On this day: Oodgeroo Noonuccal, proud mum

Oodgeroo Noonuccal

Oodgeroo Noonuccal who died September 16, 1993, was a National Treasure. Poet, writer, activist, artist, environmentalist, educator and veteran. It’s a struggle to properly encapsulate her contribution to her people and her country. But today, on the anniversary of her death, we celebrate Oodgeroo Noonuccal, the proud and loving mum of a gay man.

Born on North Stradbroke Island, Oodgeroo Noonuccal left school at age 13 to work as a domestic servant. There were few other options for Aboriginal women and girls in 1930s Australia.

During WWII, her two soldier brothers became prisoners of war when the Japanese conquered Singapore. Oodgeroo enlisted in the Australian Women’s Army Service.

“‘I joined the AWAS principally because I did not accept fascism as a way of life. It was also a good opportunity for an Aboriginal to further their education. In fact, there were only two places where an Aboriginal could get an education, in jail or the Army and I didn’t fancy jail!”

Also during the war, Oodgeroo married her childhood sweetheart and gave birth to Dennis, her first son. However, the marriage failed due to domestic violence. With no financial support from her husband, Oodgeroo went back to work.

Lady Phyllis Cilento

Meanwhile, prominent Queensland doctor Lady Phyllis Cilento also worked hard. Cilento practised medicine, served on numerous committees and penned popular newspaper columns. Her articles comprised mothercraft and medical advice along with lashings of racism, homophobia and other vicious prejudice.

With six children to raise, Cilento hired domestic servants so she could focus on her work as a doctor and journalist.

“I always had some help in the house… We could often obtain the services of an Aboriginal or part Aboriginal girl from the missions or government reserves.”

Oodgeroo Noonuccal worked for Cilento from 9 am until 3 pm each day, hours that allowed her to be home when son Dennis returned from school. At night, she took in washing and ironing.

Oodgeroo Noonuccal
Kabul and Oodgeroo Noonuccal pictured at a rehearsal in Kathie Cochrane’s wonderful biography, Oodgeroo.

(Oodgeroo by Kathie Cochrane is available for loan from the State Library of Queensland.)

Kabul Oodgeroo Noonuccal

However, in 1953, Oodgeroo Noonuccal suddenly stopped working for the Cilento family. She was pregnant with her second son, Kabul Oodgeroo Noonuccal.

Over the following decade, Oodgeroo raised her two boys, worked, studied and participated in the growing movement to have Australia’s First Nation’s peoples recognised as citizens.

In 1964, she published her first book of poetry and became one of Australia’s most celebrated citizens.

Both Oodgeroo and Phyllis Cilento received nominations for the inaugural Queenslander of the Year Award in 1981. Cilento, a firm backer of authoritarian premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, won.

Yet her autobiography Lady Cilento M.B. B.S. My Life makes not a single mention of her accomplished former employee. Nor does her husband’s biography. The couple acted as though Oodgeroo never existed.

Cilento was a well-known opponent of government-funded childcare centres. So Susan Mitchell, author of The Matriarchs: Twelve Australian women, asked if she thought child care might be justified by her former employee’s experience of working and raising two children at the same time.

Cilento didn’t bite. The Lady was not for turning. No mention of Oodgeroo Noonuccal made it into the chapter on Phyllis Cilento.

But in a stroke of poetic justice, Oodgeroo was one of the other matriarchs of the book’s title. She told the author she once consulted a female doctor over her problems working and raising two boys. Oodgeroo made it clear the female doctor was not Cilento.

Perhaps because Kabul Oodgeroo Noonuccal was the unacknowledged child of Phyllis Cilento’s eldest son, Raff.

Unlike his philandering father, who remained married to Phyllis, Raff often left his wives to marry his latest mistress. However, he never married Oodgeroo Noonuccal, nor acknowledged his paternity of her son. It also seems unlikely he provided any form of support. Oodgeroo made pointed mention of not needing other people’s charity to raise her children.

A Malignant Tumour

Phyllis and Raphael Cilento were not fans of mixed-race relationships as the husband emphasised when writing a 1971 speech. (Caps are Cilento’s own.)

“We must be constantly vigilant, and we must be careful and repeatedly examine the dilution of our RACIAL blood to avoid any incompatible racial clots that may result in disaster.”

Phyllis previously described homosexuality in the Courier-Mail as a “malignant tumour in the national life.”

She prescribed various remedies: stricter border controls, increased policing, jail sentences and public intolerance of homosexuals.

Ironic then how much the Cilento’s unacknowledged gay Aboriginal grandson had accomplished without their support by the time Twelve Matriarchs was published.

An artistic child, Kabul Oodgeroo Noonuccal grew up to become a talented artist, playwright, and dancer. His proud mother supported him when he came out as gay and took pleasure in working with him on projects.

A renowned educator, Oodgeroo touched the lives of innumerable children of all races. Aboriginal artist Arone Meeks told me in 2018 that when he went to the big smoke as a 17-year-old on the precipice of an international art career, Oodgeroo mentored him on dealing with the media and the unique pressures of success as a marginalised Australian.

The Rainbow Serpent

In 1970, Kabul won the first Aboriginal scholarship to attend the National Institute of Dramatic Art. Afterwards, he worked for some years in Europe and the US. Following his return to Australia, Kabul and Oodgeroo Noonuccal combined their creative talents to produce the universally acclaimed theatre piece The Rainbow Serpent for World Expo 88 in Brisbane.

And now it seems that with

all our great machines we

can travel almost

anywhere. We can travel

across the land at great speed.

And, for some, the city with

its bright lights and the

music and dancing of a

modern world.

There is almost nothing mankind cannot do.

We can hover or swoop in the air.

We do all these things with

the land. Good reason to

protect it.

Read The Rainbow Serpent by Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Kabul Oodgeroo Noonuccal in full at Meanjin.

Kabul remained in Australia, writing and directing for theatre and television.

However, his health deteriorated after Expo. He worried about the impact of his illness on his mother’s reputation and suggested she stop visiting him at the AIDS Unit of Sydney’s Prince Henry Hospital. She was horrified.

“I’m happy to tell the world you’ve got AIDS, and I still love you.”

To her horror, Oodgeroo soon discovered that it was commonplace for families of gay AIDS patients to reject their children.

Kabul died on February 20, 1991, leaving his mother heartbroken. She died in 1993.

Aunty Oodgeroo Noonuccal. National Treasure. Proud and loving mother.

For the latest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) news in Australia, visit qnews.com.au. Check out our latest magazines or find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Destiny Rogers

Destiny Rogers embarked on her career in the media industry immediately after high school, initially joining Mirror News, which later evolved into News Ltd. She fondly recalls editing Ian Byford's 'Passing Glances: A History of Gay Cairns' as one of her most fulfilling projects. Additionally, Destiny co-researched and co-wrote 'The Queen's Ball', chronicling the history of the world's longest-running continuous queer event. Her investigative work on the history of Australia's COON Cheese and Edward Coon culminated in the publication 'COON: More Holes than Swiss Cheese', a collaborative effort with Dr. Stephen Hagan. Destiny's journey at QNews began as a feature writer, and she was subsequently elevated to the role of Managing Editor of QNews Magazine in 2018. However, in July 2022, she decided to resign from this role to refocus on research and feature writing. For contact, please reach out at destinyr@qnews.com.au.

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