Against authenticity

I can’t remember being as excited about a TV show as I have been about Redfern Now. Not since I was a kid and only allowed thirty minutes of TV a day by my overbearing grandmother. A scarcity of good things tends to make me more excited about them when they eventually happen – and there is certainly a scarcity of Indigenous bodies and stories on Australian screens.

Like many, I’m not thrilled with every aspect of the show: in the first season, I felt there was opportunity for a better representation of the politics of policing in Redfern and for a bolder critique of the systemic incarceration and institutionalisation of Aboriginal people. But I have also loved a lot of things about Redfern Now: the koori-oke, the beautiful ways the show has dealt with family, mental illness, violence, forgiveness, loss and rage, its ever-present optimism, warm humour and complexity. The space for Indigenous voices is undoubtedly growing but is still contested and hard fought.

I waited eagerly for the first episode of Season 2. The series started with a frank and uncompromising storyline about an Aboriginal man in a gay relationship navigating parenting, grief, sex, family and responsibility. But not everyone welcomed this character, nor the presentation of his life. Anthony Mundine, for one, was quick to express his disapproval on Facebook:

Watching Redfern Now and they’re promoting homosexuality! Like it’s ok in our culture. That ain’t in our culture and our ancestors would have their head for it! Like my dad told me GOD made ADAM & EVE not Adam & Steve.

As a queer Indigenous person, I watched the debate around his comment with a lot of discomfort. Non-indigenous people love to watch Mundine mess up. But even more they love watching Indigenous people fight each other publicly, especially if the topic is culture. The thing that struck me the most in the fallout was how Mundine’s framing reversed my own understanding and experiences: my Indigenous community has always loved and nurtured me as a queer and gender-diverse member, but the queer community has always found it hard to let in Aboriginal voices. The same can be said for queer history and queer theory, both of which struggle to recognise the violent colonial epistemology from which they emerged.

The controversial Redfern Now episode brilliantly captured the perils of being Indigenous and queer, particularly the complexities of dating, casual sex, parenting and family. But what was represented on screen hardly garnered a mention during the culture war that followed Mundine’s statement. Instead, as is so often the case, the conversation fell back on familiar narratives around authenticity. Who is truly ‘authentic’? Who has legitimate claim to identity and culture? Whose authenticity is paper thin, superficial, insufficient? These are just some of the questions that predictably pop up once Indigenous culture is mentioned.

Every time I notice something like Mundine’s comment hitting the papers, I bristle in anticipation, waiting for the white commenters to put forward their almost mandated judgements: barbaric, backward, unacceptable, homophobic and so on.

Of course, there are many things about Mundine’s statement – and those that appeared in support – with which I do not agree. Mark Lyons, for instance, was quick to voice his support of Mundine on Facebook: ‘i was watching it and after seeing that i switched it off. im with ya on that bra’ (by ‘that’ he meant a scene in which one of the characters receives a blow job from a man he met online). Comments like this are homophobic and highly offensive. They reveal enduring prejudices in parts of the community and are deserving of condemnation, particularly when coming from public figures. But it is the resulting culture war that I am interested in discussing here, the predictable debates around legitimacy, the reducing of culture to one acceptable narrative and the inevitable erasure of queer Indigenous identities.

The backlash against Mundine comprised variations of the same argument: because Mundine referenced the Bible and is a practising Muslim, it is hypocritical of him to make claims on authentic culture. Mundine is criticised often in this way – by Indigenous and non-indigenous people alike – whenever he lays claim to ‘culture’ and authenticity. People are quick to point out that his own life is susceptible to the same criticism: he is supposedly not an ‘authentic’ Aboriginal himself and is in no position to comment on anyone else’s ties to their culture. Commentators are quick to refute Mundine’s accusations of others’ inauthenticity by noting that all the cultural ties he has (boxing, Islam and, in this case, the Bible too) are imported and therefore un-Aboriginal, and this precludes his authority to speak on matters of culture. Rather than critiquing or offering alternatives to his statement, the (predominantly white) commentators focused again and again on delegitimising Mundine as an Aboriginal person, on positioning him as one of the ‘bad’ – as opposed to ‘good’ – Aboriginal people.

Mundine has clearly got it wrong in terms of homosexuality being a white thing. Some excellent responses have already covered how and why. The Black Rainbow Coalition (including sistagirl Rosalina Ngala Curtis) spoke back to the charge of cultural inauthenticity in an open letter published in the Koori Mail:

We are a group of strong and fabulous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lesbian, gay, bisexual, sistergirl (transgender) and queer people who … are making excellent contributions in politics, sports, arts, land rights, health, education, justice, business, science, research, the bureaucracy, healing, community life, family life and most importantly, in cultural survival and restoration. We are your family members, community workers, advocates and leaders. We bring strength and love to our communities … For some in our communities, however, they seem to be hung up on the lies that ‘homosexuality is a white man’s thing’, and ‘there wasn’t homosexuality in traditional cultures’, so we would like to share a few home truths.

The letter then goes on to challenge some of the myths around Indigenous sexuality and to outline the damaging effects of discrimination and homophobia.

A similar retort was offered by openly gay US rapper Le1f after self-proclaimed ‘hip-hop conservative’ Lord Jamar attacked him and Kanye West for ‘whitening’ the genre with their experimental sounds and costuming choices. Their behaviour, Jamar suggests, undermines the machismo, the alpha male image, of hip-hop. Le1f’s response dismissed the association between queerness and whiteness, while also criticising narrow attempts to define black masculinity:

If you think being gay is the same as being white, you are as ignorant as your enemies. I’m darker than you. I’m african. I’m a black man and I experience all the same racism you do, if not more, on top of homophobia, including from black men just like you. Are you proud of being a hateful member of a majority? Rap started out as a creative response to oppression, and no matter my outfit, I know oppressions you will never understand.

At the heart of these words is a rejection of narrow readings of culture and the claims to authenticity on which they are built.

My own experiences in Aboriginal communities as an openly queer and gender-diverse person have been incredibly affirming and safe, and comments like Mundine’s have seemed a world away. In fact, the concept that my queerness is incompatible with my Aboriginality has rarely, if at all, come from within Aboriginal communities. My feelings and experiences are shared by bryan Andy, who also offered a thoughtful critique of the Mundine comment:

I’m a Yorta Yorta and within our community we have older gay and lesbian people, and transgender people too – particularly amongst some of the younger groups … Aboriginal communities are very much about everybody having a role or a responsibility, so it doesn’t matter if you are gay or bisexual or transgender, disabled, lighter skinned or whatever, everybody has a role and so it’s distressing to find homophobia and, in particular, things like Mundine’s comments which are not in line with the traditional sense of Aboriginal custom and how we have existed for thousands and thousands of years.

Le1f and Andy have both done a lot within their communities to break down the idea that queerness is an imported or white behaviour, that it can only be defined along certain lines.

But their work is usually overshadowed by another conversation, one that replicates the internal logic of the argument it seeks to discredit – and the debate around Mundine’s comment is a great example of this trend. In this case, both supporters and critics spoke of a single ‘authentic’ Aboriginal culture, of ‘traditions’ that define what it is to be Indigenous. And while bryan Andy’s argument above alludes to longstanding Aboriginal custom as a way of celebrating community diversity, other references to Aboriginal traditions very often fall into racist tropes of savagery and intolerance.

This debate reveals the persistence of myths around Aboriginal culture. In the fallout from Mundine’s comment, for instance, the following comment was published on the ABC website by a non-indigenous man:

Interesting to see a western man hearken back to barbarism. ‘Our ancestors would have their heads’? So would a lot of other kind of ancestors. But we’ve all come a long way since then, most of us anyway, maybe it’s time to be a little bit more mature, Mr Mundine, seeing as how we wear pants and can acquire food without having to hunt it down and slaughter it ourselves. Keep your ‘culture’ if you like, but leave your outdated principles at the door; while your at it, leave the religion too.

I read and heard more comments of this ilk, comments incongruent with what a lot of Aboriginal people were saying. Again, it was a familiar argument being offered: as an Indigenous person, you have to be okay with homosexuality because it is a western thing and you like being western. This argument can be found in any number of formulations: Aboriginal people should stop complaining about colonisation/white people/racism because they enjoy the ‘benefits’ of white society, such as supermarkets, railways and clothing. The trade-off for western living, the argument continues, is having to deal with its less desirable imports, such as gender and sexual diversity, class disadvantage, structural inequality and micro racisms. All of these are inevitable – the price one must pay – for progress; they are, in other words, merely signs of the modern times in which we live. Aboriginal people are therefore supposed to be grateful, in the first instance, for colonialism and, in the second, for the benefits of being forcibly ‘civilised’. The implicit threat of appearing uncivilised, of resisting progress, is supposed to shut us up.

This is the catch of this argument: by stepping into any kind of discussion around sexuality, even if we’re not making absolute claims about the alleged homophobia of our pre-colonial cultures (as Mundine has done), claiming a queer identity raises tensions about connections or lack thereof to our cultures, our ‘authentic’ selves.

In this latest culture war, we can see this rhetorical manoeuvre at play. While Mundine’s comment was obviously wrong and worthy of discussion, it was less his claim that was critiqued and more his validity to speak on issues of tradition and, in most cases, the supposed backwardness of ‘true’ Aboriginal culture. Almost all of the public outrage centred on what are and aren’t real expressions of culture. This was often informed by speculation on pre-contact Aboriginal cultures, the apparent hallmark of what is and isn’t real Aboriginal behaviour. The ensuing debate reveals a persistent belief that Aboriginal society is ignorant, intolerant and hostile, and in need of modernist intervention.

But it is not only Mundine who is aligning pre-contact Aboriginal cultures with heterosexuality. Arguments for tolerance often centre on an assumption that tradition and the past are necessarily heterosexual and intolerant, hence the common refrain it’s the twenty-first century – get over it. In the grand narrative of social progress, sexual diversity is associated only with certain ‘civilised’ societies, while homophobia is – with or without evidence – used as a marker of backward traditional societies. The supposed reluctance of Aboriginal people to accept LGBTIQ people is inevitably connected with ‘ancient’ culture, not just one boxer making a fool of himself on the internet. Aboriginal culture ties a person to savagery, barbarism and conservatism; Aboriginal custom and ‘civilisation’ are positioned as opposites, as mutually exclusive. One either has ties to culture and is savage, or has embraced the modern world – but one cannot apparently have both, one cannot engage in an ongoing negotiation and creation of culture.

When I talk to white people and the subject of my sexuality or race comes up, they either ask me about how hard it is to be both Aboriginal and queer or they express disbelief that people like me exist. For many non-indigenous people, the idea of Aboriginal LGBTIQ organising, traditions, communities and ideologies is beyond comprehension. In my experience, refusing to align myself outright with queer communities at the expense of cultural loyalty is seen as a confusing refusal to ‘modernise’, to assimilate positively to a western understanding of human rights and ethics. My refusal to passively accept the western definition of myself or my culture is for some confusing, for others unacceptable. Being a feminist who is angrier at white people than men is baffling for some. I’m not alone: it’s common for Aboriginal queers to hear patronising and insulting remarks such as that’s so interesting or what an interesting mix or but what does your family think? or do you experience a lot of discrimination within your community because of your sexual orientation? Within each of these statements lurks the same logic: queer identities and expressions are incompatible with Indigenous customs and must therefore be rejected by ‘true’ Aboriginals. Again, the conversation is shifted from organising, community and different ways of being to a debate around authenticity.

Indigenous sexuality has historically been a battleground for white morality. If Louis Nowra’s Bad Dreaming revealed anything interesting, it was that white people are willing to use the scantiest testimonies of Aboriginal sexual mores (or lack thereof) as an opportunity for further accusations of savagery. Such charges have very real consequences: ‘evidence’ of barbaric practices empower white people to do whatever they want in a legislative setting. Bad Dreaming overshadowed the Little Children Are Sacred report and precipitated the beginning of the Northern Territory Intervention through its panic-inducing depictions of Aboriginal masculinity.

As Shino Konishi points out, ethnographies of Aboriginal sexuality (such as Nowra’s Bad Dreaming) exclusively use European records to construct their images of Indigenous society and practices. These ‘evidence-based’ portraits are then used to a political end:

It is my contention that writers such as Nowra have, to borrow Tench’s phrase, been ‘wanton with plenty’ in their approach to writing the history of Aboriginal gender relations. They have not exercised the same caution and critical eye in their studies of historic accounts of Indigenous Australian men’s ostensible sexual savagery that has been adopted in the international culture-contact scholarship.

Young Indigenous people are quick to realise how this works against them. My biggest lesson at university was that Aboriginal people need to be very careful about how they express their views on politics, because white people will use any evidence of our presumed moral failings as a justification for dispossession. Anything I say will be taken as the opinion of Aboriginal Nations Inc. Likewise, any mistake Mundine makes will be traced back to Aboriginal people as a whole. Aboriginal people, as with people of colour more broadly, can’t discuss the failings and disagreements and nuances of their cultural backgrounds without it becoming evidence against them.

An interaction I had little over a year ago with a white academic offers an example of this trend. During a heated debate on whether or not human rights discourses could be broadened to include animals, she looked at me and posed a hypothetical. She asked whether the ways that Aboriginal people traditionally hunt and kill animals – which she believes is in direct contravention of animal rights – should mean Aboriginal people are denied any rights to Native Title or sovereign power as nations. Of course, we all know that this is not really a hypothetical – uninformed claims that Aboriginal culture is traditionally backward or savage are used again and again to justify paternalistic actions.

Queer critiques haven’t escaped the academic tendency to use Aboriginal sexual and moral behaviours as a vehicle for its own maintenance. Aboriginal queer and trans cultures have become contested spaces in which non-indigenous activists and theorists assert competing arguments about normativity and the gender binary. A telling example is Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl, a revolutionary text on misogyny, transphobia and anti-femininity. Serano makes a thorough and incisive commentary on the exploitation and appropriation of trans women’s bodies and experiences by academics (particularly anthropologists, queer theorists and feminists). She makes an astute critique of the anthropologising of Native American Two-Spirit people to suit the agenda of researchers invested in finding a pattern they could call ‘third gender’. She then uses her own re-reading of Two-Spirit to argue the flawed logic of the ‘third gender’ concept, but in doing so builds her own an argument about subconscious sex. While performing a stunning takedown of the (un)ethics of queer academia, Serano falls into the trap of perpetuating its logic.

In her discussion of Two-Spirit, Serano refers to her own reservations on third-gendered identity, doubting the existence of a third gender, and asserts that third genders are ‘oppositional sexist attempts by society to marginalize gender-variant people’ without referring to any Indigenous sources on the subject, and seemingly without consultation. Thus she performs the same co-optation of experience for a theoretical consumption that she has rightly criticised in her feminist predecessors, using second-hand information on the cultural practises of third-gender people to forward her own agenda.

It isn’t just in theory. More and more, queer and polyamorous communities are aligning themselves with Indigenous cultures. Queers around me increasingly seem to use words like ‘tribe’ and ‘elders’ to describe their relationships to each other. The more history I read, the more I realise this isn’t new. The arguments that prop up the visibility of queer and polyamorous communities often involve some kind of claim that other cultures have been doing this successfully for years, ergo we can too. Non-monogamy is decolonisation. Culture jamming is revolutionary. Every time we fuck we win. But when I talk about racism, the party gets awkward. This is old history repeating itself.

Being queer has led me away from my culture, from my Blackness, but not in the way that critics of Mundine and Lord Jamar assume. For me, it is not because being Indigenous and being queer are mutually exclusive, but because I always assumed being queer meant being white. Anyone from a marginalised background can tell you that representation is important.

When Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie famously spoke about the dangers of the single story – about the need for multiple narratives that better reflect diversity of culture and personal experience – she was, in a way, also speaking of the refusal of people to listen. In Australia, there is not only a single story – a narrative that offers an incomplete representation of Aboriginal culture, history, community and people – but also a refusal to acknowledge multiplicities when they are presented. If you think you know your own background, chances are there is a white person who wants to prove you wrong.

In her talk, Adichie details her early forays into reading and how every book she read was either British or American. This produced a particular result within her own ways of storytelling:

All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out. Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to … What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story … Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify.

I feel this lack of representation in many ways. Even as a teen, the films I watched about lesbian and transgender people always inevitably eroticise the same people, and I always pictured myself in their bodies or with their bodies.

Now I know different, but I don’t know where to go next.
This essay is part of the CAL-Connections project, supported by the Cultural Fund of the Copyright Agency, draws attention to the systematic exclusion of certain groups within Australian literary culture.

Maddee Clark

Dr Maddee Clark is a Yugambeh writer, editor and critic living in Naarm on the lands of the Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung people.

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