The Tiwi Islands in Northern Territory is home to one of Australia’s most inspiring drag performers. Crystal Love, also known as Crystal Johnson Kerinaiua, has performed all over the country delivering inspirational shows whilst tirelessly educating people on gay, bi and transgender issues.
The term ‘yimpininni’ or ‘sistergirl’ is used to describe a transgender person in Aboriginal culture. It’s a very old term and one that’s dear to Crystal’s heart. White invasion not only wiped out many indigenous people, it also had an impact on indigenous culture and understanding of sexual and gender expression. As Catholicism took hold and many traditions were lost, this term became a thing of the past.
Yimpininni were once held in high regard as the nurturers within the family unit and tribe much like the faafafine from Samoa. As the usage of the term vanished, tribes’ attitudes toward queer indigenous people began to resemble that of the western world and religious right. Even today many ‘sistergirls’ are excluded from their own tribes.
These days the term ‘sistergirl’ is once again slowly being adopted by queer indigenous people. It not only encompasses transgender indigenous people but is also inclusive of gay, lesbian and bisexuals. The term also extends to all nationalities that identify as queer and is not just an aboriginal term.
“I knew this in my heart from a young age,” explains Crystal about her feelings of wanting to be female. Crystal grew up just like any other boy until coming out as a teenager. “I had a good childhood I grew up with my grandparents as my mum and dad were chronic alcoholics.” Her grandparents struggled to understand when she came out “They didn’t understand what a transgender person was and growing up in a small aboriginal community like Bathurst was very hard and a lot of bad things happened to me as a teenager.”
Since coming out Crystal has performed all over Australia and has blown many people away not only with her massive talent, but also her boundless heart. “Singing and dancing has been in our blood for thousands and thousands of years. I do drag also to educate people on transgender issues, singing and dancing is a key to educating our people.”
I first came into contact with Crystal at the Midsumma Festival in Melbourne in 2008. She performed at Translesbian Gendermash, which showcased transgender and lesbian performers in short seven minute slots. Her show was amazing and heartfelt. She had the entire audience in tears, her words of acceptance touching everybody. “It doesn’t matter if nobody else wants you. If nobody else wants you, then you are mine.”
Not only is she an accomplished performer but her work in the queer community is just as credible. She is active volunteer for many groups including the Northern Territory AIDS and Hepatitis Council (NTAHC), the Australian AIDS Federation in Sydney whilst working full-time with the Tiwi Islands Shire Council. “I teach people about being themselves. In our community on Tiwi Islands we have about 69 sistergirls and I say to them to respect yourself, respect others and respect your culture and your culture will respect you and everything will fall into place.”
Her work with the NTAHC includes performing for other sistergirls on specially organised retreats in Darwin, Alice Springs and even reaching Western Australia where acceptance is not so commonplace. “People always ask me to perform and I love to perform,” She goes on to say “I perform at nightclubs. I work at Pride festivals and Aboriginal functions as well.” You can normally catch Crystal on stage at NT’s only queer club Throb once a month doing her shows.
Crystal works on Bathurst Island. Nguiu is the largest settlement on Bathurst in the south-east, with a population of around 1450. Bathurst Island is approximately 70kms north of Darwin. She stays heavily involved with her community and by no means has become an ego maniac with her performing success. “I still live in my community and I still do my traditional hunting and singing and dancing. I have a different lifestyle to other people but I still do my traditional things, making clothes and painting.” Obviously the pull of her home community is strong as she continues to make a difference. “I love the people and everything about them.”
Crystal is also a leader in her community. Many sistergirls look up to her and respect her for her tireless work – she has been referred to as mother and is a respected elder of all Tiwi Island sistergirls. She speaks and people listen – her words are straightforward, honest and very real. She continues to stand tall and bring attention to the unfortunate numbers of sistergirl suicides. She also informed me of a future performance to create awareness for Melbourne transgender pioneer Zoe Belle who sadly took her own life in January 2008.
And so we move into a new year and our still new Labor Government has openly apologised to Aboriginal people for past crimes. Crystal is optimistic about educating people further on issues around indigenous LGBT people. “I want to continue educating our people about transgenders, homosexuality, gay rights, HIV, alcohol and drugs. In our community people still do not understand fully.”
Thankfully Crystal Love continues to fight the good fight, educating her own people and reminding them just how unique and valuable they are within the tribal and broader community.
Photo: Alison Bennett.