Many of the 30 Aboriginal trans women from the islands are already in the city, and have a few messages to convey
As the evening light settles over a Darwin Rapid Creek backyard, eight Tiwi Island sistagirls are making their final preparations to fly to Sydney.
A large portion of the 30 Aboriginal transgender women from the islands, north of Darwin, are already in Sydney, sending daily selfies and Facebook updates as they explore the southern city. For many, it’s their first time in Sydney. It will be everyone’s first ever Mardi Gras.
This year’s event is the 39th Sydney Mardi Gras, born from protests about LGBTQI rights in the 1970s. More than 10,000 people are expected to march in the parade, which has grown into an international event, drawing crowds of hundreds of thousands to Sydney’s Oxford street.
There’s a discussion around the Rapid Creek table about just how famous the sistagirls are already. Over the years, there have been regular news stories about them, and in recent weeks just about every outlet has covered their Mardi Gras plans.
But all that is pretty abstract until they take centre stage at what is arguably Australia’s biggest party. The Tiwi Islands is home to just a few thousand people. By contrast, about 300,000 people are expected to attend the parade, which is also broadcast nationally and reported worldwide.
Patricia Puruntatameri’s hand goes to her heart and she tears up a little. “I just don’t know what to think. Wow. It’s going to be so exciting, I can just imagine it already. Oh em gee!” She laughs.
The sistagirls are a close-knit group from across the Tiwi communities, who have supported each other through decades of seeking acceptance. Years past have been marred by suicides, bullying and discrimination.
Jayma Timaepatua says they’ll be marching “to remember the older sistagirls, who have passed away and who have pain”.
“If not for them I wouldn’t be here for now,” she says.
The group first began planning the Mardi Gras adventure late last year. Various subsets within the 30 have travelled with the assistance of crowdfunding, support from the local art centre, or with money from their own pocket. Staying in Redfern, they’ll have spent Friday getting their nails, hair and makeup done.
Their costumes are in traditional Tiwi designs featuring clan totem animals, hand-printed in glowing rainbow paint. “We’re all excited about going. We just finished screen printing, and the colour has come out so nice,” says Lima Alimankinni.
The Northern Territory float, expected to be towards the front of the parade will feature twinkling stars, representing the Northern Territory skies.
No one really knows what to expect, but they hope to meet sistagirls from other communities as well as a few celebrities including NT locals Miranda Tapsell and Rob Collins.
Alex Greenwich, the independent Sydney MP and co-chair of the Australian Marriage Equality Campaign, says the sistagirls coming to Sydney is a reminder of the breadth of Australia’s LGBTI community.
“It’s really important for Australia’s LGBTI community to really be welcoming, inclusive and celebrate entrants like that and to also make sure there are those connections made,” he told Guardian Australia this week.
“And I’m sure there is also lots of stuff we can learn from the strong sense of community I know the sistagirls on the Tiwi Islands have.”
“To go to the Mardi Gras is to showcase our culture and our people, how Tiwi people evolved in this generation and how we became stronger in our community,” sistagirl Crystal Johnson told the ABC. “To show people you can make a change.”
Puruntatameri says she might also like to tell others in the LGBTI community about life on the Tiwi Islands, “to tell them about our hunting and gathering, and singing”.
“We’re just going to walk and wave to the people,” she says.
“To say that we’re here,” interjects Anthony Tipungwuti.
Puruntatameri nods. “And that we do exist.”