Crystal Johnston

NORTHERN TERRITORY AIDS COUNCIL / NORTHERN TERRITORY AIDS & HEPATITIS COUNCIL 1998-ONGOING

    That World AIDS Day, we had sports and then people were talking about HIV during their school hours. Then after that all the old people came and for the opening day, they actually sang and danced for the dead, you know, and I explained to the old people and it was the first time in history. That was like early 2001.

    A    
    Hi, my name is Crystal Love Johnson and I’m 46 years of age. I started with the AIDS Council from 1998. What really got me kick-started was I came to an event – they did drag shows and had functions, Pride Party and all that. I had a good friend, Gary Lee, who got me into talking about the AIDS Council, and we came into the office. The old office used to be at Bishop Street. In those days there was nothing on Indigenous people, about trans and gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans people or intersex people. It was so hard to talk about these sorts of things. Gary introduced me to a lot of things in my community that I didn’t know about who I was as a trans woman/sistergirl. Working up through the years with the AIDS Council, we did a lot in our communities.

    Q    
    What were some of those things that you did?

    A    
    We ran retreats with sistergirls. The first one I’ve been to was in 1999, in Lake Bennett. We did HIV, same-sex, and also we did beauty and wellbeing, how to look after yourself.

    Q    
    Was that the first retreat?

    A    
    Yeah. It was the first retreat with Michael. Being with those girls and Alexis – he was there as well – he worked for and did a little bit of emotional and social wellbeing. It actually did empower me a lot to talk about issues, like: where trans people and sistergirls and brotherboys could find safe haven in their own community? How can we change that community and better ourselves? How can we find a place where we can call home without running away? How can we find networks and find peace within ourselves and our own community? Because coming from an Indigenous background and Indigenous culture, they don’t accept trans, gay, bisexual or transgendered people, brotherboys, intersexuals, and it’s really, really hard.

    So these retreats actually gave us the power to be who we are for three days. It actually makes you feel good and it actually empowered you. It did, it empowered me a lot to be where I am today, and to be the voice of my gay community, Aboriginal community here in the Northern Territory.

    Q    
    And so have things changed in the community because of these?

    A    
    It actually did. When people used to come back on their community, some of the sistergirls used to say, "Oh, I don’t care. I can wear a dress", and they’d go talking to people about a retreat, showing them what we can do and how we can do it and working at a change. People in the Aboriginal community see that within us, they see this spirit and how vibrant, alive they are in that community. That was a good thing. It actually helped a lot of our people.

    Q    
    This is in Bathurst, on Tiwi?

    A    
    Yeah, Tiwi Island. Tiwi Island was the first forefront of the sistergirls staying at this retreat.

    Q    
    Jan Holt told me that in those early days, they would throw a dance party and they would make the sistergirl meetings the same time as the dance party?

    A    
    Oh holding that meeting to the dance party, oh my god! Everybody was just talking, "Look at the high heel shoes" because they were thinking more about that dance party and looking pretty. To that day, it brought happiness to their face, being who they are and showcasing at their drag shows. Like when I do drag – I’m a female impersonator – and I do teaching the girls makeup and putting on good shoes, you know, you don’t have to look like a drag queen to do drag shows. You can be who you are and a lot of people expressed themselves in many different ways. The dance parties were just like, "Oh my god, you could be who you are", you know.

    Being a community, it actually changed most of the people’s ideas, like men in dresses dancing to ladies songs. These days they’ve got Lady GaGa and everybody’s twerking and all that, that didn’t happen in our days. We made it happen in our communities, get up there and dancing with all the women in big discos, and we’d have our own. And that actually inspired them to go out and be themselves in discos instead of worrying about, "Oh, what shall I wear?" and "How shall I present myself in my community?".

    Q    
    So this is all really because of how NTAHC supported you?

    A    
    Yeah. NTAHC was a lifeline for all of us and also for me. Without the Northern Territory AIDS and Hepatitis Council, we wouldn’t be where we are today. And the future depends on the community and also to other sistergirls who are coming out now.

    Q    
    Do you know where a lot of these sistergirls are? Are you in touch with them now?

    A    
    I do. I’m in touch with them on Facebook and Diva’s Chat, Twitter. For me, I can see the AIDS Council going further. With this being the AIDS Council that they had tended to develop more and actually be stronger in what they do.

    Q    
    What about HIV and the community, how has that affected you and how’s that affected your community?

    A    
    The Northern Territory AIDS and Hepatitis Council used to come out to our communities to organise. For World AIDS Day on Tiwi Island we did candlelight vigils and also this one Thai lady made these big glowing things where you actually put candles in them and it lights up like a lantern. That World AIDS Day, we had sports and then people were talking about HIV during their school hours. Then after that, all the old people came and for the opening day, they actually sang and danced for the dead, you know, and I explained to the old people and it was the first time in history. That was like early 2001. The first one they had was early ’99, the World AIDS Day.

    When we had that big mass in 2000, I couldn’t believe the whole school came, the whole community came, and the priest was talking about HIV in several countries and Australia, how people live with it and it’s about the stigma that they have. A lot of people in our community then, we said prayers, then we had Holy Communion. That was actually the first big mass that I was in, in my community. Being there and seeing it was so amazing.

    Then we did the same in 2001. First Father was having a mass during the day and then we had one at school. That’s all year round now: this year, last year and the Father talks about HIV on December the 1st, and then you say a little prayer for all the people who are living with it and also to find a cure. Then we have quite a big one on Sunday to remember the people that all died. It’s been going ever since.

    Q    
    Do you think a ceremony like that, with possibly, education and things with it, has that changed the way that people practise sex?

    A    
    Community-wise, yes people talk about it, but living in a remote community, it’s still the same. People still don’t believe in condoms, people still believe in skin. When you’re having sex with someone, there’s always the man who will be dominant. Our community didn’t change because you can talk about HIV, but you still can’t change the thinking of Indigenous people in our communities.

    Q    
    So it’s just been luck that HIV hasn’t spread like crazy?

    A    
    Yeah. It’s different with Ice, but HIV – yeah.

    Q    
    And of course in Central Australia the Aboriginal communities have the highest STIs –

    A    
    That’s in all of the Northern Territory – yeah.

    Q    
    So were you involved in any sistergirl activities in Alice Springs?

    A    
    I worked on a couple of projects, but not much. We’re just in the Top End, but I’ve started doing it for the last four years with Starlady, working with the AIDS Council doing translation of posters. I did a couple early in 2002 – just like running projects, you know, and helping out with the AIDS Council, and talking about getting our sistergirls to come to the retreats and like more or less advertising the retreat.

    Q    
    And have you got any stories that you remember?

    A    
    I remember one story: we all went to Adelaide and I think Damian Murray was there with us, and Tarquin. After the retreat we went to a conference, we got invited to do a song and a dance. And what happened was that our drinks of all the Tiwi Island girls got spiked. That was hard. Lucky that I wasn't drinking then, I had to take one sistergirl back home and it was just so bad. Everybody’s drink was spiked and I was worried. I got up and started knocking on everyone’s doors. We went and missed the flights and everybody’s IDs were missing. Everybody went on international flights, like travelling all around Australia, and then
    we all met in Darwin. It was the craziest time that we ever had. That was early 2004.

     Another one was my niece was in Cairns, it was early 1999 during the dry season. We all went to Magnetic Island with the first transgender sistergirls retreat over there. What happened was that Lay, my niece, she was so rotten and then she would start taking a fit, I don’t know what happened. And then after that I had to go on a little golf buggy to one of the Qantas planes to get her luggage. And shamed, though, I had this biggest, humungous dress. It was flowing like the Marilyn Munro dress. I was still in drag, mind you, and I was all, ‘Oh my god!’, makeup hanging out and my wigs were just coming out. Everybody was all staring at me, taking photos, you know, "The black fella’s in a Marilyn Munro dress". I said, "Oh my god, shame job!" I went in and got her bags. They got the ambulance and I was shamed, I was there in my dress crying my tears out, you know, with her luggage. We were flying back to Darwin then, and that was with Jed Masters.

    When Jed first worked with the Northern Territory AIDS and Hepatitis Council, I respected him as a brother and that’s when the kinship started, you know, like family. He felt uncomfortable, but he learned about trans people and gay people and our people. He actually helped us do a lot of things very wisely, because he’s been straight and we’ve been trans and gay. He was an Aboriginal Project Officer. He wasn’t Aboriginal, he was a white European. Straight white man. Straight off the block. [laughter] I mean not that block, but you know.

    There were other women as well, there was Alysse and there was another two straight women. I forgot their names now. There were mostly gay people who actually helped the Northern Territory AIDS and Hepatitis, there was Tarquin – God bless – there was Stanley Versace, there was Bruce Forrester. We did a lot of sexual health work with Bathurst Island Health and also with helping out with the AIDS Council. Gary [Lee] and – who else – Steve Sparks.

    Steve was the second Aboriginal Project Officer. He was a very, very helpful man with sistergirls and with gay men. He would try and help sistergirls to start programs, and young gay men, and also for trans people. He did a lot for our community and he was good at his work, but you know, the heart wasn’t there in the right place. But when you work for an organisation, you feel good in what you do and sometimes he would not feel good with the other workers, the other previous Aboriginal Project Officers, they didn’t feel good about themselves, they didn’t have an identity as being Aboriginal or have a sense of where they belong and, you know, ownership of the program.
    I said to all of them, "At the end of the day, if you’re not Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal," I said, "the program will fill you and you will fill it up later. It’s like filling up a glass of water and where there’s no water in the glass, but when you fill it up slowly, it will get full and then you will know what is the true meaning of a work placement and working with Indigenous people."

    I would like to see the project grow and to be better. I know that it is hard because of funding and, being a non-profit organisation, it’s hard to see where the money goes and what the project can do. Projects can grow and actually be more better. You know, it needs more funding because looking at this project, we were the only communities before anywhere else – here in Darwin – that we did retreats for trans and gay people. We were the first and that’s been going on for a long time, but it’s stopped now. Before I die, I’d like to see the project reborn again and make it bigger and better.

    How can we help our Indigenous population? Well guess what, the Northern Territory AIDS and Hepatitis Council did it. Bathurst Island was smack bang right in the middle, but guess what, it changed our community a lot. For the past nineteen or twenty-odd years, my community changed from where I am today. Sistergirls was a name that nobody would bring out, or brotherboys. Tiwi Island was the first, but the AIDS Council helped us along the way with these projects that they did. So you know, we have to start realising that it is not the money – though of course we need the money – we need people’s heart and drive and we need our people to realise that the AIDS Council can do a lot and they have the power to do it. And if they can’t do it, well you know what, at the end of the day, you have to succeed at what you do.