Meet the people making positive changes in the city and beyond, in the fields of the arts; civics; sustainability; community and culture; and food and drink.
Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Sydney in this Future Shaper series. These remarkable individuals and organisations were nominated by a panel of expert judges including editor of Time Out Sydney Maxim Boon, celebrity chef and restaurateur Kylie Kwong, head of talks and ideas at the Sydney Opera House Edwina Throsby, NSW 24-hour economy commissioner Michael Rodrigues, CEO of IndigiLab Luke Briscoe, and NIDA resident director David Berthold. Read more about the project here.
It was a chance meeting with a young man, a fellow Indigenous queer person who had fallen on hard times, that sparked something in William Trewlynn and led him to become a founder of BlaQ Aboriginal Corporation. The organisation was established as a collective response to the identified need for strengthened visibility of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander LGBTQ+ community.
Born and raised in Western Sydney, where his family moved as part of the Aboriginal Family Voluntary Resettlement Scheme, William has traditional ties to the Anēwan and Nucoorilma people of Tingha and Dunghutti people of Woolbrook NSW, out Tamworth way. Before he co-founded BlaQ in 2019, Trewlynn was already carving a path working in Aboriginal corporations and “trying to create social change for mob”.
“I spent a lot of years in not-for-profits, and I more recently spent times in government in quite senior roles. But with those areas, it's always based on Western terms, or whitefella’s terms. So I always had these chains on me about my ability to be able to do my work in all of its authenticity,” he says.
“About five years ago, I said to myself, 'I need to be doing it on my own terms'. So I quit my job, a very high-paid government role, and I went out on my own and went into consulting. I've kind of grown organically, I got into some bits and pieces around training and diversity, I used the skills that I acquired through my professional career to enact BlaQ and give back.”
Until recently, BlaQ was entirely volunteer run. Although Trewlynn still volunteers his time as CEO, the organisation recently secured funding to employ two full-time staff. Those staff are now responsible for supporting jurisdictional claims around Closing the Gap at the federal level.
How does BlaQ connect with community?
We've done a lot of community-facing work and activations where we're bringing mob together. The programs that we've done have always been led by volunteers in partnership with our community. We do community activations which focus around social and emotional wellbeing. So bringing mob together outside of a drinking culture. When we get together as queer people, it's usually around the social setting of bars and stuff like that. We wanted to use other avenues, such as free voguing and dance classes, we’ve done yarning circles and picnics, and they're all about getting mob together in a non-drinking social setting.
What other work is BlaQ doing behind the scenes?
Through the midst of Covid, we partnered with the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence, who received funding from the City of Sydney, to go and deliver food hampers to some of our more vulnerable and isolated community members. In doing that, we also partnered with groups like Kinchela Boys Home, and we donated any food we had left over to them to go and give their community members...
We're also partnering with Western Sydney University, we are the lead community organisation around the social and emotional wellbeing of young LGBTQ+ people. We're researching the experience of young community members around accessing of services. What does kinship and family mean to them? And how do we support them around accessing appropriate and quality services? That research now is coming to an end, and I'm pleased to announce that we've released nine publications now with three special issues. Our roadmap will be launched at the end of this year. It's the first of its kind in the country where we will have evidence based around the impacts of intersectionality of culture and identity.
How did BlaQ get started?
BlaQ was a collective that got together and said, "Well, for a long time, space has been taken up by other organisations who have supported us. But what does it mean to create a space that is by us, for us?" So we started in 2019, after the Mardi Gras season. Myself, John Leha, Jessica Johnson and Jinny-Jane Smith spent about six weeks brainstorming and workshopping on what it means for mob to take control of their own affairs and be in the driver's seat.
The reason why I wanted to go on this journey is because I met a young Aboriginal fella from Bourke. He was 19 years old and had come to Sydney, he was very dark-presenting, and he had fallen on hard times. He was selling himself, he was on drugs. When I think of his situation, it really shone a light on my privileges. As a lighter-skinned blackfella growing up in the city, I had opportunities that he didn't. It showed the contrast of where we were in our lives. He told me, "I got here [to Sydney] and I couldn't connect with anyone. I had nowhere to go and I couldn’t find any other queer mob.” For me, that was really a moment of, pardon the phrase, “Oh, shit! We need to get better at this.” So I enacted all my privileges, used my intellect, and used my networks to establish BlaQ under the Aboriginal Corporation Act.
What is in the future for BlaQ?
We're on a trajectory to create a first-of-its-kind LGBTQ+ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander pride and diversity centre. We were successful in negotiating a much larger new office space at the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence in Redfern...
BlaQ is Sydney-centric because of our positioning, but we're very conscious of the fact that we need to figure out how to support, engage and connect with rural and remote communities. We completely acknowledge the importance of inclusion, particularly for rural and remote communities. Having said that, we’re a small organisation who gets very limited funding, so we haven't been able to do that to the best of our ability. So now we have got some full-time staff, and some of the work that we're doing will take us regional and remote. Once we start building our networks, our goal is around activating communities and asking what does place-based support look like? How do we support communities at a local level to enact their own activities?
What does the future of being queer and Indigenous in Sydney look like?
I hope we start seeing more blak queer people in predominantly white queer spaces. You only have to go to Oxford Street to see how whitewashed it still is and how it is sometimes not a safe space for Aboriginal people, or any People of Colour for that matter. I hope that when we talk about queerness in the future, it is in all of its authenticity an accepting community. I'm not convinced that we are accepting. I've experienced fat shaming. I’ve seen racism on Grindr. For me, my hope is we have a safe space that is inclusive, and not just inclusive for what white society deems normal. And I am hopeful, because you see these fringe communities and these really diverse groups of people. There are groups like Heaps Gay, the ballroom scene is picking up.
When I think about blak queerness, my hope is, is that we have acceptance not just in the queer community, but in our own community. There is still homophobia, transphobia, and HIV stigma that exists within our communities. My hope is that we don't have kids who are disconnecting from their kinship because of the fear of coming out, or that we have elderly people who have been disconnected from their family and are in isolation because they’re queer. I hope we get to a place where being Aboriginal isn't fetishised anymore. Sometimes our community is subjected to that, and it impacts us negatively.
There is sometimes a notion that Aboriginal people weren't gay before colonial history. There is this real lack of evidence based research that talks about the history of queerness as it relates to a pre-colonial context. As an organisation we believe that queerness has been here for a millennial. It's important to acknowledge that and the significant role queer people played as it relates to family, communities and kinship. There is work that needs to be done around capturing our 65,000 year history of queerness and not just the 250 years since colonisation.
How can young LGBTQ+ people in Sydney get involved in your events?
Most of our events that we share are on Facebook. You can either get involved by following us on our Facebook or Instagram pages. Or you can reach out to us via our website where we have a contact us page. You can also call us, all our numbers are online.
If this article has raised any issues you can call QLife on 1800 184 527. It is an anonymous and free LGBTI peer support and referral for people in Australia wanting to talk about sexuality, identity, gender, bodies, feelings or relationships. The line is open 3pm-midnight, every day.