Brotherboys And Sistergirls: We Need To Decolonise Our Attitude Towards Gender In This Country

"The gender binary arrived with the boats".

brotherboy and sistergirl

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International Non-Binary People’s Day just passed, and it’s an opportunity to remind you all that the gender binary is a construct that was enforced on this land through colonisation.

In so called “Australia”, the voices of First Nations LGBTIQ+ people are often ignored. Many of LGBTIQ+ First Nations identities aren’t even known by white Australians and non-Indigenous settlers, such as Brotherboys and Sistergirls.

A common question I receive is “what’s a Brotherboy?”

I get messages asking me, I get comments on my posts, and I’ve even had people approach me on the dance floor at clubs asking me to educate them. Often when people have heard the term before, they don’t entirely understand it — assuming that all Brotherboys are binary trans men.

There has been a great deal of transphobia in the media lately, particularly surrounding the validity of trans and gender diverse people (thanks J.K. Rowling for that) — so I’m here to let you know that trans and gender diverse people are ancient.

Trans and gender diverse people have been present (and celebrated!) across almost every human culture, for as long as humans have been on this planet — and our existence has been traced throughout history.

First Nations cultures around the world have always recognised and even celebrated diverse genders that do not conform to colonial understandings of gender. Trans and gender diverse people have been, and continue to be a part of every First Nations population around the world, including right here in so-called “Australia”.

Though despite this, having an Indigenous gender in a colonial world can be challenging — especially when settlers and colonisers don’t know about your gender identity because it’s not in the mainstream media.

What Are Sistergirls And Brotherboys?

So — what is a Brotherboy?

You may have heard of the Tiwi Island Sistergirls who attended Sydney Mardi Gras for the first time in 2017. Sistergirls and Brotherboys (also referred to as Sister-girls and Brother-boys) are​ ​terms used to describe trans and gender diverse people in some Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander communities.

‘Sistergirl’ and ‘Brotherboy’ are sovereign terms coined by the First Nations people of this continent.

The spelling of these terms is important because in broader Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, the terms ‘Sistagirl’ and ‘Brothaboy’ are used as terms of endearment, for women and men respectively, with no reference to gender diversity. It’s also important to note that not all First Nations trans and gender diverse people identify with these terms, but many do.

Brotherboy, Isaac Roberts explains that “Brotherboys are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who were assigned female at birth, but live our lives through our boy spirit. We take on male roles in community and society, and are accepted as such within our cultural world views. Therefore, Brotherboy encompasses both our gender identity and our cultural identity.”

Although, while Brotherboys live through their boy spirit, not all Brotherboys identify as binary trans men. Brotherboys and Sistergirls can have binary or non-binary genders. We have masculine or feminine spirits and we do the cultural roles that align with those spirits (after seeking permission from our Elders which is an important cultural practice).

‘Sistergirl’ and ‘Brotherboy’ are very inclusive terms, as they are trans identities that accept everyone, including those who don’t separate themselves from the gender they were assigned at birth.

So, a First Nations person who has a feminine spirit but was assigned male at birth (AMAB) might identify as a Sistergirl. This means she could be anywhere on the gender spectrum from a feminine gay man, to a non-binary person, to a trans woman (and vise versa). A Brotherboy may have a boy spirit and and therefore identify as a Brotherboy, but not identify as a “man”.

I have a masculine spirit and perform masculine roles in culture. However, my gender isn’t binary. In western discourse I would be defined as a “non-binary, trans-masculine person”.

The Gender Binary Arrived With The Boats

So, how does this work?

A beloved Bundjalung Sistergirl who has since passed on to the dreamtime put it simply, stating: “the [gender] binary arrived with the boats!”

What she means here is that the rigid gender binary that our society now subscribes to is something that was brought to this continent with colonisers in 1788. They then inflicted this rigid gender binary on the First Nations community.

Upon viewing First Nations people performing separate cultural activities, colonisers made assumptions based on their binary understanding of gender. In a society which has now been tainted by colonial and heteronormative powers, gender is expected to match physical appearance and fit within a strict male or female binary identity.

Prior to that, diverse gender roles and presentations were practiced and celebrated on this land.

For a culture that never based a person’s gender off their appearance, this can have some hurtful effects on Brotherboys and Sistergirls. This assumption from colonisers is ongoing.

In this interview by Miriam Margolyes with Tiwi Island Sistergirls, this colonial assumption can be seen through the comments made by Margolyes such as “you’re going to have to get rid of that” when referring to the Sistergirls’ facial hair, continuing with “because that’s what women do”.

This is quite a hurtful comment to make, and one of the Sistergirl’s responds with “you know, in our culture we respect [the gender of] that person regardless of the look. We don’t look on the outside, it’s the inside that you have to change”.

Another Sistergirl then adds “it’s there for decoration” in reference to her beard.

Decolonise Our Attitudes Around Gender

Brotherboys, Sistergirls, and other gender diverse people have been a part of our culture from the beginning.

We all have masculine or feminine spirits, but the “male and female” strict gender binary, that relies heavily on body parts, arrived with colonisation. And by forcing people to subscribe to a strict colonial gender binary, Australia is furthering the effects of colonisation on the understanding of gender on this continent.

We need to decolonise our attitudes around gender and bring back celebrations of trans and gender diverse people with First Nations people leading the party!

We need to stop expecting people to subscribe to a very rigid binary view of gender. We need to celebrate diverse genders. We need to stop attributing colonial views of gender on First Nations people.

We need to fight for equality for all trans and gender diverse people while remembering that we cannot have equality for trans and gender diverse people unless we have equality for everyone.

We need full sovereignty for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the return of all stolen land and the abolishment of the patriarchy and the colonial gender binary.

I’ve included a list of resources if you want to keep learning, or helping the community.

Learn more about Brotherboys and Sistergirls:

Being Brotherboys: coming out as transgender — SBS NITV
The Reality of Being Black And Trans In Australia — Star Observer
Meet The Transgender “Sistergirls” Of The Tiwi Islands — BuzzFeed
Sistagals: Australia’s Indigenous Gay and Trans Communities

First Nations LGBTI+ organisations you can donate to:

Black Rainbow
BlaQ Aboriginal Corporation (based in Redfern)
Yarnsheal (suicide prevention campaign)
First Nations Rainbow (Based in Sydney)

Hayden advocates for the Transgender, Disabled and First Nations communities through his roles in various activist groups and organisations. He is also a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney.