Queer family and belonging: Saltwater
Blends of blues and greens shimmered back up at me from the palm of my hand. Lightly brushing sand off little pearlescent jewels, I looked into what was very recently a home for a little saltwater friend, but was now lying in the company of many other colours and shapes.
Every trip to the beach I take some time to walk up the shore, bending over the water to quickly scoop up a quick wink of colour, or slowly crouch and sift through the sand when the tide is out. Looking out at the ocean I imagine where this shell must have been days or weeks before. Clinging onto the dwindling kelp forests, slowly sliding among the paced push of currents, eventually letting go, falling to the seabed and tumbling towards the coast, and now laying at my feet.
For time immemorial Kaurna people have stood on this same sand, looking out at the same water, awaiting the arrival of the ocean’s gifts.
Kaurna country became a second home to me. It’s where I was born and where we moved to when I was a teenager. After a childhood of cyclone seasons, t-shirt lifestyle and the sounds of geckos and frogs to fall asleep to, the dry summers and southern personalities were daunting. But I grew into it.
Kaurna country witnessed a lot of me. It watched me grow from an unsure child into an unsure teenager and watched me do the first thing I felt sure about. It was in the foothills I kissed a girl for the first time, it was on West Beach I fell in love for the first time, it was on Henley Beach that I forged friendships with sunsets as backdrops.
This country became my Queer home. It was where my Queer family (although now dispersed) was forged and where I gained an understanding of how a family can be made.
Of course, as a Larrakia person, I believe my country to be the most beautiful. Mangrove trees, a warm breeze and ochre cliffs of yellow, orange and purple. You can walk down to the beach at any time on any day and find it almost empty. The fear of dangalaba is enough to put even locals off. Our totem lingers in the water, protecting our shared country and its people.
Driving down the coastline with my partner I beamed with pride. “Isn’t my country fucking beautiful?”
She smiled. “It’s like you’re showing off your child, like a proud parent!”
When I’m on my country I stand a little taller, head a little higher, back a little straighter. I am proud. And I am my country’s parent, just as my country is my parent. I am a carer and a daughter at once. I know nothing and everything at the same time. I am a leader and a follower, a part of country, birthed of it but not separate. I miss it every day.
I moved back to Kaurna country a year ago to care for a sick sibling. After moving to the Kulin Nation and spending years trying to build a community and life, it was hard returning. Particularly under such heavy such circumstances. I sighed to myself: at least there’s the beach.
It was a complicated and compromising return. I lost a degree, had to give my cat to friends, was away from my partner for weeks at a time and was effectively homeless for months while trying to find money and a house to live in with my sibling.
Both my parents had stopped talking to him. Part of me can find compassion for them and for their own complicated relationships with mental health. Most days of the year I can listen to that voice and accept that they are doing the best they can with what they have.
Other times I can spend days crying in bed, wishing for a reality in which I get to be supported and loved and cared for by the people you expect would. The ways they closed themselves to my brother made it very apparent to me the limitations of their love, the conditional nature of ‘family’. As their Queer daughter, I am very familiar with how quickly status in family can be demoted.
When I came out to Dad in my early twenties, I was in the middle of constructing gingerbread houses. I’d kinda been cornered into having this conversation after one of my brothers outed me, so it was more of a ‘now you’ve heard it from me’ type phone call. Dad seemed irritated, possibly bothered that I didn’t tell him sooner.
He said that I shouldn’t call myself ‘Queer’, misinterpreting the capital-Q, reclaimed and uncategorised identity Queer for lowercase, outdated slur queer. He then went on to say, “Well you didn’t get it from us, that’s for sure. We don’t have any [gays] in our family. Must’ve got it from your mum’s side.”
I’d come out to Mum a few years earlier (and by that, I mean she arrived unannounced to my house and found two women sharing one bedroom). Let’s just say she didn’t take it well and I didn’t talk to her for nearly three years.
Nothing had prepared me for the possibility that I could lose family over who made me blush and giggle, who I fall in love with or who I fuck. It seemed surreal that I could go from having my broken but still nuclear(ish) family one day to not having them the next.
Look, it’s a long story of unaddressed intergenerational trauma, fractured family and European Catholicism, but I spent those years not talking to my atheist mum while trying to build a connection with her hyper-Catholic parents and siblings in a desperate attempt to feel connected and a part of something. I was trying to figure out if they would have the same reaction as my mum.
A few months into Project Find a Family, I ended up listening to my Aunty’s monologue in a Coles aisle about how disgusting it was that gays could adopt. I found the answers to my questions without ever asking them.
So here I was, a few years after realising my Queerness made me exempt from my French family, and Dad was telling me that there weren’t any gays in his family. Which made me wonder what I was to him. At the very least, don’t I make his gayless family into a family with one gay?
I bit my tongue and held back tears while rolling out gingerbread and pressing cookie cutters into spiced dough. Here I was again, standing on the outskirts of what constituted family. Not fitting the criteria of who’s in.
I scooped up the dough scraps, rolling them into little figures and squishing them into the corners of the tray, and slid them into the oven.
After my parents went through an explosive and violent separation when I was a young child, I was raised by my single-parent French mother. This meant being exposed to the racist ’90s discourse of the pre-intervention era, without a community of Aboriginal people around me to challenge public perception and state-sanctioned propaganda.
It became incredibly important to me to be able to be white-passing to the best of my ability. I was very much aware that white meant clean and white people were clean.
The knowledge that I wasn’t white meant that I was inherently dirty and no matter how many times I washed my hands I would always leave dirt. Realising that Australia conceptualises Indigeneity as innately immoral left me trying my best to be white.
Spending most of my childhood around an all-white family strengthened these feelings. Being visually different in appearance left me looking longingly at my blue-eyed, blonde-haired cousins and inwardly cringing every time they were complimented for their cherub-like appearances. My thick, frizzy brown hair felt unruly and like it took up too much space. My tall, brown legs felt un-coordinated and my brown skin on the dinner table felt out of place and unwanted.
I pretended not to hear the conversations around how many handouts Aboriginal people got, and not to see the ways their mouths curved down in disgust. Pretended that they didn’t know I was Aboriginal. Pretended in that moment I wasn’t Aboriginal, so that all the words of contempt would glide over eight-year-old me.
Perhaps they would love me then?
As time went on I tried so hard to be a member of my family. I went to the weddings and the dinners and the gatherings. I went without the invites for a plus-one, I listened to my cousin tell me he loved me (the sinner) but couldn’t support my lifestyle (the sin). I sat in on the conversations about homosexuality being a choice and sat through the looks of disgust when Queer couples held hands. I sat next to my grand-mère and wondered if she would love me less.
I took my girlfriend to my cousin’s wedding and didn’t lower my head when we walked into the room. I cried, I silently wished, I stopped hiding and I stopped getting text messages and Christmas cards. And somewhere along the line my understanding of family shifted.
I realised that I was fighting for a seat at a family dinner table that ultimately didn’t want me. I realised I’d been reared on conditional love and that if I spoke and acted in ways that weren’t conducive to their heteronormativity, I was demoted to a lower level of family.
I realised that I wasn’t performing in the way that allowed me to be family. That being Queer, and openly so, meant that I wasn’t always family.
Meanwhile, the discovery of my sexuality was coinciding with the ever-growing push for the legalisation of same-sex marriage. Regardless of whether marriage was an institution we wanted to engage with, it still provoked continent-wide conversations around Queer morality and worthiness.
In a similar way to the morality of Indigeneity being up for public discussion, the morality of my Queerness was now up for debate, minus the army tanks being rolled into communities, child removal, and the 250 years of strategic genocide, propaganda, mass killings and systemic institutionalisation.
I was being exposed to another form of othering, but this time I was an adult, and had a community around me to challenge those notions.
Now I had the language to critically and emotionally engage and resist. Being able to stand back and witness the blatant and unfiltered bullying tactics of individuals and the state allowed me to reflect on similar and varying tactics being used against Indigeneity.
To experience a new mode of othering at 18 allowed me to understand socialisation and conditioning in a more nuanced way. It wasn’t just reactionary, the response of a child trying to survive. It was contemplative. I was trying to make sense of my family and the world, trying to understand why something that brought me so much joy and love could possibly be anything threatening.
My politics have since shifted and I have no interest in, or intention of, being a member of ‘Australia’ and certainly don’t consider myself to be ‘Australian’.
I have no interest in conforming to colonial understandings of Indigeneity or sexuality, and I work more to destroy the table than fight for a seat.
My partner and I were driving to the beach. I closed my eyes for a minute and let the air from the open window hit my face, throwing my hair to the roof of the car.
We were chatting about kids and the ever-approaching realities of climate change. Talking about violence against brown bodies and the fear for our theoretical children. What would happen to our kids if we died?
I turned to them and asked, “Are you worried? About having kids? Like, about what might happen to them, or you?”
It wasn’t even up for deliberation. She immediately responded: “No, not at all. I know that no matter what, I have my parents and my brothers. No matter what happens they’ll always be there for me.”
It was such a passing thought for her, it was so self-evident. Meanwhile, I couldn’t answer that so quickly. I didn’t have that same sense of security, besides a cousin who I adore. I didn’t feel that level of safety with my family. I looked at her driving through traffic and wondered what it must feel like to have that sense of security. To know, with such certainty, that your biological family, a web of people, would come through for you.
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d put biological family down as my next of kin. When I had major surgery, my Queer friends were put down in the event that I should die on the table. When I needed money or somewhere to live, it was their beds I bunked in.
Even when I landed back in town after months of travelling overseas, it was them that waited at the gate and hugged me, carried my bags to the car, made me dinner and listened to my stories.
When I found out I would be sent a publishing contract, it was them I called, crying, imagining the little girl from Anula, lying awake in public housing, paint peeling off the walls, never believing but always hoping that she would make something of herself.
After cleaning the shells and patiently scratching holes into the lip with a needle, I tentatively looped through steel hoops, nervously closing them with enough pressure to bend steel and crush shell. Threading brown twine, I tied a knot before and after each shell to hold them in place.
After hours of scrapping, looping, threading, knotting and biting my lips in fear of utterly destroying months of creation, I held the necklace up in front of me. I counted 10 shells and smiled to myself. One for every year I’ve been out.
Some days I feel so alone. Floating through the world unnoticed and unconnected. Tumbling through the rubble of broken family and unbuilt boundaries, only to wash up on the sands and be gawked at by strangers. Baring my soul only to be put back down on the wet gritty floor if my shine does not shine enough.
Other days I can feel my own luminescence transcend the desires of others. I feel myself picked up by community, gently brushed, and I have someone see and know my journey from sea to shore, value my cracks and crust, see the memories of generations in me and the journey of time.
I sat with these tiny shells tucked in the sandy palm of my hand and looked out over the sea. It was a quiet moment of defeat. Allowing myself to accept the limitations of my abilities and the limitations of my biological family.
Further down the beach I watched my Queer family standing in the lapping currents, chatting and laughing. These people had come through for me in the most extreme ways in the past year. They’d responded to threats of suicide, they’d housed me for months on end, they’d supported me emotionally and financially.
Kaurna country had gifted me so much. It brought me a community of people that became family. It held me gently while I learnt hard lessons, and in quiet moments had healed small wounds, edging me on some days, whispering that I can do this. On others, it gave me a place to just rest and cry.
Shrouded in the night
The soft sounds of water
Kissed our feet
I wanted you to see me
To know me
To understand me
Can you hear that?
This is where you can find me
When I’m gone
In this sound
Laniyuk was born of a French mother and a Larrakia, Kungarrakan and Gurindji father. Her poetry and short memoir often reflect the intersectionality of her cross-cultural and queer identity. She was fortunate enough to contribute to the book Colouring the Rainbow: Blak Queer and Trans Perspectives as well as win the Indigenous residency for Canberra’s Noted Writers Festival 2017. Laniyuk received Overland’s writers residency for 2018 and was shortlisted for Overland’s 2018 Nakata Brophy poetry prize.
This article first appeared in Archer Magazine #13, the FIRST NATIONS issue. SUBSCRIBE TO ARCHER MAGAZINE
Image: Toz Withall
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