Hi. I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories – the podcast for the monthly LGBTQIA storytelling night that I host and programme at Giant Dwarf in Sydney. This story was shared as part of a Queerstories end of year celebration that I named Chosen Family Christmas. 2017 has been a tough year for queers, so it was lovely to come together and celebrate our weird wonderfulness on December 8th, just 24 hours after the passage of Marriage Equality legislation. That said, chosen family and queer family is about so much more than marriage, as the stories from that night show.
Sometimes, a person is lucky enough to have a few queers in their nuclear family. Sometimes, pretty much a whole family is queer, so can we all spare a moment to think of my poor younger sister, the only straight in the village. But this next story is not about me or her. Next up, we have Bhenji Ra and Christina Radburn. Christina is an award-winning independent film producer based in Naarm or Melbourne. Bhenji is an interdisciplinary artist. She belongs to the collective Club Ate, and is the overall mother of the House of Slé, a Western Sydney based community performance group. They grew up in Moruya, a small coastal town in New South Wales. They are sisters, carrying the long bloodlines of their Filipino matriarchs who have gone before them. Christina and Bhenji.
CHRISTINA: Like so many women, and especially women of colour, no story can be told without understanding the stories that unfolded way before ours even began to be written. We come from a long line of strong matriarchs, a line of bold, brave, fighting spirits, so our mum came to Australia in the late ’70s from Manila in the Philippines. She was the baby of eight siblings. She arrived here to two older sisters. She was 23. She came on her own, well, kind of. Plot twist: She was pregnant with me, so what a boss. She came, and her water broke the day that she was told by the government of the time that we could both stay in the country. She was three weeks overdue, so it seems that I somehow knew to hold on until we were both given the “okay.” Apparently, I came out screaming with my whole fist in my mouth.
And, we’ve kind of been screaming ever since. It kind of set the tone.
BHENJI: Okay. Growing up queer, it’s something I never felt I really grew into or even evolved into. In fact, I believe it was something I was born into. Having a migrant Filipino mother and a White Australian father, I inherently understood what difference was, what conflict looked like, and sometimes tasted. Like. It was a difference between quiet and rational, and loud and abruptive. A shake of a hand or a sniff. I don’t know if you know the Sniff Kiss accompanied by, like, a pinch of the flesh. That’s how Filipinos say hello to you. Or, it’s a choice of corned beef and rice, or steak and potatoes.
Looking back at our family, and the way that we used to function, we were already as queer as they came. Our brother would constantly remind us of how, with a roll in his eyes, about how weird we were compared to our very mundane, White, suburban surroundings. But there was something beautiful in our otherness that no outsider could understand. We knew we were different, and that’s what we bonded over from our mother’s interpretations of Australian slang to the soap opera drama that would literally go down minutes before church. These are the anecdotes that kept us going through all those early years.
Although, what was seemingly dysfunctional compared to the normativity around us, it eventually moulded all of us to be incredibly inclusive and celebratory of otherness. Instilling in that, especially me, that there was great power in authenticity; something that was definitely at the core of my mother’s heart. So, how does someone like me begin to find their feet? As in, how does this all really begin?
*Audience laughs and whoops*
Like, really, how did it happen? Well, I would say with a guiding big sister, a willing mother, a more than willing mother to record absolutely everything, and my first safe space, which was our family TV room.
CHRISTINA: Pretty much from the minute that Bhenji could walk, she was singing, dancing, playing with expression and performance, and as her big sister, or as we say in Tagalog, her ate, it was kind of second nature for me to create spaces for the both of us to escape into. Our loungeroom was our stage, but also our cocoon. We’d play dress-ups, put on shows, we made music videos. I used to choreograph the dances. Times have changed.
She used to make my clothes look better on her than me, and that’s kind of stayed the same. Our middle sibling, our brother Daniel, he’d be amidst the activity but kind of running through the performances, hiding from the video camera. I’m 13 years older than Bhenji. I mean, I know, it’s like we’re twins.
What that meant was that I would… I left home to go to uni when she was about four-years-old and she would tell me years later that she would wait for me to come home and to see my car coming down the driveway, usually close to Christmas because that’s when I’d come home for the holidays, and without fail I’d arrive and she’d say to me, “Can we do a show now, Chrissie?” But these shows and that space were just as important as they were for her.
I remember when I was 21 and she was about eight, and we did a Celine Dion Christmas concert; literally the whole Falling Into You album. I needed that. At the time, I’d come out of some toxic relationship. I’d cut all my hair off and I needed to sing that shit out, and it’s always been that way between the two of us; holding each other. Christmas has always been an incredibly important time because that’s when our family would come together, and a lot would happen at Christmas.
BHENJI: Okay. Christmas. Everyone knows that Christmas is a time when shit gets really real, we face our demons, we deal with racist relatives, people come out, there’s all these announcements, and someone always exits two days earlier than expected.
It’s honestly a lot of pressure. My mother would not sleep for days, literally days, until everything was cleaned, and everything was cooked. And because my mum, bless her, would always end up inviting some random Bill or Barry to our Christmas lunch, we always had to deal with the Christmas drama either before or after this. But, this drama, although I’m sure very traumatic at the time, was just a way for us to deal with the time and distance that we’ve had apart.
My mum’s Filipino, so having her children leave home and go to university, or to pursue something other than hairdressing at the local TAFE campus was heart-wrenching, heartbreaking for her. She never wanted us to be apart. Filipino families never break up. You grow up, get married, and then you still live together, according to my mum. At the time of my sister’s departure to university, my mother wasn’t having it. It wouldn’t just be her O-Week, it was “Our O-Week.”
We literally camped outside of her campus in a caravan on her first week.
*Audience laughs louder*
*Audience whoops and applauds*
BHENJI: And while my dad, my sweet dad, would take us around the town of Wagga Wagga, my mum would take herself and her very large ’90s video camera into the campus. And, we didn’t know this, but she was secretly interviewing other students on campus, as a way to keep track of any suspicious behaviour. And we still have that video. It’s hilarious. She holds the camera down here and pretends it’s off. She’s like, “Oh, yeah, and what’s your name? Where do you live? What’s your room number? Do you know a young girl called Christina? What do you think of her?” It was seriously some FBI shit going on.
Yeah, she kept a fierce eye on my big sister and, honestly, I am so here for it. She made sure, through some pretty extreme tactics that we remain close and, of course, we did.
CHRISTINA: The ebbs and flows of our relationship have always been couched in love and understanding that hasn’t changed from the beginning ’til now. She taught us well. What has changed has more been to do with our growth, our ages, and our how this has levelled out over time.
My role as her big sister has shifted from creating a stage in our lounge room to literally being there as she navigates her way through the stages of life, from moving to New York at 18 to the first heartbreak, and the many moving parts of her life as an artist. I remember the day she Facebook messaged me. She’s like, “Sis, I know what I want to do after high school. I’m going to move to New York.” I was like, “Okay, yep. You go get that,” but I was crying while I was messaging because I was scared and excited, and I didn’t know what this meant, and what was going to happen, and when she’d come back. Following my mum’s footsteps, I went to New York to follow her, and-
I didn’t give a shit about what New York was about, but I wanted to see where my sister was, and that was a turning point for our relationship. We levelled out as equals. We shifted from big sis/little sis to a new space. We had our first night out in the club; sorry, Mum. She was 18, and it didn’t matter because this club was all about having the right look to get in. We were standing outside the club waiting for our friend to arrive, and I hear the door girl say to this group of girls, “Listen, you better turn around and go home, and realize you’re in New York.” I looked at Bhenji and was like, “Okay, if that happens to us, I’m going to die.” It didn’t, of course. We walked in and we had a night that kind of changed our many nights to come after. The next day when we were chilling at the Chelsea Piers, as you do, she turned to me and she said, “Wow. You really got your own thing going on and I see you.” We grew incredibly on that trip.
When I first got there she said, “Well, let’s get you a mani,” and I was like, “I’m a lesbian. I don’t get manis.” And, cut to by the end of that trip, she helped me really embrace my femme power.
BHENJI: It was always there.
*Audience whoops and applauds*
CHRISTINA: Much advice was given both ways, and when we were parting at J.F.K. and tears were streaming down our faces because we didn’t know when we’d see each other next, I gave my last bit of big sister advice, and she gave me hers: “Sis, life is too short to wear the same dress twice.” And then what followed was our first Christmas without her at the table, but we Skyped her in.
BHENJI: Being the youngest, or in Tagalog, the bunso, has its benefits. Actually, there’s a lot of benefits and I get away with a lot of shit. It’s honestly a blessing and I’m so thankful for it. But often you’re siblings before you go through the fire so that you don’t have to. They experience the pain, heartbreak, and most often trauma, all the while unknowingly helping the next sibling to take the journey less travelled.
I remember thinking, and I still do, that my sister was a celebrity, some bomb-ass character from some sitcom that gave no fucks, said what she wanted to say, and defended herself fiercely against local racists and anyone that would come even close to our family unit. She would often keep a large baseball bat at the back of her car, and I think… Oh, my God, this is so real. I think my fondest memory… my fondest memory of her was chasing down a racist town local who called her “Curry Muncher,” then taking him to his mother and asking her, bat in hand and racist in the other, “Do you know that your child was a racist?”
*Audience whoops and applauds loudly*
CHRISTINA: I still have the bat.
BHENJI: And she got that for my mother as well. Don’t mess with the top gun. To me, she was flawless in her demeanour. Before anything else, she was hot and on-point. She was hilarious and disregarded the patriarchy from the beginning. She taught me what social justice was just through her lived experience, and I was the proudest little sibling to have her as an auntie, often feeling sorry for those who didn’t have that one true ally. You don’t always get to choose your family but, in our case, our ancestors had other thoughts and bonded us for life.
We are beyond blessed to have each other. It definitely hasn’t been this easy but I’m thankful to be on this journey with a family who also grows with us every day.
CHRISTINA: We’ve been blessed to have each other as sisters. We have our relationship as the baseline for the greater chosen fam’ that we also have in our lives. Through Bhenji, I’ve inherited many baby sisters across the globe, and I proudly wear that title of Big Sis. And, she wears the same with many of the girls that now form our greater family. We’re here for our family; chosen and blood. Thank you.
BHENJI: Thank you.