Their first Mardi Gras: a journey for Tiwi Island sistagirls decades in the making

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 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.

Tiwi Island sistagirls
Jayma Timaepatua, Lima Alimankikki and Missy Darcy are among 30 Tiwi Island sistagirls who are heading to the Sydney Mardi Gras for the first time. The Aboriginal trans women will join the parade as part of the Northern Territory float. Photograph: Helen Davidson/The Guardian

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.”

The short Mardi Gras film with a big heart

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.”


Helen Davidson in Darwin

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Sydney Mardi Gras: Alex Greenwich reflects on 'tough time' for LGBTI rights
The co-chair of the Australian Marriage Equality campaign says there have been ‘significant victories’ and push is now on again for a free vote in parliament

Helen Davidson

03, Mar, 2017 @12:33 AM

Article image
Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras: 'it’s community but it’s also protest'
Rainy week clears in time for 39th annual LGBTI celebration and protest combined, with marriage equality, HIV, trans rights and refugees at top billing

Naaman Zhou

04, Mar, 2017 @9:53 PM

Article image
Mardi Gras members call for Turnbull to be banned as official guest
Organisers pass motion asking board to consider preventing PM from being invited as official guest due to his handling of the marriage equality issue

Joshua Robertson

12, Nov, 2016 @4:46 AM

Article image
Sydney Mardi Gras: Malcolm Turnbull to become first sitting PM to attend
Turnbull will reportedly not march, but the opposition leader, Bill Shorten, will, making him the first federal leader of one of the two major parties to do so

Paul Karp

05, Mar, 2016 @2:48 AM

Article image
I marched in the first Mardi Gras in 1978 and I'm still marching today | Steve Warren
From a small gathering with a single truck to a world-renowned event, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras has positively influenced public opinion

Steve Warren

03, Mar, 2017 @10:24 PM

Article image
Sydney Mardi Gras: Turnbull and Shorten join thousands at parade
The prime minister watches from the sidelines, while the opposition leader joins the 38th gay and lesbian march to show support for marriage equality

Paul Karp

05, Mar, 2016 @1:20 PM

Article image
The Greens’ Mardi Gras float echoes our commitment to trans rights and equality | Janet Rice & Jenny Leong
Small reforms have been made for trans and gender diverse people. But there is still too much stigma, red tape and bigotry, write Janet Rice and Jenny Leong

Janet Rice and Jenny Leong

01, Mar, 2016 @5:35 AM

Article image
'It's going to mean a lot more': 2018 Sydney Mardi Gras marks major milestones
Victory on marriage equality and parade’s 40th anniversary combine to swell the ranks of the thousands of regular attendees

Naaman Zhou

03, Mar, 2018 @3:44 AM

Article image
I’ll parade in this Mardi Gras with my wife of 31 years. Others should have that chance | Janet Rice
We’re one of the few same-sex couples legally married in Australia. It’s time we cut through absurdities of existing laws and delivered marriage equality for all

Janet Rice

01, Mar, 2017 @9:35 PM

Article image
Mardi Gras: religion panel warned ADF against uniformed members taking part
Internal defence documents reveal the committee had expressed deep concern since the event ‘allowed people to vilify religious faith and had a political agenda’

Michael Safi

10, Jun, 2016 @3:04 AM