FABORIGINAL: Steven Oliver On Being Black, Gay, Sad And Fabulous

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Recently, Aboriginal writer and performer Steven Oliver delivered a speech to staff from the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet to mark Wear It Purple Day. Quite a few people laughed, then cried. Then laughed again. And then there was more crying.

So where do I start? I guess the beginning would be good but what exactly is my beginning? Where does a man of Kukuyalanji, Gangalidda, Waanyi, Woppaburra, Bundjalung, Biripi, Irish, Sri Lankan and South Sea Islander descent, begin?

Some would probably say it’s where and when I was born. A small country town about 800km inland from Townsville called Cloncurry, on the 20th of August, 1975 at 4.30pm.

Yes, that’s right. I recently celebrated my 42nd birthday. I know, black don’t crack.

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To be honest, I just wanted to mention my birthday so you could all go, ooh he looks good for his age. Then I’d pretend to be all embarrassed and go, stop it! You’re making a black man go red.

Anyway, I digress, which I do all the time as you’ll probably learn during the course of this speech. Don’t be surprised if I get to the end of my allotted time before I even go on about my beginning. Which at this point, I’m still trying to work out exactly when, where and what that was?

I should also mention I cry a lot. Happens all the time. I’ll be sharing stories that are very personal to me so I get upset. Sorry if you think you were going to be laughing the whole way through my speech, but I’m extremely adamant in my belief that if you want me, then you get all of me. Probably explains why I haven’t got a man. I give them too much too early and scare them off. And in case you’re wondering, yes, I am advertising I’m single. Hopefully I’ll end up turning Canberra into Manberra.

Faboriginal writer and performer, Steven Oliver.
Faboriginal writer and performer, Steven Oliver.

So what am I going on about? If we’re talking about the beginning of my life then I suppose I’ve answered that. If we’re talking my beginnings as a performer, then I guess I’d go back to when I was about five years old.

My family would get me to be the entertainment and dance at family BBQ’s. To be honest, I’m not even sure if I was a willing participant. I think I was. I remember enjoying dancing for people. I would literally dance at every BBQ held at my Grandparents place.

There were even times I’d be woken up by one the adults gently rocking me saying, “Boy, come dance for these mob. They wanna see you move.” I don’t ever remember saying no. I’d just get up half asleep, make my way to the backyard where they’d put on some record, usually Michael Jackson and I’d dance barefoot on the grass in my PJ’s.

I suppose I did enjoy it. Not just because I got to perform but it also meant that while my siblings and cousins were sleeping, I got to stay up and be a social butterfly. I’d talk with the adults who’d all be laughing and having a good time and after a few drinks ended up entertaining me.

Wow. I think I just realised why I loved partying so much. And all this time, I thought I thought it was because I’m a gay stereotype.

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I won’t go on about stereotypes just yet. What I will say for now, is that I no longer let people use stereotypes against me. Not that people have a right to but when people have been so used to getting their own way, they will use my sexuality and all its stereotypes to make me feel inferior. People are cruel.

Thankfully they are also kind. Both of those reasons are why we’re here today but anyway, I digress.

So, what was my next beginning? Well, after realising at five years of age that part of my being was a fabulous, much sought after child prodigy backyard bbq dancer, the next beginning was realising I was black.

It’s strange when I think about it. I was always told by family I was black. ‘You black kids better get inside. You black kids better shut up. You black kids better stop fart arsing around. You black kids better not let anyone talk down to you cos you’re black. Be proud of being black. If anybody says otherwise, you tell them to go get well and truly educated.’

Okay, I might’ve changed the last word but I’m sure you can all use your imaginations.

Anyway, despite being told by family I was black it kind of didn’t hit home because they’re black as well. When they used the word black to call to us kids. When they told us we were black and it’s something to be proud of. You don’t quite know the full weight of their words until someone takes the word black and uses it to make you feel ashamed.

Aboriginal writer and performer, Steven Oliver.
Aboriginal writer and performer, Steven Oliver.

‘What’s wrong with you blacks? You filthy blacks make me sick. You lazy blacks need to get off your arses. Thieving black bastards. We should’ve killed all you blacks when we first came here.’ I’m not exaggerating. They’re statements I’ve heard many times before and will undoubtedly hear again in my lifetime.

I’d like to say you learn to not let those type of statements affect you. That you become numb to the hate. But you don’t. Instead, you learn to act a certain way so you don’t get stung as often.

See, when you repeatedly hear such racist statements or jokes, it informs you how it is you’re viewed. Even supposed compliments give you an insight to what people think of Aboriginal people – ‘but you speak so well, but you’re different, but you’re so cute’.

You learn that being black is cause for suspicion. That merely walking down a street is cause for you to be stopped by police as you once again fit the description of someone you’ve come to realise doesn’t actually exist.

You learn to make the sound of a car slowing down behind you a police car by default.

You learn to not tell people about the experience because they accuse you with, ‘Well you must’ve done something’.

You learn to stay in full sight of shopkeepers so their eyes don’t glare accusingly.

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You learn to get your white friend to hail a cab.

You learn to let the racist joke slide because it’s too much of an effort trying to tell every person who laughed that you and your family are more than what they make of you.

You learn that you can’t be angry about it because you’re living in the past over the joke they just told.

You learn that in the eyes of the majority, you don’t matter.

People might say I’m being dramatic. But, when you see your children being tortured in detention centres, when you see a sister’s limp body being dragged around a police cell as she dies, when you see a brother die from injuries caused by police who are not charged but applauded, when you read about a brother who is bashed to death by five white men who are only charged with manslaughter and described as being of good character, when you hear of a 56-year-old man also described as being of good character as he’s charged with dangerous driving after running down and killing a 14-year-old Aboriginal child, it is not dramatic.

Not when you have seen similar stories play out before and know you will hear similar stories again. Not when you live with a fear that the next story could quite possibly be about someone you love. But anyway, I digress.

Aboriginal writer and performer, Steven Oliver.
Aboriginal writer and performer, Steven Oliver.

So what then, was my next beginning? You guessed it, I discovered I was royalty, a big black queen.

Well, it didn’t quite happen like that. Now that I think about it though, I kind of wish I did have an inauguration. At least now I know what I’m doing for my 50th, which I’m sure will be another beginning, as an elder. Holy crap! That just snuck up on me. Anyway, I digress, again.

So here I am, a teenage boy who likes other teenage boys. Who’s kinda known that he’s always looked at boys but now he was feeling something for them. It wasn’t just sexual feelings either, it was emotional.

He was wanting to cuddle with other boys, kiss other boys, love other boys. It terrified him.

See, unlike being black, he was not told he should be proud of being gay. Being gay was this bad thing. An abomination, unnatural, perverted, disgusting. Men were not to love other men. It was Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve (I just realised that I’ll never live it down if I end up with an Adam but anyway, before I digress too much).

If you wanted to show your hate for another man, if you wanted him to feel hate for himself, you called him a poofta, a faggot, a queer, a homo, a poo pusher, a cat c**t, a bum jacker, an AIDS carrier, a disease or simply someone who wasn’t right in the head.

And even if those words aren’t directed at you but some other poor soul, you still know that you are hated. So, each time you hear those words, you start to feel more and more ashamed of yourself.

Every time you feel something for another boy, you tell yourself you are disgusting.

You fight against yourself to not feel your truth. You tell yourself, and everyone around you, lies so you don’t get rejected. You hate yourself because you’ve been told all your life that who you are deserves to be hated.

Aboriginal writer and performer, Steven Oliver.
Aboriginal writer and performer, Steven Oliver.

You don’t want to be a disappointment. You don’t want to be the freak. You don’t want to be the one that will bring shame to your family. You don’t want to be alone. You just want to be loved.

But, how could someone as disgusting as you be loved? You have had it drilled into your head that you are unworthy and deserve to be treated as inferior.

For a lot of LGBTIQ and Aboriginal youth, this is where their story ends. They will see no more beginnings. They were told they did not deserve them and so sadly believed the lies they were force-fed. Even sadder still, the fact that children felt the pain these lies bring. A pain that has them believe this world is no good. That it has no place for them. That it does not want them.

I was at the Garma Festival recently in the Northern Territory where I had a woman called Megan approach me. She introduced herself and followed the introduction with “I’m sure you get this all the time”. Now, experience has taught me that when I hear that particular phrase, I’m either going to be asked for a selfie or called a slut. So, I readied myself for either scenario, only to have her catch me off guard. Instead I found myself crying.

I was not expecting the next words spoke. To be honest, never did I think it possible that I would be blessed with such a powerful compliment but Megan said, “I’m sure you get this all the time… but I just wanted to say thank you. I have a 14-year-old son who was thinking about self-harming but he came to me with your videos and said, ‘This is who I am Mum. I’ve been thinking about self-harming because I’m being bullied at school but I found these videos and they make me proud of who I am.”

So anyway, she starts crying and then I start crying and I’m not only crying because everything I do, I do it with the hope I can make people feel proud of who they are. To not believe the lies they’ve been told. I’m also crying because a part of me reverts back to being a 14-year-old boy living in fear that someone would find out his secret that he thought he had to be ashamed of.

When I recently spoke to the kids at the Brisbane Youth Detention Centre, one of the young boys asked me a question in regards to the Tiddas and said, “Sir, were you shame having to put make up on?”

I replied, “No, I wasn’t shame because I hate shame. Shame has been used against Aboriginal and gay people to make us feel like we’re less. They go around telling jokes about us and saying horrible things and believe themselves good people. They talk down to us thinking themselves better so I don’t let people make me feel ashamed. Not anymore. If anything, people who go around making other’s feel bad about themselves are the ones who need to be ashamed. They’re the ones creating sadness and hate and division. They dehumanise us which says more about their character than it’ll ever say about ours.’

One guy accused me of pushing the ‘gay agenda’ on Black Comedy. I told him to stop putting up walls. Stop putting up walls and I won’t have to push shit down.

See, there are people who fear equality in all its forms because for people to realise equality, they are to realise they are in no way better. That the superior they so long believed themselves to be has always been a lie. Who have been looking down on us for so long that it is too uncomfortable a thought to stand beside another and look into their eyes.

They will have to be dragged kicking and screaming from their pedestals, but eventually they will come to see that we are more alike than we know, that we are more connected than we believe, that control of self is more rewarding than control of others.

When we dehumanise others, we dehumanise ourselves. And whether lesbian, gay, bi, trans, intersex or straight, we deserve better than that, especially our children.

Think about it, a new beginning for all.

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Steven Oliver

Steven Oliver is a renowned Aboriginal writer and performer. He's based in Queensland.

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