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Posted on 12 Apr 2016 in Non-Fiction |

DINO HODGE (Ed) Colouring the Rainbow: Blak Queer and Trans perspectives: life stories and essays by First Nations people of Australia. Reviewed by Michael Jongen

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xcolouring-the-rainbow.jpg.pagespeed.ic.ygftN230zAThe passionate life stories and the essays in Colouring the Rainbow reveal the challenges facing Queer and Trans Indigenous Australians.

This powerful collection looks at the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sexuality and also places it within an academic context, with a focus on colonisation. In his acknowledgments, Dino Hodge dates the project back to 1994, when a small group collaborated on the essay ‘Peopling the Empty Mirror: The prospects for lesbian and gay Aboriginal history’. Colouring the Rainbow addresses the challenges posed in that essay.

The introduction by Troy-Anthony Baylis. ‘Looking In To the Mirror’, quickly establishes one of the book’s central premises: that colonisation silenced Queer Aboriginality:

The sexual and gender diversity of Aboriginal peoples remains mostly absent in the recording and interpretations of Australian histories, and these absences reinforce a heterocentric reading of Aboriginal cultures.

The book is divided into three sections: ‘Inner Reflections – Life Stories’, then stories of public emergence (‘An Emergent Public Face’) and finally academic analysis (‘Looking Out of the Mirror – Essays’). The mixture of life stories and academic essays works well; the personal narratives underpin the theory and illustrate the social and political discourse.

‘Napanangka: The true power of being proud’ by Crystal Johnson outlines the extended family relationships and clans at the core of Indigenous kinship systems. Johnson’s contribution is told in the style of an oral history as she describes her struggles for acceptance and the lengths she has had to go to escape violence. After settling in the Tiwi community, she became a respected advocate for sistergirls and was elected to the Island Council:

I get respect from my community because I’ve been through a lot. I can walk in Warlpiri society saying that I am a sistergirl. They look at me as a woman. I still get criticism, but family members tell my other family members: ‘She has a title and she has a name.’ My name is Napanangka. I earned that skin title. I tell people: ‘This is my title, this is who I am.  I use that title from my mother.  I earned my father’s title, because this is who my ancestors were.’ And if I still get criticism, I’ll strip myself fully naked right in front of family and dance like a woman. Then I grab a stick or a bar and I crack my head or I cut my hand to show the blood for proof.

Brie Ngala Curtis, in ‘Kungakunga: Staying close to family and Country’, talks about the isolation of the Northern Territory and the difficulties of accessing hormone treatment. There were no doctors in Darwin familiar with the process, and she needed $2000 to see a psychiatrist to be assessed as transgender. Many sistergirls living in remote communities do not have the money or the support to meet the expenses of travel and accommodation.

These stories are followed by accounts of coming out as a gay, and exploring sexuality within the broader LGBT community. ‘Pigeon-holing Trauma: Situating demoralisation’ by RJ Sailor quotes James Baldwin in describing living as a ‘dirty half-caste’. He tells how academia has helped him to be free and to finally accept himself.

In ‘The Conflicts of Camouflage’, Laniyuk Garcon-Mills, daughter of a French mother and a Larrakia father, speaks of how her appearance defies the notion of what an Aboriginal woman looks like and also falls outside stereotypes of what a gay woman should look like because of her gender presentation.

These and the other life stories powerfully reinforce the themes of the collection. They are gripping, passionate and moving and they prepare the reader well for the next two sections.

‘Words are Like Weapons, They Wound Sometimes: Andrew Bolt, gay white men and an out and proud gay black man’ by Mark McMillan powerfully dissects Bolt’s designation of McMillan as a ‘gay white man with a law degree … Just the kind of Aboriginal who needs a special handout’. McMillan writes:

Mum saw straight through Mr Bolt’s words. She asked me whether Mr Bolt was saying that I was not black enough to win an Indigenous scholarship?

McMillan was one of the litigants in the Federal Court action brought against Bolt for breaching the Commonwealth’s Racial Discrimination Act, and this chapter is essential reading for anyone interested in that case and its continuing ramifications. He explains how he chose to avoid fighting Andrew Bolt about the ‘gay smearing’:

… my Nan, Mum and all my family taught us – yes, taught all of my family – that being Aboriginal is what we are.  Or, more precisely – Wiradjuri. That makes you strong and you must be proud.

‘Looking Out of the Mirror – Essays’, the third section, studies colonialism and its impact on the history of Queer and Indigenous intersections. In ‘Dual Imperatives’, Oscar Monaghan discusses the history of sexuality and gender within the context of settler colonialism, concluding that ‘I cannot separate, nor am I torn between, the queer and the Aboriginal’.

One of the themes of the book is the tension between traditional culture and missionary Christianity. This is strongly illustrated by the life stories and explored in the academic essays.  Other common themes among the remarkable and moving personal struggles to find acceptance are the importance of family and clan in Aboriginal culture. Readers will also be moved by the strength and pride that underlie all these stories of individual courage and faith.

Colouring the Rainbow is an important work about identity that will challenge conventional notions of gender, sexuality and Aboriginality.

As befits a book of this nature, there are also a glossary, notes, select bibliography and index.

Dino Hodge (Ed) Colouring the Rainbow: Blak Queer and Trans perspectives; life stories and essays by First Nations people of Australia Wakefield Press 2015 PB 311pp $34.95

Michael Jongen is a librarian who tweets as @michael_jongen and microblogs at

You can buy this book from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.