsea Watego asserts that “Black stories are stories that don’t require attending to a white audience, apologising for the presence of the white villain or punchline, or translating terms when there is clearly no frame of reference for understanding anyway” (2021). As O’Sullivan has described (2021a), Queer As… witnesses the power of queer First Nations created content that explores complex queer representations, with artists telling and embodying their own stories, the stories of their own lives, imaginations, and futures.
While Queer As… is focussed on complex queer representation in television and my own background is in musicking, I am also a chronic bookworm and poetry nerd. Based on a presentation given at the 2022 What Matters symposium run by queer Wiradjuri scholar Corrinne Sullivan at the University of Western Sydney, this paper traces some of the growth in my own understanding and experience through practicing attentive and relational reading of queer First Nations writings and thinkings that weave between narrative essay, speculative fiction and poetry. By thinking in-company with the questions around representation highlighted by Queer As… and some of the conceptual developments of queer Indigenous scholars, I suggest that reading the creative works of queer First Nations’ writers might be a practice of challenging the ontologies of possession, mastery, liberal individualism, and linear progress that underwrite the white supremacist cis-heteronormativity of colonial-settlerism.
Two-spirit, queer (unenrolled) Cherokee writer and scholar Qwo-Li Driskill coined the term “Sovereign Erotics” (2004; Driskill et al., 2011) to map the practice of reclaiming multiply stolen queer Indigenous bodies and bodily autonomy. The need for this reclamation was created by the systematic demonisation, elimination, and erasure of Indigenous genders and relationalities that do not conform to the compulsory cisheteropatriarchy enforced by colonisers (Akiwenzie-Damm, 2000; Byrd, 2020; Day, 2020; Finley, 2011; Miranda, 2002; O’Sullivan, 2021b, 2022a, 2022b; Pyle, 2020; Sullivan, 2021; Sullivan & Day, 2019; Whittaker, 2015), with which they defined “civility” and humanness itself (Brown, 2022, pp. 109–122; Jackson, 2020; Watego, 2021). Subject to dehumanising hypersexualisation, Indigenous and Black peoples have frequently been forced to adopt chaste conformity to the genital-defined binary gender categories and heterosexual relational ideals set by colonial white and Christian authorities in order to survive under colonial settlerism.
Anishnaabe writer Kateria Akiwenzie-Damm (2000) and Esselen/Chumash poet Deborah A. Miranda (2002) both wrote powerfully of the dearth of erotic writing by Native and Indigenous women being included in edited collections and other publications of North American feminist literature at the time, despite both holding knowledge of an extensive existing literature. After noting the absence of Native women in the syllabus for a 1997 University of Washington class on “Women’s Love Poetry and Erotics,” Miranda provided her instructor with examples that included the works of Muscogee (Creek) poet Joy Harjo and Menominee and two-spirit poet and activist Chrystos—both celebrated writers at that time but with which the instructor was unfamiliar. In response to evidence of the existence of this literature, the instructor informed Miranda that the reason for the exclusion was in fact that no critical appraisal of the works had yet been written (2002, p. 135). As she continued her exploration of scholarship on women’s poetry of North America, Miranda realised the extent of this erasure, observing that: “The amount of energy that a serious scholar of American poetry would have to invest in missing these Native authors and books must be tremendous” (p. 136, emphasis in original). Meanwhile on this continent, Larrakia artist Gary Lee (2000) struggled to find information on Aboriginal male erotica while conducting undergraduate research in 1987. At the same time, however, he knew of many bark paintings and other artworks that depicted such erotic content. The frustration of this symbolic annihilation stayed with him, and in 1999 he co-curated the exhibition Love Magic: Erotics and Politics in Indigenous Art with arts writer Maurice O’Riordan.
It is notable that each of these commentators made sure not only to name these omissions and erasures, but also to build projects and platforms from which they could share the work of others in their communities. Notable too that the subsequent projects of reclamation and celebration of Native and Indigenous erotic art and writing in exhibitions and collections led by Lee, Akiwenzie-Damm and Miranda centered works by and about queer and Two Spirit peoples (indeed, all three are themselves queer). This stands in contrast to the contemporaneous collected editions of “women’s” love and erotic writing that omitted First Nations authors (Miranda, 2002), which itself may be considered symbolic annihilation from the category “woman” (Brown, 2022, pp. 95–107).
In Australia, the 1988 Mardi Gras saw the first inclusion of a First Nations float—dubbed “The Aboriginal Boat,” it featured an Indigenous re-enactment of the invasion by the First Fleet, with Aboriginal and South Sea Islander dancer and gay man Malcolm Cole at the helm (Leighton-Dore, 2019). As Ellen van Neervan affirms in their poem, in more recent years it has become tradition for the First Nations float to lead the annual parade:
I saw the flag sparkle, I saw gays from everywhere from Moree to Perth, I saw a Blak Captain Cook, Malcolm Cole, in 1988, the year of the first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander float, that float should have been the first float that year, but mob didn’t open the parade until 2005, when Aunty Karen Cook and Aunty Lily Shearer walked out each with a coolamon of curling leaves, smoking the parade. The small leaf fire was started on the corner of Liverpool and Elizabeth Streets and in parade time, it never stopped. (2020, p. 22)
It has also become common for exhibitions featuring the work of queer Indigenous artists to coincide with Mardi Gras celebrations. Amazing as the artists and works shown are, these are rarely featured in major art venues and museums, and they struggle to counteract the extent of the historical and ongoing erasure and symbolic annihilation of queer Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander existence. As van Neerven’s poem asserts, accessing meaningful queer Indigenous representation can be challenging. It is only in this year (2023) that the first volume of First Nations LGBTQIA+ poetry has been published on this continent: NANGAMAY dream MANA gather DJURALI grow, edited by Alison Whittaker and Steven Lindsay Ross, perhaps the first collected edition published in Australia that meaningfully explores a queer Sovereign Erotic.
Reading relationally: Slow, layered, vulnerable
Throughout this paper I aim to stay attentive and response-able to my positionality as a white colonial-settler scholar, reading and thinking in-company with and as a companion to the work of queer First Nations’ writers. The texts I am approaching here by queer First Nations writers are importantly not for me—they are not written with my white colonial-settler gaze in mind, nor are they in the slightest meant to teach me how to “be” an “ally” or to reduce my complicity in the colonial-settler state as an Australian citizen (Land, 2015, pp. 229–247). For this reason, I try to resist reading for a lesson, tools that might be extracted for colonial-settler use. I heed the warning of Palyku writer and scholar Ambelin Kwaymullina: “even when Settlers hear / the voices of Indigenous peoples / speaking of our lives / our truths / there is a danger / of misconstruing / misinterpreting / misapplying / misappropriating” (2020, pp. 33–34). Rather, I am curious whether my relative lack of expertise in cultural or literature studies—my formal academic training has been in musicking and artistic research—might aid me in practicing what Canadian decolonial scholar Julietta Singh names “vulnerable reading”: that is, an unmasterful engagement with a text “with a willingness toward undoing the very logic that constitutes our own subjectivities” (2018, p. 23), and especially the self-concepts that enable complicity in ongoing colonial-settler harms. This concept resonates with the “slow, layered reading” advocated by Wakka Wakka and Gooreng Gooreng scholar Sandra Phillips and her settler colleague Clare Archer-Lean (2019, p. 34), which, in combination with considerations of Indigenous Standpoint Theory (Kwaymullina, 2018; Moreton-Robinson, 2013; Phillips & Archer-Lean, 2019; Sullivan, 2021), might enable the reader to interrogate and problematise their own notions of objectivity and distance. The reader is asked to pay strategic attention to the relationship they are forming with the text, and to engage in self-reflection and collective discussions—a kind of companion thinking, in accordance with Kombu-merri and Wakka Wakka scholar and community leader Mary Graham’s assertion that “philosophical speculation should not be engaged in alone” (1999, p. 108).
For white colonial-settler readers like myself, such slow, layered, vulnerable reading and companion-thinking with queer First Nations erotics, poetry, and speculative literature presents challenges to the rigid categories and processes of colonial ontologies and epistemologies (Brown, 2022; O’Sullivan, 2021b, 2022a, 2022b). As O’Sullivan (2022b) states, the colonial project is especially dedicated to defining and defending categorical containers for what it considers to be “truth.” Key examples of this include heteronormativity and the gender binary, to which queer and especially trans/non-binary identities present a destabilising force. O’Sullivan points to the attempts to reinscribe transgender identities to binary categories, contained within the term transition, which indicates a discrete period of instability between two static poles:
The fear of instability having an impact on truth is the colonial project writ large. It relies on subjects being placed and maintained in boxes that represent unchanging positions, and transition can only work if it is a journey between two known and accepted positions: the gender binary. (2022b, p. 145)
In resistance to these implications, O’Sullivan instead uses affirmation to describe the ongoing and persistent disruption their Indigenous trans/non-binary identity poses to colonial categories and notions of truth. “Affirmations can be cascading and remain infinite,” they affirm. “Because of course they can” (2022b, p. 145). If and when I find myself challenged and disorientated by my encounters with the ontologies and epistemologies of queer First Nations Sovereign Erotics, I might slow my reading and thinking enough to notice these affirmations resonating through the strictures of indoctrination into colonial-settler terms of reference. In the following sections, I turn to texts that attend in particular to queer Indigenous practices of affirmation, and their possibilities for unsettling the ontological stability of colonial-settler ideology and subjectivity.
O’Sullivan (2022b) affirms that queer Indigenous artmaking and storytelling resists discrete categorisation, drawing upon untidy complexities and bleeding across the lines of genre, form, and artistic mode: “By removing these barriers to expression we resist, and we contemplate the future” (p. 147). Likewise, queer Koori and Lebanese writer Mykaela Saunders (2022) writes in her introduction to This All Come Back Now, a collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander speculative fiction, of First Nations expansive “storytelling wholeness” (p. 10). Discussing the collection at the 2022 Brisbane Writer’s Festival, Saunders pointed to the ways that queer Indigenous artists engage in storytelling as speculative worldbuilding in order to rethink past, present, and future, to reconfigure, to imagine worlds in which their stories are not “othered” or “outside” but instead form central narratives from which to understand community, place, and relationality. In this way, queer First Nations storytelling is a practice of reimagining “a future that constructs self-determination and self-determined representations and alternative narratives about their identities and futures” (2SLGBTQQIA+ Sub-Working Group, 2021, p. 72).
Chickasaw queer scholar Jodi Byrd, in reading Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris, describes speculative work as representing a break with the linear narrative forms of realism through “the foregrounding of associations, conscious and unconscious, that exist relationally and dependently on any other association that can be accessed imaginatively” (2011, p. 101). Such speculative writing composes “fictions that will represent differently and pull the reader to the margins, where all the sublimated experiences and perspectives resistant to colonialism and destruction still reside” (p. 102). Indigenous speculative writing insists upon vulnerable reading, in ways that disrupt colonial notions of realism. “Realism is a tautology,” writes Turtle Island-based settler queer scholar and anarchist Scott Branson (2022, p. 112), given that “dominant ideology encodes certain things as possible and other things as fantastical” (p. 111). Speculative fiction can be seen as a practice of resisting this “realism.” As Saunders emphasises, however, colonial-settler scientific materialist conceptions of reality do not always reflect Indigenous epistemologies, and speaking of Indigenous authored stories as speculative fiction does not make them any less real: “These stories are about our realities” (2022, p. 9, emphasis in original).
Love After the End (Whitehead, 2020) is, like This All Come Back Now, a gathering of First Nations speculative fiction from Turtle Island—in this case specific to Indigiqueer and Two-Spirit authors. In the introduction, editor Two-Spirit, Oji-nêhiyaw/Peguis writer Joshua Whitehead notes that what was initially intended to be a collection of dystopian fiction instead emerged as utopic. “[A]s we know,” he writes, “we have already survived the apocalypse—this, right here, right now, is a dystopian present. What better way to imagine survivability than to think about how we may flourish into being joyously animated rather than merely alive?” (2020, pp. 10–11). “[W]e’ve lived in torture chambers, we have excelled under the weight of killing machinations, we’ve hardened into bedrock—see how our bodies dazzle in the light?” (p. 12).
Both Saunders and Whitehead position queer Indigenous experiences not in settler fantasy of “timeless” trans identities and the associated implication, as identified by trans-nonbinary Murri scholar Madi Day, of “a sense of trans settler exceptionalism, as if having a trans identity somehow exempts members of the settler society from practices of colonialism and cultural imperialism” (2020, p. 370). Rather, queer Indigeneity is positioned in the present and into the future, as a practice of what Chippewa writer and scholar Vizenor calls “survivance” (O’Sullivan, 2021b; Vizenor, 1999, 2008).
Skin in the Game: Survivance
Queer Indigenous writers have “skin in the game” (Norman, 2022) of survivance, what Cree scholar Margaret Elizabeth Kovach calls an “inseparable relationship between narrative and knowing” (in Syron, 2021, p. 10). Koori queer-trans writer SJ Norman’s (2022) narrative essay Skin in the Game situates their embodied knowledge of constant transition, being in motion. “There has not been a time in my life when containment equated to safety,” they write (Norman, 2022, p. 33), having grown up in a Blak community with great proximity to carceral violence, as well as having:
lived through 36 years of trans-ness and chronic physical illness. These experiences have taught my body, deeply, what it is to be trapped. It’s a sensation I am hardwired to flee from [. . .] With every known thing in a state of seizure, with every road closed, I coaxed my body into tranquility with the assurance that it still had places to go and the means of travel. (Norman, 2022, p. 33)
They document their experience of starting T (testosterone) during lockdown as their own resistance to containment. Even as the physical changes that transpire represent a flight from dysphoria, its transcutaneous application also comes with “all kinds of distance between my body and others” (Norman, 2022, p. 39) given the strict six hours of no skin contact with other humans, animals, or water following application, along with being ghosted by their at-the-time lover who can’t stomach the instability of bodily emergence, their voice deepening and their skin taking on new smells. Norman (2022) recalls the warning given by their ex-wife, the same as “every other trans person” (p. 39), that “no one will want to fuck you” (p. 40): “when you go on hormones prepare to become untouchable. […] Think about what it means to put that much distance between your body and others, in order to draw closer to yourself” (p. 40, italics in original). Norman’s essay gives visceral expression to the loneliness of embodying constant motion in this new way, while affirming the “things this drug has given me”: “Space, and at the same time: density […] something altogether different, something with its own breath. An inhabiting spirit […] a presence to be reckoned with” (Norman, 2022, p. 29, italics in original).
Larrakia, Kungarakan, Gurindji, and French poet and writer Laniyuk’s speculative “fiction” story Nimeybirra (2022) is a stunning ode to queer Indigenous survivance, written as letters between herself and her descendants, reaching a century into the future. These letters document the taking back of Indigenous Land from the colony in a war of reclamation formed through Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, and Māori solidarity. The exchange concludes with Laniyuk’s own impassioned prayer for those that come after, a balm against her own creeping despair, a way of grounding herself in a truthful future she feels in her bones. It is a love letter to lineage, ancestry, Country, survivance, resistance, and sovereignty. It is an articulation, too, of landbodymind (Pyle, 2018, 2022), of the truth that Country speaks in and to her. “I want you to have full access to our land,” Laniyuk writes to her future grandchildren, her Nimeybirra:
To place your hands and sweat into the soils and waters you were birthed from. For you to know your Country as well as your Country knows you. To never doubt your sovereignty. To never doubt your rights. To never be told your ways are too hard or wrong. To know that nothing about you is wrong. (Laniyuk, 2022, pp. 219–220)
In attending to future generations and her wishes for them, she attends to the deepest desires within herself, a Sovereign Erotic:
My Nimeybirra, I want the seas for you. My Nimeybirra, I want the skies for you. My Nimeybirra, I want the stars for you. My people. My ancestors. My descendants. My Country. I want a return. (Laniyuk, 2022, p. 220)
Some properly hot sex (for once)
In her poem The history of sexuality volume III (2018, pp. 63–65), Gomeroi poet and scholar Alison Whittaker explores the hot tension and anxiety of a first sexual encounter between two Blak women. This sex is theory-making, even as the rapid-fire intellectualising is decimated by waves of breathtaking pleasure.
—I wanna think about desire. Get that
rash—rations—rational. You said
Huh, I feel you. By the time I
knew what was happening, we were five minutes in.
Whittaker’s writing of the level of understanding offered by connecting bodily with another queer Indigenous woman reads to me as almost dizzying and disorientating. It stands in stark contrast to the droll predictability she writes of her relationships with white women in her essay “So White. So What.” (Whittaker, 2020), a piece that vividly describes the ways in which white colonial-settlers can recite the learned phrases of allyship and self-flagellation without disrupting our unearned comfort by truly being with the reality of our unbelonging. In BLACKWORK (Whittaker, 2018), the book in which the above poem appears, Whittaker winds and twists the language of the coloniser into something that at once reveals the mess that has been swept under the rug and the glowing, resonant vibrancy of queer Indigenist sovereignty.
Wiradjuri poet and artist Jazz Money’s debut book, how to make a basket (2021), lovingly attends to her landbodymind—rooting at once in Country and queerness, an erotic of longing and learning and return that moves through elegy and euphoria, dystopic utopias and unstable realities of the present. Her earthly, bodily descriptions of queer sex are alive and multisensory, depicting bodies that are Land and the intimacies of running your hands over the bark of a tree, such as in a short poem titled the space between the paperbark (p. 111):
when we fuck I time travel
I enter the space between the paperbark
I climb underneath the ash
Her tenderness is generous, sharing an experience that is not mine to have. As a colonial-settler reader, I recognise my own ache for the certainty of this connection, this grounding in a Place that knows and loves you so deeply it resonates with your orgasms. Instead, reading Money offers me new possibilities of understanding—that pleasures are afforded only if we are willing to also feel the extent of pain carried by this Place we are in, to live the wounding. This, too, is present in Money’s (2021) writings of skin contacting skin in pepper (p. 51):
when we make love I smell pepper
I push you softer
I push you sweeter
to hide the cracks
to season the wounds
The erotic that weaves throughout Money’s (2021) poems instruct, as the book’s title and its final poem suggests, how to make a basket (pp. 114–117): “first you must begin / with the grasses / first you must tend the blades / the sweet small shoots / first you must make healthy the soil / care for this place” (p. 116). There are originary wounds that must be tended, harms that must be named, responsibilities that must be taken, relationships that require humility and patient nurturance—not in order to claim belonging or innocence, but to be here better, more present with what is. This might be a lesson in solidarity, in showing up as an accomplice; this might be a lesson in having better sex. It is an affirmation of presence as an action and a commitment; of positionality not as a fixed identity or individual subjectivity but as relational responsibility.
This paper opened in the company of Mununjali Yugambeh poet Ellen van Neervan, and their words come here again to close. The final poem of Throat (Neerven, 2020), Sand (p. 131) is a commitment to and affirmation of queer Indigenous survivance. It is situated in-company with the Ancestors van Neerven carries in their veins; the collective strength contained in one human form that is a landbodymind; that is also at once an intergenerational Indigiqueer futurity that gathers and practices Culture and connection in the present.
We sat up singing. Covering our feet from the cold.
The sand I carry in my heart is hot. The
shadows are wet.
My heritage is to honour those in my
blood. We will not tire now. The song
will keep going in us.
A note on terminology: as per Roberts et al. (2021), I use the terms First Nations and Indigenous interchangeably throughout this article, and when I am referring to Indigenous communities of the land claimed by the colonial-settler nation state Australia I either specify Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples or echo the terms set by the cited First Nations author (for example, “Blak Queer”). Individual Nation affiliations are given when that is publically available information. I use title case for Black, First Nations, Native, and other Indigenous identifications and proper nouns as an affirmation of Sovereignty. I use lowercase for “white” to emphasise the political illegitimacy of this supposedly unified identification, along with the terms colonial-settler and colonial-settlerism to reflect the violence and harm inflicting through the continued forceful occupation of Indigenous Lands (Watego, 2021). Any errors or discrepancies in my terminology use are my own.