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Darwin City Library during 2017 Darwin Pride Festival. Image: City of Darwin, Facebook

In May 2017, the Northern Territory recorded its eighth consecutive year of declining population growth, and a 25 per cent decrease in net migration of women over the previous five years. Local academics from The Northern Institute at Charles Darwin University echoed concerns, citing young women as a key target area needed to overcome the population decline. Since this data was released the NT Government has become preoccupied with wooing women to the Top End. Just last week they announced a $2.5 million budget package designed to attract primarily 20–39 year old women to the Territory to boost population growth, with funds to go towards financial incentives to cover moving expenses and ‘marketing materials’. Darwin has 112 men per 100 women (compared to 99 men per 100 women) in the rest of the country – put simply, the NT is one big sausage fest. But what is the real story behind these statistics? Why are women not coming here, and if they do, why don’t they stay?

Many of the clichés about the Northern Territory, and Darwin as its representative capital, are true. Darwin is a frontier town ruled by crocs, cocks and shock jocks. The public discourse has rarely, if ever, featured voices and rhetoric from beyond what feels like antiquated gender norms – women are women, men are men. 

The Northern Institute gets it – in 2017 it warned the NT Government about focusing too much energy on large-scale infrastructure and mining projects, saying they ‘entrenched volatility, a gender imbalance, and high population turnover’. Darwin is overwhelmingly geared towards white, straight men, propped up by industries (large-scale infrastructure, resources and Defence) that are notoriously androcentric. A 2012 report noted that male-biased ‘boomtown’ populations tend to ‘have a reduced savings capacity, to plan less strategically for the future and to exhibit anti-social behaviours as a result of competition for mates.’

Even the policy approach to getting more women to move here reads like a delusional Tinder profile that completely misses the mark: Pay women of child-bearing age to move here, and pretty soon they will run off into the sunset with a FIFO worker, lie back and think of Kakadu and build a four bedroom house in Humpty Doo. Voilà – population crisis solved! 

Darwin is a frontier town ruled by crocs, cocks and shock jocks. Why are women not coming here, and if they do, why don’t they stay?

But there is so more to life than gender binaries and heteronormativity. Getting people here is only half the problem; if we want people to stay in Darwin, it needs to be a place where everyone – no matter where they lie on the entire, nuanced, gender spectrum – feels valued.

My own experience here is a case in point. I am a queer woman, and have lived in Darwin for around 18 months. I happen to fit smack bang in the middle of the NT Government’s target demographic – but I’m alarmed by the thinly disguised implication that women in their (supposed) reproductive prime are portable baby-making units, ready and willing to lie in the bed that Darwin has clearly made for itself. 

The apparent lack of consideration and encouragement of other, less nuclear, family structures is equally disappointing. Many of my friends here are queer people. Most of my socialising here is done in the private sphere. This is not a coincidence. Outside of public arts and cultural events, my interactions with Darwin’s urban environment constantly reinforce that there is no place for me in this city. On the odd occasion I find myself out in the city centre of an evening, I feel like a stranger in my own town. Even the city’s legendary gay bar, Throb, is now more of a haven for straight people escaping the meat market of Mitchell Street, preferring the high quality drag shows to hearing Chumbawamba’s ‘Tubthumping’ played over and over. The last time I went there I had my breast groped by a man – and when my partner informed the bouncer of this, he seemed more concerned with getting the man to put his thongs back on. 

At moments like this, it’s hard to believe that as recently as the 1970s queer culture was thriving in Darwin’s tropical climate, the already male-heavy population a fertile breeding ground for subversive counter-culture in the barely-urban northern capital. Legendary party boy John Spellman’s Pianola Palace left an appetite for queer venues that was sated by the likes of Dix, Fannies and the Mississippi Queen. 

Cities are often the nexus of urban identity – layered spaces, rich with varied experiences and intersecting stories, vibrant places where eclectic groups and individuals can find unique and diverse offerings, from downtown to uptown. What’s funny about Darwin is that the normal suburban/urban dichotomy is reversed; the city centre feels one-dimensional, lacking, whereas pockets of Darwin’s suburbs, out of the purview of movers and shakers, are comparative creative hotbeds, flourishing with young artists and entrepreneurs who are more in tune with the city’s strange rhythms than those in the middle of it all. What is missing from Darwin’s urban identity?

Watching Netflix’s Queer Eye reboot recently, I was struck that in many ways, Darwin is a lot like the belching, poorly-dressed straight guys desperate to attract women. It seems obvious to me, a feminist, queer woman, that what this straight city needs is a Fab 5 makeover of its own – after all, everyone knows if you want to pull chicks the queers know best. As the Queer Eye cast themselves cited in an interview for Out magazine, ‘the goal isn’t to give subjects a makeover, but rather a make-better. It’s about tapping into the subjects’ insecurities, playing to their strengths, and establishing a genuine, enduring connection with them.’ 

Watching Netflix’s Queer Eye reboot recently, I was struck that in many ways, Darwin is a lot like the belching, poorly-dressed straight guys desperate to attract women.

If I learnt anything from binge watching the latest season (the show’s neo-liberal tendencies aside) it’s that glib aphorisms disguised as practical advice can solve any problem. So how would Jonathan, Antoni, Brian, Karamo and Tan help Darwin soften its rough, masc edges, and become a better – and dare I say more feminine – version of itself, a place that is more liveable for everyone?

Feeling like no-one is picking up what you’re putting down? Let the grassroots take hold, and watch yourself flourish!

Darwin is hell-bent on glorifying its 15 minutes of war-time fame, with almost $2 million committed into ‘turbocharging’ the region as a military pilgrimage destination. But let’s face it – the babes don’t really want tickets to your gun show! Darwin has a vibrant creative scene simmering just below the surface and is a gateway to an internationally recognised treasure trove of Aboriginal art and culture. The best cities are about way more than memorialising the past, they are about imagining the future, making spaces and places where citizens’ most exciting, creative and wild dreams can come true.

But wait a second! In the same way that true style is about choosing clothes and hair that reflects your true character – authentic culture needs to come from within, not be imposed or sanctioned, Big Brother style, by the powers that be. Rather than borrowing what’s worked elsewhere for a culture quick fix, why not let local creatives take charge – not just familiar faces but take a chance on some unknown talent? 

Given a blank canvas and the right resources (appropriate funding, spaces, promotion) emerging artists and creators will do what they do best, but government needs to take their hands off the reins for a while. Other cities such as Newcastle have seen artists, community and entrepreneurs take the lead in developing creative, collaborative approaches to reversing the trend of vacant shopfronts and urban stagnation, while government takes a supporting role. The Renew Newcastle model has been extrapolated to a range of other locations with a similar scale and similar problems to Darwin. Newcastle has shown what is possible when government resists the temptation to be the over-bearing parent, stifling the freedom of artists, artisans and local businesses to shape an environment that suits their needs. 

For decades, Darwin’s most incisive political discourse has been given voice through its fierce tradition of critical visual art from the likes of Therese Ritchie, Franck Gohier et al. Theirs and others’ works emblazon the walls of galleries or the city itself – these meta-canvases are where the city’s fiercely independent tradition of irreverence and resistance can be found, qualities that are almost always not improved by government intervention. Why not give creators like this the keys to the city and treat them like grown ups – trust that they know what is good for their city and give them the chance to forge an alternative urban destiny, where that iconoclastic spirit stays alive?

Why not trust that [creatives] know what is good for their city and give them the chance to forge an alternative urban destiny?

Feng Shui your city with good vibes! Make more space for the people who take up less room.

Darwin’s a crazily diverse place, but you wouldn’t know it walking around the city. I get it – exclusivity has become a familiar safety blanket, hanging out with politicians and big business comes easy, but what about broadening horizons, opening hearts and taking a risk by making time and space for people who are not typically part of the decision making in this town? It’s great to ‘Have Your Say’ – but consultation should only be conducted if responses have the ability to effect meaningful change, not when participants feel like their opinions are held hostage to a raft of decisions that have already been made. A folly like Barneson Boulevard should never have been given the green light without proper consideration of the viewpoints of the Larrakia people and residents of town camp One Mile Dam.

You want a city that reflects the rich layers of our history and geography? Speak with, not to, the people who safeguard that richness – don’t just let them have their say, but listen to what they tell you. 

What do Aboriginal people want? What do queer people want? What do refugees and migrants want? What do women want? Listening to what people want before making up your mind is 100 times sexier than telling people what they are getting and then asking their opinion. I get that it’s scary opening yourself up to criticism, and people might not tell you want you want to hear, but ultimately, it will make you stronger. An open, inclusive city is one where everyone feels safe and welcome – yes, women included.

Step out on to the national stage as a better you!

In many places in Australia, the days where Men were Men and Women were Women are thankfully becoming a thing of the past. I’m not about to start quoting Judith Butler to the Northern Territory elite, but reading the Victorian Government’s Inclusive Language Guidelines gave me a pretty special feeling. This week’s parliamentary apology to the local LGBTQI community, as the long overdue Bill to expunge the Northern Territory’s historic homosexual criminal convictions was passed, gave Darwin’s queer community a glimpse into what could be. As Chief Minister Michael Gunner choked back tears talking about his sister’s same-sex wedding (full disclosure – she’s marrying me), and opposition leader Gary Higgins – himself the proud father of local drag queen Katherine Gorge – declared bipartisan support, it felt like a small but significant shift had occurred in political discourse. It remains to be seen whether this place will become the ‘beacon of inclusivity’ that it needs to be to welcome the range of people the Territory needs here to stay economically viable; concerted effort is needed for this moment to have a long-term, positive impact at a community and cultural level.

It remains to be seen whether this place will become the ‘beacon of inclusivity’ that it needs to be to welcome the range of people the Territory needs here to stay economically viable.

The Northern Territory has been long regarded as the literal and figurative ‘poor cousin’ of its more mature counterparts down south, and for good reason. Darwin in 2018 is a cultural backwater that hasn’t yet thrown off the yoke of its apartheid legacy – the grotesque irony of the Territory is that the richest, most commodifiable element of our culture is synonymous with the same people we systematically oppress. 

If cultural and economic wealth are viewed as symbiotic, stepping out from the shadows and the comfort zone of low expectations could herald a new era, with the unique elements of this region’s socio-cultural identity (29 per cent of Territorians were born overseas; 30 per cent are Indigenous) harnessed for unity, not division. Rich, local Indigenous cultures such as the Tiwi Island sistagirls have taught us the beauty of homegrown diversity – can we not bring some of that spirit and appreciation of life beyond the binary into our contemporary urban space?

There are so many fabulous people (yes, even women) who have chosen to make Darwin their home, who happily pour energy into making this city a better place for everyone. But they need the city to work with them, not against them. They come from all walks of life, but they all want a city that they can look at, and see some of themselves reflected back at them. A place that fosters hope, not hopelessness. There’s no easy fix for the position we find ourselves in, but it’s pretty clear at the moment that something has to give. It wasn’t so long ago in Darwin’s history that the city boasted an impressively diverse mix of social, commercial and civic experiences. It’s not too late to get it back, but focusing on the symptom rather than the problem is not the way forward. As they say – if you build it, they will come.