I am a queer femme human rights advocate, policy advisor and academic living and working on the Gadigal land of the Eora nation. Over the last 12 years my work has been dedicated to human rights, law reform and social justice, particularly in relation to LGBTIQ health, sexuality and criminalisation. I have been blessed – rather, privileged – with a career rich in cultural experiences, compelled by intellectual provocation, and rooted in community and lived experience.
As an Arts/Law student at the University of Sydney, I interned with UN Women monitoring gendered discrimination in Australia and with UNFPA in Eritrea on sexual and reproductive health programming. I volunteered with Wirringa Baiya Aboriginal Women’s Legal Centre writing submissions for victim’s compensation for sexual assault and family violence, with the Refugee Advice and Casework Service assisting draft letters for Ministerial intervention, and with Amnesty International Australia co-founding the Freedom Writers human rights writing award.
In my final years of law school I was a research assistant in the law faculties at the University of Sydney and University of Technology. I worked on research projects examining construction of LGBTIQ identities in asylum determination and gender inequities in health. Over three years I worked as a paralegal, summer clerk and law graduate at Allens Linklaters in litigation and dispute resolution, and was seconded to work with the Kimberley Land Council in Broome as part of the Aurora Native Title Program. I assisted on pro bono projects to recover Indigenous people’s stolen wages and with the Homeless Persons Legal Service, a project of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, before leaving legal practice to pursue policy, advocacy and research roles.
Following my work in the commercial law sector, I completed a Master of Arts in Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney examining feminist practices within sexual labour, conducting auto-ethnography and qualitative interviews. I guest lectured and tutored in undergraduate subjects on sexuality, gender, identity and violence. During this time I ran for the House of Representatives, NSW Senate and Lord Mayor of Sydney as a candidate for the Australian Sex Party, advocating for civil liberties including drug law reform and decriminalisation of abortion.
I went on to work as the Policy Officer and International Spokesperson for the peak national sex worker organisation, Scarlet Alliance, giving evidence at parliamentary hearings and writing submissions to government inquiries. This work combined my interests in law reform, human rights, harm reduction and public health, worked to reduce stigma, discrimination and criminalisation among marginalised communities.
Compelled by the momentum in this space, I commenced my PhD at University of New South Wales examining the legal regulation of queer, feminist and DIY pornographies in Australia, jointly supervised by the Faculty of Law and School of Arts and Media. The project explored the formation of social movements, criminalisation of queer intimacies and privatised regulation of online space.
During my candidacy I undertook a Postgraduate Teaching Fellowship and fixed term position as an Associate Lecturer, guest lecturing in criminology, social research and public policy, assisting in curriculum mapping and course design, and assisting on an animal law reform project in the School of Social Sciences. I studied overseas as part of a Summer Institute on Sexuality, Culture and Society at the University of Amsterdam in addition to a Summer Doctoral Program at the University of Oxford.
Inspired by robust discussions on legal and political theory, I joined the LGBTI Sub-Committee of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights. I commenced a role as the Policy Advisor for ACON, formerly the AIDS Council of NSW and the largest LGBTIQ community health organisation in Australia. This peer-led advocacy, strategy and policy work involved supporting decision-makers to understand the needs of LGBTIQ people, particularly in relation to HIV and sexual health, mental health and wellbeing, alcohol and other drug use, domestic and family violence and anti-bullying.
I was also contracted as a researcher by the Centre for Social Research in Health at UNSW in partnership with Scarlet Alliance on a project to develop national quantitative indicators to measure sex work stigma in Australia, which will be used to assess progress in implementing Australia's National HIV and STI Strategies.
As we continue to challenge each other to imagine and create alternate futures, my work remains committed to human rights, transformative justice and social change. I hope for a world where we work collectively to build a sustainable planet and vibrant communities with access to rights, pathways for participation and avenues for justice.
A note on my name:
I first took Zahra Stardust as my stage name when I worked as an aerial, stage and film performer. As I moved into advocacy spaces the distinction between my creative and policy work became blurred, and colleagues, media and the public came to know me by this name.
We are all stardust. The iron in our blood, calcium in our bones, carbon in our cells and oxygen in our lungs is all formed by nuclear fusion at the heart of stars, dispersed and scattered into the galaxy. This interstellar dust makes up our earth and finds its way into our bodies: we are in essence made up from dying stars. Every element in the periodic table aside from hydrogen is stardust. Although most of the atoms that make up our bodies are hydrogen, stardust atoms are heavier, meaning that 93% of our body mass is actually stardust.
Stardust reminds us that we are intergenerational: our bodies carry materials that are as old as the universe. It reminds us that we are impermanent: our bodies rebuild themselves over and over throughout our lifetime. And it connects us to something bigger than ourselves.