The Proud Awards 2020: Aunty Vanessa Smith joins Hall of Fame

The Proud Awards are just around the corner, and the fifth entry into the local LGBTIQ+ Hall of Fame has been announced.

This year, The Proud Awards are honouring Aunty Vanessa Smith for her incredible legacy of activism supporting the LGBTIQ+ and Indigenous communities here in WA, joining past winners June Lowe of GRAI, STYLEAID founder Mark Reid, veteran DJ Seb Sharp and drag performer & BAFTA-award winning artist Stryker Meyer.

A Noongar Sistergirl of the Kaneang people in the state’s South West, Aunty Vanessa has been fighting for decades, serving as Chair of the Gay Men and Sistergirls Steering Committee for Australia Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO), Elder Representative for TEKWABI GIZ (Mindout’s Indigenous Advisory Committee for the National LGBTI Health Alliance), on the board of Derbarl Yerrigan Aboriginal Medical Service, and working with Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP) and Gay and Lesbian Equality (GALE) in the 80s & 90s.

Aunty Vanessa began by telling us 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, Aunty Vanessa 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 known as Vanessa.”

“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. I’m still actively involved here in Perth, but I’ll be contemplating whether I retire next year.”

As a sistergirl, Aunty Vanessa explains that her gender identity, spirituality and culture are inextricably connected.

“It’s everything! I’m an Indigenous person before any of those other things. When I went to college I learned about activism and I learned about my culture and our traditions and our struggle, and I thought to myself; ‘That’s where I belong. That’s who I am.'”

“Here in WA, I am my family’s native title representative, and I have been for quite a long time. My culture means everything to me, and it’s what I’ve evolved out of over the last 40 years or so.”

“As sistergirls, we take our gender identity a little bit differently. We don’t have to go through gender reassignment to feel like the women that we are. Our gender identity is spiritual, and it’s what we feel internally as women.”

Speaking to the younger member of our community, Aunty Vanessa shared some advice on embracing your own pride.

“For my mob, for our Indigenous mob, be true to who you are are a people, because it’s our pride. We’re the oldest surviving civilisation around today, and we’re struggling to reach out for true acknowledgement, but along the way, if you feel in any way that you may be gay, or you may be a sister, then embrace that as well, because that’s where your strength is going to come from, and that’s where you’re going to fall back to as you get older.”

“It’s not about who can you can be as someone visible, just acknowledge who you are spiritually, because that’s what’s most important. You want to know who you are and where you come from.”

Aunty Vanessa says that as a community, we all have a vital role to play in helping young queer and Indigenous people find their place in the world.

“We have to make sure that our younger people are embracing who they are, in order to prevent them from suiciding. That’s our struggle of the day.”

“We may never ever get it right, we can’t write a formula for prevention, the struggle will go on after I’m gone.”

Reflecting on her decades of advocacy, Aunty Vanessa warned that the community has a long way to go to ensure Indigenous LGBTIQ+ voices are heard and recognised.

“Be open to us,” Vanessa said. “I started out 20 odd years ago here in Perth, and the biggest obstacle that I came against was our own gay men.”

“I was challenged by upper middle class white gay men who said ‘Why do you have to stand alone on Indigenous issues?’, ‘Your issues aren’t any different to ours’, ‘We all have the same issues’, and I said in reality we don’t, because we have to get past people like you before we can even get to the table. You force us to break down the barrier that you put down in front of us.”

“People say we’re all part of the fabulous LGBTIQ+ rainbow community. Get real. Become a cohesive community and learn about each other, and what each other has to bring to the table.”

“It is really easy if you’re prepared to do it… if we don’t trust each other, we’re never going to come together and talk about what needs to be talked about.”

“But at the end of the day, I love politics, I love LGBTIQ+ politics, but I’m still an old drag queen at heart, and in my community I’m an aunty, a grandmother, a sister, I’m a mother… I enjoy all these things in my life.”

Leigh Andrew Hill

The Proud Awards 2020 will be held at Connections Nightclub on Saturday 3rd October. For tickets and more information, head to Facebook.

OUTinPerth acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first inhabitants of the nation and the traditional custodians of the lands where we live and work. OUTinPerth is created on the land of the Whadjuk Noongar people.

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