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 Reaching out to the Indigenous transgender community of Sistergirls & Brotherboys

Reaching out to the Indigenous transgender community of Sistergirls & Brotherboys

CREATED ON // Tuesday, 11 November 2014 Author // Stephen A. Russell

Melbourne Trans & Gender Diverse Film Festival is Melbourne’s first international film festival created to showcase and support the work of trans and gender diverse filmmakers. Stephen A Russell talks to filmmaker Lisa O’Brien about her inspiring short film.

Growing up, Kai, 18, from the Waka Waka and Wuli Wuli nations five hours north of Brisbane, would have to dance with girls during corroborees held at school, but it never felt right. “I saw all the fellas dancing and I felt a bit left out, like I should be there, dancing with them,” he says, in the candid and engaging documentary short Brotherboys Yarnin’ Up, which will screen on the closing night of tilde, Melbourne’s inaugural international film festival showcasing films made by, and about, trans and gender diverse people.

Kai identifies as a Brotherboy, which he describes as “an Indigenous transgender or gender diverse person who was assigned female at birth, but inside they have a boy spirit and they live through that boy spirit and take on male roles in their community.”

When he decided to begin testosterone treatment, Kai searched in vain for a support group online. Fearing there was no one else out there like him, he eventually stumbled across the Facebook page Sistergirls and Brotherboys, connecting with group coordinator, Sistergirl Lisa O’Brien, and with fellow Brotherboy, 50-year-old Dean from the Wiradjuri tribe, who decided to transition eight years ago while he was married with four kids.

Kai and Dean have since formed a strong bond and consider passing on their knowledge to fellow Brotherboys through peer education a fundamental part of their ongoing experience, as well as continuing a dialogue with their Elders. “Being a Brotherboy encompasses your gender identity as well as your cultural identity,” Kai says. “Now I’m negotiating with my Elders to learn men’s songs and hopefully one day do men’s dance.”

O’Brien, alongside co-director Aunty Gloria, hadn’t planned to create a doco when Dean and Kai visited her Nimbin property, but it seemed the perfect opportunity to get the message out to other Brotherboys that there is a support network available, able to answer some key questions, with information about transgender issues and access to gender-reassignment often very difficult in remote Indigenous communities.

“Even where I live in Lismore, it’s not easy,” O’Brien says. “People are being sent to cities over two hours away if they want to get testosterone treatment. It’s not just about the Northern Territory; there needs to be more information and better access across Australia.”

With Kai and Dean’s help, O’Brien hopes to spread the message far and wide. “Kai and Dean work really well together and have taken on the role of uncle and nephew,” she says. “There’s a huge amount of respect between the two. Dean’s already been on this journey and Kai is an amazing young person. They’re great spokespeople. When Dean speaks, people listen, he has that sort of energy.”

The Sistergirls and Brotherboys support network is about to launch a fundraising drive so that they can put their film and other resource materials onto USB sticks that can then be delivered to remote Indigenous communities by various organisations. In getting the word out there, O’Brien hopes that they can help dispel some myths too.

“We really wanted to touch on the difference between a trans man and an Indigenous trans man, and to talk about that in a way that isn’t going to step on toes or be offensive to someone in a very remote community that may have a different outlook on what a Brotherboy is,” O’Brien says. “It’s all about using the right language, and not making assumptions about sexuality. We want to keep the group inclusive. It’s more about the spirit, and how you identify, not who you’re sleeping with.”

Brotherboys Yarnin’ Up debuted at Sydney’s International Indigenous Pre-Conference on HIV and AIDS in July. Elders attended and signalled to Kai and Dean that they were their sons and part of the community, a moment O’Brien was very proud to witness.

In the documentary short, Kai says that, “shame has no place in our culture”, and it’s something O’Brien staunchly believes in. “It’s a word that’s thrown around a lot in Indigenous language,” she says. “We’re trying to turn that around and use that. We want to make something that involves the Elders next, and shows us being embraced in our communities, because people are still bullied for being who they are and made to feel shame.”

O’Brien is excited about showcasing the film at tilde, where it will screen immediately before feature doco Kumu Hina, exploring the journey of Hina Wong-Kalu, a Native Hawaiianmāhū – or transgender – teacher and leader who uses her traditional culture to inspire students.

“We’re thrilled and so proud that our little film made it to Melbourne, and to tilde,” O’Brien says. “I can see it sparking a chain reaction and we’ll have more Brotherboys coming on board because of this, getting support from our network. It’s a fantastic way of reaching people.”

tilde: Melbourne Trans & Gender Diverse Film Festival runs from November 21 - 23, 2014 at Bella Union Trades Hall, 54 Victoria Street, Carlton. tildemelbourne.com

For more information go to facebook.com/groups/Sistergirls.brotherboys

[Image] Kai and Dean from Brotherboys Yarnin’ Up


Stephen A. Russell

Stephen A. Russell is a Melbourne based writer.

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