It’s not every day I step into another man’s shoes. One thing’s for sure; it forced me to face the privilege I never knew I had.
Friends who I call family, some, belong to the LGBTQIA+ community. I’ve never questioned my love and advocacy for my queer brothers and sisters. I did when I met Peter Waples-Crowe. Last year I was asked to direct the documentary InsideOUT. A film about Peter who is a proud Ngarigo man, emerging queer elder, independent artist and community health worker.
During the filmmaking process, I started to re-examine the position I held as a cisgender heterosexual woman. Admittedly, I was preoccupied with the plight of the Black woman. So, the journey I was taking with Peter opened me up in a way it hadn’t before. I guess when you’re focused on your marginalised corner of the room, you fail to see the person standing next to you.
I was only young when the news of HIV/AIDS erupted into hysteria worldwide. Children at school would tease each other, “Joshua’s got AIDS!” As callous slurs were casually tossed around the playground. Peter was coming out at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
I got the chance to visit Thorne Harbour Health (formerly known as the Victorian AIDS Council) where Peter works as an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peer engagement worker. Entering the centre, I saw glass shards hanging from the ceiling with the names of loved ones who had passed from AIDS. Thinking back to the schoolyard, it made me wince. I was just a kid, and we didn’t know any better.
Nonetheless, during that era of fear and hate, Peter lost a partner and many friends to the virus.
As Peter’s interviews replayed in my head, so did the homophobic vitriol, I began to encounter quite frequently.
In mid-conversation one night, a fellow housemate noticed a rainbow coloured mosaic frame on the wall. I caught his gaze; his expression signalled irritation, he announced: “I hate it!” I knew exactly what he was getting at. I retorted, “The rainbow bothers you… why?”, which he replied, “It’s gay.” Something so beautiful met such contempt in a matter of minutes.
Throughout making the film, I grew unsettled by my complacency in the past. There were many occasions I should have called out homophobic behaviour and left events on the spot. But avoiding confrontation took precedence, and with that, my silence gave consent.
Wasn’t my brother Peter worth me speaking up?
I remember dropping into Melbourne’s RMIT campus one day, and without realising, I walked into a genderless bathroom. I saw several men washing their hands at the sink. Immediately I freaked out; I thought I had walked into the wrong bathroom.
So, why did I view it as wrong?
Raised in the church, Christianity shaped what was right and wrong. It conditioned me to see gender through an ‘us and them’ paradigm. My religion never allowed fluidity, so no wonder my first time entering a gender-neutral restroom elicited a knee-jerk reaction.
Before I met Peter and became acquainted with his art, the concept of Aboriginal culture having a queer history never crossed my mind. Christianity erased a lot of our culture, thankfully Peter’s artwork is reinstating lost narratives and recognition; some never thought possible and others never knew existed.
As a community health worker, Peter is saving lives by educating his peers about safe and preventative measures when it comes to sexual health and blood-borne viruses. An emerging elder Peter is saving lives by supporting others navigating their queer identity, as some are susceptible to suicide.
Living on the fringes isn’t easy when parts of society don’t accept you. But it’s less daunting when you have allies in your corner.
Peter is a remarkable man. He has taught me love and advocacy means being uncomfortable. It’s also taking time out to see the person standing beside you.
Love and advocacy are about speaking up, and it requires more than attending Mardi Gras and flying the flag.
InsideOUT premieres on NITV Our Stories Tuesday, 10 December 2019 at 7 pm.
If you missed the premiere of InsideOUT catch it on SBS On Demand.
Feature image credit: Darrian Traynor.
Sasha Sarago is the editor of Ascension Magazine. She is a proud Wadjanbarra Yidinji, Jirrbal and African-American woman. Sasha’s dream is to be the founder of a globally inspiring lifestyle and media company.