Sydney, Australia CNN  — 

At a temporary Aboriginal gathering space dubbed Marri Madung Butbut — or “Many Brave Hearts” in the language of Sydney’s original inhabitants, the Gadigal people — eight performers emerged through lasers and lights that appear to move and thrust to the electronic beat.

“You can’t tell us who we are, ‘cause we already know,” the thumping anthem declared.

More than two decades after the first WorldPride was held in Rome, Italy, the biennial LGBTQ event is being hosted in Australia (and the southern hemisphere) for the very first time. Organizers say it’s the biggest event in Sydney since the 2000 Olympic Games, with over 500,000 people expected to converge on the city for the three-week festival.

A parade goer holds up an Aboriginal flag while walking in the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade as part of Sydney WorldPride on February 25, 2023 in Sydney, Australia.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese joined the Mardi Gras parade on Saturday, and the Sydney Harbour Bridge will close this Sunday for a Pride march. But unlike previous editions, including 2019’s WorldPride in New York, much of the program has a special focus on Australia’s Indigenous LGBTQ communities.

Among over 300 events is a beauty pageant at Marri Madung Butbut that sees six Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander drag queens — including four former winners of Miss First Nation — vying for the title of Miss First Nation: Supreme Queen. Two other Indigenous queens, from Taiwan’s Bunun and New Zealand’s Māori communities, were also invited to participate.

Ahead of Tuesday’s finale, a contestant with the stage name Lasey Dunaman told the crowd that her performance persona has helped her to be surer of her own identity.

“I was in a really bad place. It was deep, and it was dark, and that really comes from not being accepted from within my own family,” she said, offering a moment of vulnerability on a night of joy and bold performances.

Judges in the Miss First Nations: Supreme Queen beauty pageant.

On the three-day competition’s opening night, judges rated the queens on their runway costumes, each of which was symbolic of the contestant’s cultural heritage.

“I call this ‘Koori Pride Rising,’” Dunaman said on stage, as she explained her outfit — a figure-hugging black gown featuring a flame motif beneath a large gold heart. “It’s for rising from the ashes, into a world of love and hope.”

The room erupted in appreciative cheers for Dunaman and her dress, which immediately evoked the black, red and yellow of the Aboriginal Flag. The word “Koori” refers to the First Nations of southeastern Australia.

Fellow contestant Cerulean, who went on to be named Supreme Queen on Tuesday, described her homemade gown as “inspired by the ocean currents… and how the shark moves.”

“My totem is hammerhead shark,” she said on stage. “The way that I walk, the way through I go through life is reflected of my totem.”

‘Minority within a minority’

Sydney WorldPride co-creative director Ben Graetz claims that Aboriginal Australians, who have lived on the continent for a least 65,000 years, are not only the world’s oldest surviving culture, but also the “world’s oldest queer community.”

Though there is scant evidence about the historical status or recognition of non-heterosexual people in Australia’s Aboriginal cultures, concepts such as gender fluidity have been documented among certain Indigenous groups.

For example, men and women in the Tiwi Islands, off the coast of Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory, have for generations, played opposing gender roles in the safe space of performing arts. Men, for example, acted out being pregnant, giving birth and breastfeeding in dances. The islands are also home to a sizeable population of sistergirls, a term for Indigenous trans women. (Indigenous trans men are known in Australia as brotherboys).

But not all First Nations groups have open attitudes towards sexual orientation and gender, leading some LGBTQ people to experience stigma within their own communities.

Graetz argues that under British colonial rule — where many Indigenous peoples were stripped of their languages and culture through English-only education policies and discriminatory practices — Indigenous LGBTQ history, which he said had been passed down orally for generations, was also lost.

Today, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission, LGBTQ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples “experience a number of significant and intersecting points of discrimination and marginalization in Australia.”

This includes experiences of racism, discrimination and isolation, but also insufficient access to public services like healthcare, according to the commission.

Sydney-based HIV and LGBTQ health advocacy group ACON says that HIV rates among Indigenous people have not dropped in the past decade, despite infections falling among the wider Australian population. In a 2019 report, the organization wrote that mainstream health services, or those not specifically geared toward Indigenous populations, “are often inconsistent in creating culturally-inclusive sexual health programs.”

“Stigma and discrimination contribute to distrust in health services, which in turn contributes to poor HIV and other health outcomes among Aboriginal peoples,” the report concluded.

After a successful crowd funding campaign, a group of 30 transgender women from the Tiwi Islands  traveled over 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles) to Sydney to represent their community for the first time at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade back in 2017.

Graetz said Indigenous LGBTQ people face all the same difficulties as those in other parts of Australian society, “but then we also have the extra struggle of challenges of being a First Nations person in this country.”

“And I think that’s just about disadvantage,” he added. “It’s about the effects of colonization. It’s being a minority within a minority.”

In the words of Miss First Nation contestant Trinity Ice: “Australia has a lot of work to do.”

From ‘rough and ready’ to RuPaul

Graetz has long been going about this work. In 2017, two years before Sydney won the rights to host WorldPride, he organized the inaugural Miss First Nation in a nightclub in the city of Darwin.

Indigenous queens from around Australia were invited to take part in the competition. A documentary about the five-day pageant, “Black Divas,” has since gained a cult following.

“(The competition) was born out of the need to create more opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander drag queens,” he said. “It was a bit rough and ready, but it was also really fun.”

“I am a First Nations drag performer and so I identified that there wasn’t a lot of visibility or opportunity for that,” said Graetz, who has performed for over two decades using his drag persona Miss Ellaneous.

Contestants in the Miss First Nations: Supreme Queen, a beauty pageant for Indigenous drag queens.

Six years after Graetz launched Miss First Nations, several of the pageant’s alumni have gone on to become full-time professional performers. Former contestants Jojo Zaho and Pomara Fifth have appeared on the TV show “RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under”.

For Graetz, the growing success of the First Nations drag community demonstrates the diversity that exists not just within the LGBTQ community, but across Aboriginal Australia.

“The more we can get out there and tell our stories and be visible, the more we’ll be able to come together as a queer community and as a country,” he said.

That community is set to enjoy its most visible moment yet when, on Sunday, 50,000 people in rainbow colors march across Sydney’s iconic Harbour Bridge. A First Nations contingent will take the lead.