I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the country: the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation and elders both past and present. All my life, I’ve been told to turn it down. That if I’d just tried to fit it in, everything would be OK. However, as a youth, I discovered in the face of overwhelming prejudice and persecution, an incredible strength through being fiercely fabulous.
I am Starlady Nungari, The Real Queen of the Desert. Aboriginal communities might be the last place where you would expect a radical queer super-heroine to find her place in the world. Today, I am truly honored to share with you my surprising story of finding acceptance, a place where I was given the space to thrive, where the power of friendships overcame cultural and social divides.
Like many young queer people, in my youth, I was forced to flee regional Australia to find a safe-haven in the inner city. I sought and found refuge in Melbourne where I immersed myself in a world of vibrant and diverse subcultures. Yet, the systematic discrimination and continuous harassment that I faced on a daily level outside of these spaces continued.
In 1996, I found myself before the Victorian Victims Compensation Tribunal, seeking justice, after being violently assaulted by homophobic bigots. The presiding magistrate looked me up and down and with his head held high, he proclaimed his judgment: if Joe Blow saw you walking down the street dressed like that, he’d say that you deserved it. He gave me a pittance of the compensation that I should have received, and I walked out of our justice system absolutely devastated. Something inside me snapped.
I’d had enough of the violence, of the people telling me who I could be and how I should live my own life. I’d had enough of being a victim. I swore to myself that I would take every last cent of that money, and I would transform myself into one of the most colorful and creative beings this country has ever seen.
After first engaging with remote Aboriginal communities through activism, during the early 2000s, I toured the Western Desert on School Holiday Programs, with a vagabond troupe of circus activists. It was a meeting of different people and cultures. One Aboriginal elder called me over to share with me the funny story of how people had been frightened of me when I first arrived, that they had never seen anybody like me before. In his community, everybody now lived Christian way and covered up. Yet, he said, in their culture, in Anangu way, everybody was just themselves. And so that my way was their way too. He told me that his country was my home now. And that I would always be welcome.
In telling you of my story, I don’t want to give a false impression. There is still sometimes taboos regarding diverse sexuality and genders in remote communities. But there is also an open-heartness that transcends these taboos, through friendships and family connections. Skin names are part of the complex kinship system of how Aboriginal people relate and are connected to each other in their society. Upon arrival in the Western Desert, I was first given the man skin name Jungari. Yet, in a matter of days, it was acknowledged this wasn’t quite right. That I was a mixed up one, both “kunga” and “wati”, woman and man. That I needed two skin names. And thus to everybody’s delight, I became known as Jungari Nungari, kunga-wati.
I then traveled to Northern Queensland, to Palm Island, where I first met members of the Sistagirl community. Sistagirls are Aboriginal transgender women, who have their own distinct cultural identity. They had a profound impact on how I looked at my own identity, in relation to Aboriginal culture. When I returned to the Western Desert, I left that man skin name behind. In a culture with strict divides between men and women, I identified as a woman, and I fully embraced my female skin name Nungari.
Soon, many of my non-Indigenous peers were all approaching me. They wanted to know what was going on for they had all been reprimanded for misgendering me by my Aboriginal peers if they had referred to me as “he”. This reflexion was like an awakening to me for I hadn’t yet questioned my gender identity within my own culture. The Aboriginal communities I was working in had recognized and accepted my transgender identity ven before I was fully conscious of this myself. The allure of an adoring fanbase finally drew me to live in Alice Springs. Who wouldn’t want hundreds of children screaming at your name? “Starlady! Starlady!” Following you around, laughing at your cheeky antiques and glitzy outfits.
For the last six years, I’ve traveled thousands of kilometers across the Western Desert, working on youth-based hairdressing and fashion programs. With a the 4-wheel drive Troop Carrier filled to the brim with equipment, we’ll set up hairdressing and fashion salons that have become intergenerational hubs. Parents would be shaving Mohawks, rattails, and lighting bolts into their children’s hair. Grandchildren would be dyeing the old people’s hair. And our [Bindi] would be teasing everybody, that with such lovely hair, they might find new loves. Young people would be styling each other up for fashion shoots, photo parades, and fashion parades. And we closed the doors, we told stories about our lives because there was no shame in the salons.
We’d even learn about sexual health and well-being. Because it wasn’t just about hair. It was about creating safe spaces where people could explore and express their own identities. I consciously nurtured environments where people would develop their own sense of self-esteem and pride. The salons had been a roaring success, but they have taken place against the backdrop of severe disadvantage and complex social problems. When we were making Queen of the Desert, the documentary, in Areyonga, many of the strong women were away on cultural business. It created this dynamic space where many of the younger women stepped up to take prominent roles in the salon. One young girl, in particular, who was normally so shy, took to the center stage and loved being in front of the camera. We’re talking about highly vulnerable young people, who are meritoriously difficult to engage. But she would be there every morning, calling out, wanting to start the day.