Transcript

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

Annette Xiberras: Normally in Australia when we talk on someone's country you always take the time to recognize it, and this is the Māori's country and I'd like to take the time to thank them for letting me speak on their country. I'm not sure what the right words are to say, but I hope that covered it if anybody's here that's Māori.

I'm aboriginal and I'm a gay, black widow. I'm probably one of the first women to lose their partners. My name is Annette Xiberras and I'm a Wurundjeri elder. I ran, or I own, the first black-aboriginal company, gay company, but today there's a few other guys, a few straight guys, who run other aboriginal companies.

My people normally believe in our creator, called Bunjil, who's an eagle who flew out over a vast plain of nothing and created the world. From that world nations, from those nations countries, and from those countries the people. That's why a lot of aboriginal people say, "My land, my country, my mother." It's an affiliation we have with the land that no one can take away.

Also, evolution, and so it doesn't really matter what religion you look at, whether it's evolution or that, we all believe in the one thing: we come from the land. And I was doing this talk once in a Roman Catholic church and this fellow got up to me and he said, "Look, you know, I've got no problem with your dream time. You know, I believe that we come from the earth, too." But he said, "You know what? I believe Adam and Eve were white."

I said, "Oh, shit." I said, "You know, well that explains everything, because if they'd have been black they would have said, 'Stuff the apple,' and ate the snake."

[laughter and applause]

"And we wouldn't have got kicked out of Eden," which is true.

Anyway, our Bunjil, too, believes that land gives life to everything and it's our mother and we should respect it.

And my grandmother, granny Jemima, who was full-blooded, just before they put everybody onto the reserves was talking and walking with my grandmother one day. And she turned around to nana and nana wanted to pick this flower. She said to nana, "Don't pick this flower."

And nana said why?

And she said, "Because if you pick that flower no one else can see the beauty of that, and it's not there just for one person, it's there for everybody." And that's a bit about our culture. We believe in caring and sharing and respecting each other's values.

I was actually born gay from a very young age. I was sent – being aboriginal – I was sent to a Roman Catholic school and when we were little we used to play kiss chasing. For some reason I never wanted to kiss the boys, so I used to run after and kiss the girls, and behold, the bloody nuns used to always flog me. They used to have this Bible or this stick thing, a duster, and they were quite often, once a week, either hitting me over the head with it or smacking me for not fitting into the protocol of white society. And being black and gay back then I really blew their brains in the '70s.

Back in the '70s, and the '60s when I was born, I've been asked to talk about how it was then and how it is now, and I remember that back then if you loved a woman or you loved a man they thought there was something wrong with you they'd want to lock you up, they'd want to bash you, and we've all heard about stolen children, but as gay people back in those days, we don't talk about it, but if you were gay they thought that the children were in moral danger and they would actually take your children from you, which was a pretty scary thing.

And I know we've come a long way today, but we really haven't come all that far when you look at things.

Again, back in the '70s it was impossible, if you were gay, to get anywhere. Today we've got some of the best jobs in the world. I started off in the '70s as an aboriginal archaeological site officer. Being black and gay was really scary because there was no women in the field. Women weren't accepted. Back then you had to be a man to do cultural heritage. So, I fought the odds and I went in and I took the job and for the next two years my whole life was hell. Not only did I have the other aboriginal site officer men against me, I also had just the normal people within the work working really hard against me.

You have to excuse me. I apologize for the way I'm dressed, too. I forgot to tell you that somehow all my clothes, toothpaste, brush, underarm deodorant – so thank God you're back there – has been lost, so I apologize for the way I look, but I really took this serious.

Audience member: It wasn't us.

[laughter]

I wanted to look as flash as the ambassador, but I've ended up looking like a sweathog, which tells my true past.

Audience member: You look fine!

Annette: Thank you.

So really, as a site officer they put me through hell, the boys. You know, they said, "Oh, you have to be able to knock off a slab and be able to smoke some of that green stuff to be part of the crew." And I didn't smoke or drink so the first three stubbies I did, the first thing I did was have to run and hide because I vomited everywhere, but it was the only way I could get into the circle. And it was really sad that you had to subject yourself to stuff like that to be accepted as one of the boys.

From there, from fighting really hard, I fought for the rights as a gay woman to do aboriginal reburials. I'm the only woman, nationally, in Victoria who does reburials and who does my job. There's still no one else. And I'm also the longest-serving person in aboriginal cultural heritage, and like I said, when I first went in there it was really, really tough. I was one of the forefronts there.

After fighting for our rights within aboriginal affairs and getting to actually be Co-Chair of Victoria, which is a really big responsibility, I am, again, one of the first black, gay women to get into these positions. And it's really hard to get into these positions because not only have you got people shaking your hand and being really nice to your face, 95% of the people are putting a knife in your back and are really jealous and want to take your position. So, you've always got to keep one step ahead and two steps in front.

After setting that up, and it took me something like 17 years to get there, I met a beautiful lady called Cathy Adams who six years later I married and had two beautiful children to. And she wanted children, and I thought oh geez, how are we going to do that?

[laughter]

So, I went out in the community. I panicked because I'm from the '70s and she was from the '80s. She was 10 years younger than me. So, I went out and found a child that really no one wanted and were going to put up for adoption and I brought it home and said, "Babe, I got one!"

[laughter]

She looked at me; she said, "No honey, I want to have a baby." And immediately my heart broke because I thought she'd want to sleep with a man or something like that. She said, "No, I'm going to do IVF."

I said, "All right; I'm there."

And we went in there, and back then, six years ago in 2006 – oh, we actually started in about 2000 – it was illegal for black women to have children, but nothing like that ever stops me. So what I did was I had a few friends from being up within the community, and I got people to turn a blind eye, and Cathy and I, from 2002 to about 2006, went through the IVF Programme. And other gay women had to go to New South Wales, but I refused to do that and I fought really long and hard, and we were a bit of rebels there and we broke the law, but we had our first child, Julia, and I was so proud of Julia. She was a beautiful girl.

But as I was telling you, working as an aboriginal site officer wasn't the best, and a lot of times I was put on restricted duty, so we had Julia, we're proud, and I'm getting in and out of trouble, as usual, for fighting for gay rights. And Cathy says, "I want another baby."

I said, "All right." And we had Joey on ice, so we went in and we took Joey off.

[laughter]

Joey was on ice for two years because we didn't want to have two at once because I was really scared. I thought: How are we going to do this? We'll go one at a time. This looks easy. Not easy, guys, but worth it.

So we went and we had Joey. And she was pregnant with Joey and she's home with Julia, and I come home from work. She goes, "What's wrong, honey?"

And I said, "Ah, they've stood me down again, babe."

She goes, "They stood you down?"

I said, "Yeah, but I've still got my pay packet."

And she looked at me, and I seen the fear in her eyes, and she got really, really scared because here we are, we've got a child here, we're renting a house, she's got another baby on the way, and the government was continually treating me like you wouldn't believe. At one particular stage I was managing an aboriginal organization in Dandenong, and for the first time ever I got all the tribes around the table. Not talking to each other very nicely, trying to jump the table and punch the shit out of each other, but talking. So I thought this was a great step or going well.

And a lot of time in my life, through being gay and the sort of white crew you had in there, and the black crew, because there was also a black crew in there that was against gay people, they made my life difficult – very difficult. And when I was managing Koorie Nations they sent this white, Neanderthal man over there to try and put me in my place, because not only did I think I was a woman who didn't know my place, they thought I was a woman that was seriously in need of medical help, even in the '90s and 2000s. And they sent this gentleman over not only to show me my place but to pull me in line, which was virtually impossible.

And again, a lot of time I'd get in trouble from the government, and the only reason I was in trouble was because supposedly someone made a phone call, who wouldn't leave their name, who wouldn't leave their number and wouldn't leave a contact. So, the government would put me on restricted duties for six months, and after I'd proved my innocence would take me off.

But this time when they sent the white overseer over was the worst time in my life. He sacked people because he misunderstood founding rights, then had to reinstate them. And at the end, because he couldn't break me and found nothing wrong with me, he actually tried to physically knock me out in the office. And he was a big fella, and I ducked and got out of the way. And I said stuff this and I went on stress leave for a year because I couldn't go back to the office. And because it was so successful, because the organization was so good, they shut it down.

And that's when I went home and poor Cathy was sitting there, and that's when I thought, look, you know, I want to work in the government and I want to make a better place for my people. And because I do all the reburials and that, I've got so much responsibility I can't walk from it. I'm in the Melbourne tribe. You know, a lot of our people have got drug and alcohol problems. What do I do? So, lo and behold, I started up my first consultancy – first black, aboriginal consultancy.

I'd seen what the white people were doing, and if they can make that sort of money why can't us black fellows, too? So I started up my company and I thought it was going really, really well, and guess what happened? That white boy's club and black boy's club within Aboriginal Affairs Victoria came after me again. And being gay it was really bad because there were a lot of people in there who wouldn't stick up for me and thought I was wrong, and if I'd have been black and straight I wouldn't have had to be subjected to the things I was subjected to.

So after this gentleman tried to hit me I went out on stress leave, I started up my company, and I also thought: I'll take this to the union because the union in Victoria is pretty good and it's pretty gay friendly. We got him on 23 charges. He pleaded guilty to 13. But did they sack him? No. What they did was they transferred him to the Museum of Victoria and gave him a promotion for at least trying to pull this stupid, black, gay woman into line.

Over there, again he harassed gay people and stood over them. Since then he's been moved sideways again. So, things aren't as good as you think.

There was another time when I took the government on again, and because I was a black, gay woman and I was taking on a straight, black man who was running the department at the time, the Director, I spoke to people within Equal Opportunity who said I had an unbeatable case, so I took it up. The gentleman who was representing my case is now the actual Director of Aboriginal Affairs Victoria, which seems quite strange, but he forgot to lodge my complaint, so therefore it wasn't lodged in time. So, Aboriginal Affairs got away of 17 years of putting me through hell, making me sit in the car, watch everybody else go around. I couldn't go out and look after my sites. And like I said, the Equal Opportunity Officer who handled my case is now the Director of Aboriginal Affairs Victoria.

And I'd like to point out here it wasn't just black, gay women, it was black women that they were against. They thought women really should be at home. And I want to say again: my culture isn't like that. These black men have been affected by white culture in our society, which has made things go really, really bad.

Now I'd like to.... So, I'm just running through this and I heard someone talk and they said talk a bit about this, a bit about this, so I can give you a bit of an overview of what's happening.

I'd like to talk a bit now about OutBlack. OutBlack is an organization set up in Victoria, and originally it was set up by the gay men, and I didn't realize this. And when they first set it up back in about '96 they had a meeting and a Christmas party, and they had on it "For sistergirls." And because in my life's fighting so hard for my people's rights and gay rights, I always end up in a heterosexual circle, heterosexual conferences, so I'm not really....

Cathy was really good at this sort of stuff, and I forgot to say Cathy passed away 12 months ago. She died in my arms. No one knows why. But we've still got a little four-year-old and a six-year-old, and you'll hear them out there occasionally on their DSes. They're great kids. I love them. And when I was flying over here, I just want to point out really quick they wouldn't let me fly as their mother. They made me fly as their father. And I told them: In aboriginal language we call boys things a pee-pee and bubbles, and I said I've got none of that. I'm a woman and I'm a mother, but there was no provision even though I'm on the kid's birth certificate.

In Victoria we've got a lady called Felicity – she's a legend. She's a gay woman and she's fought so hard for us to get rights to be recognized as partners, yet when we fill in government papers the only way we can fit into the papers is within the men's role. Even on the birth certificate I'm as a parent. Because I'm a parent, and not the second mother, they would not put me on the passports as a mother. And I was arguing. I argued for about two months and this conference was getting really close, so I gave up and came over as a father.

Normally I wouldn't give up; I'd fight to the end, but I really wanted to come to this conference, and I don't know why. And probably it was just Cathy being gay and where I work and what I do, not having much to do with gay people, this was really important because I want my children to know they're a rainbow family, they're gay. So, even though we've made a lot of steps in Victoria there are still a lot of bureaucratic forms that don't recognize what we're fighting for and what they've said they've now achieved. So I'd like to just say thanks to Felicity and the rainbow families in Victoria that have done a lot of work and a lot of things for us.

Anyway, back to OutBlack. I went along to their first meeting, and I said, "Oh, sistergirls, Christmas party," so again, me not knowing much about... being gay, but not knowing much about the trendy bits, I rolled and rocked along because there was a black tune, and the boy said to me, "Hey, what are you doing here?"

I said, "The sistergirl party."

He said, "Not that sistergirl! Boy sistergirl."

I said, "Oh gosh, what am I going to do?"

So they threw me in the land room and put the telly on. I said okay, this is all right.

They said, "As soon as we've finished our meeting you can come out."

I said, "Oh, so I've got to sit here for two hours while you boys meet, then I can come out. But I'm gay too."

And they said, "No, no, no – sistergirls."

I said all right, but they brought me a few beers while having their meeting and they looked after me like that, and I watched Home and Away and Neighbours, and finally they finished their meeting and they let me out there for a chin wag with them, and I just couldn't work out why I couldn't have been there in the first place.

Ronnie Johnson set up OutBlack. He died a couple of years ago, but he set OutBlack up, and a gentleman called Bryan Andy took it over after he passed away. And Bryan's like my nephew. He's a beautiful boy. He's another black man and so was Ronnie, and he opened the door for women to come into OutBlack, so today women converse with OutBlack.

But for some reason the black women in Victoria don't seem to party as hard as the boys, so we don't come together and meet as much as what the boys do, but we're pretty staunch and we stick together.

But there's also a lot of black women from my age group – now, remember back in the '70s when it was: When you're gay you're bashed, you're raped; you know, they took your children often. A lot of us have still got this in our mind, and I do see a lot of gay women in the black community but they won't come out of the closets. Get a few drinks into them and you're right, but until you get those drinks into them they're really, really scared to come out, and I think the reason why a lot of older women our age are scared to come out is because we lived through that process.

And that's what I loved about Cathy. Like, she didn't grow up in the '70s, she grew up in the '80s and '90s where you didn't get bashed, you didn't get raped, and she had this thing about being gay that I loved, and she never, ever had fear, you know? The fear that I had when we first had the children: I had the fear of being black and stolen children, but also the fear of being gay and stolen children, the thought that the government thought that those children might be in moral danger, but Cathy never, ever had those fears. And I loved the look in her eyes and I loved the way that....

But, I just wanted to feel that, too, but from living through the '70s I've always got that in the back of my head: What about if we slip back and we go back there? What's going to happen to my children? What's going to happen to me? What's going to happen to you?

But hopefully we've got really good people out there and we won't slip back.

David: Any last words? We're worried about time.

Annette: Okay then, not a problem. Sorry about that guys. Yeah, that's okay.

[audience sounds of disappointment, then applause]

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