Respected Indigenous elder and LGBTIQA+ leader passes away

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this story contains the image and name of a person who has passed away.

Respected Indigenous elder Vanessa Smith has passed away following a long illness.

A Noongar Sistergirl of the Kaneang people in the state’s South West, Aunty Vanessa spent decades fighting for both LGBTIQA+ rights and Indigenous rights.

Among her many achievements were serving as Chair of the Gay Men and Sistergirls Steering Committee for Australia Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO), being an Elder Representative for TEKWABI GIZ (Mindout’s Indigenous Advisory Committee for the National LGBTI Health Alliance), serving on the board of Derbarl Yerrigan Aboriginal Medical Service, and working with Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP) and Gay and Lesbian Equality (GALE).

In a 2020 interview with OUTinPerth she shared that her journey into activism and advocacy began with a successful drag career in the 1960s.

“I went on to do drag shows on my own, up until the late 60s I was in a revue called Tiffany’s Playgirls, and then at 19 I thought I’d run my race here in Perth so I took off to Sydney!”

After trying her luck as a performer on the east coast, she felt the pull to return home and head to college where she learned about activism and found her place.

“I never went to college because I ran away from home, so I went back to college and did my uni entrance. As an out person, I never tried to hide behind my sexuality, I was always out there. I was always known as Vanessa.”

After studying at Tranby Aboriginal Co-operative College, she went on to earn an Associate Degree in Contemporary Aboriginal Art at Curtin University.

“That’s where I became an activist, a mainstream activist. Then 20 odd years ago I became at LGBTIQ+ activist, and I have been ever since. I started off in HIV as Chair for the Indigenous Committee for AFAO, then ten years ago I was recognised as an elder and helped set up the National LGBTI Health Alliance.” Aunty Vanessa said.

Trans Health Australia noted her passing saying she had devoted her life to helping others.

“Aunty Vanessa was a stalwart for the Sistergirl and Brotherboy community who devoted her life to helping others and was loved, honoured and deeply respected by everyone who knew her.” Trans Health Australia posted to their Facebook page.

First Peoples Rainbow Mob WA, an organisation that Aunty Vanessa mentored and encouraged people to support, have vowed to continue on her work and legacy.

“To say our hearts are broken right now would be a massive understatement.” the group said online. First People’s Rainbow Mob will be holding a memorial event in coming weeks and asks people interested to contact them via social media.

Funeral Details

The Funeral Service will be held on Thursday 10th February at 10.00am, at the Purslowe Chapel, 239 Gt Eastern Hwy Midland, followed by a Burial Ceremony at 11.30am at Midland Cemetery. Both are open to all.
Auntie Vanessa asked that a special invitation to her funeral be sent to the ‘GAY AND TRANSGENDER, AS WELL AS DRAG QUEENS, AS A CELEBRATION, ESPECIALLY AS I SPENT MANY HAPPY YEARS AS A DRAG QUEEN”. (Her capitals).
If you are attending the Funeral Service, please arrive early enough to find parking so that the service can start promptly at 10.00 am.
Please join the Smith family for a celebration of the life of Auntie Vanessa, and honour her significant contributions to a great many LGBTIQ+ organisations and to our community.

Graeme Watson, image GRAI/ Acorn Photography

Do you need some support?

If you are struggling with anxiety or depression, support and counselling are available from:

QLife: 1800 184 527 / (Webchat 3pm – midnight)
QLife are a counselling and referral service for LGBTQIA+ people.

DISCHARGED: 9364 6909 / / [email protected]
Discharged is a trans-led support service with peer support groups for trans and gender diverse folks.

Lifeline: 13 11 14 /

Beyondblue: 1300 22 4636 /

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