Canberra's Closed Closets
Thursday, August 9 2012
As we farewell Senator Bob Brown from politics this year, we’ll be greeting Penny Wong and Louise Pratt as the only openly gay elected members out of the 226 in Australian federal politics. Despite efforts from Senator Brown’s Greens, Rainbow Labor and many in the community, it seems that in Australia the closet door remains firmly closed.
“Politics should never be about a person’s sexuality,” says Rainer, a young politician rising through the Labor ranks and closely associated with western metropolitan MP offices and youth think-tanks.
However, in a political climate where heterosexual politicians flaunt their families for political brownie points and homosexuality is still associated with scandal, young people with political aspirations such as Rainer are compelled against taking risks and keep their sexual orientations private.
“Living in a society where the personal lives of people are so important”, he said, “the public want to know the sexuality of the person, and votes are unfortunately decided upon this premise, even though their vision for a better nation may be far better than that of the others”.
Rainer admits that although not a fan of his political vision, “I admire Bob Brown for being open about his sexuality from the get go”.
For former Greens leader and Senator, Bob Brown, homosexuality is, and has been, a significant part of his political identity. He came out to his peers and the nation in his first speech in parliament in 1996, and has spent his political career as leader of the Greens advocating for the rights and equality of members in Australia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
For those in the two major political parties, though, the case is different. Senator Penny Wong often brushes aside her talk of her sexuality, and maintains that her private life will remain private.
David, a Perth Young Liberal, has first-hand knowledge of the pressures on his political future, and faces the additional challenges of a right-wing Catholic as party leader and the conservative values of the Liberal Party.
“It’s particularly disappointing that as an apparently progressive nation, there have only ever been three out and proud politicians elected into Canberra and none at all in the House of Representatives, none in my home state and none in the Party that haven’t been appointed into roles without an election”, he says.
“On the other hand, though, there has been no shortage of political events that have depicted homosexuality, and homosexuality in politics in particular, in negative ways that only serve to further alienate gay and lesbian political aspirants like myself”.
David cites recent examples, including that of Bob Katter’s homophobic television ad and the Slipper sexual harassment case as poignant examples that “paint queer people as unfit to represent others in the community, which is completely unfair because we’re no different to anyone else in politics or in the wider community apart from who we’re sexually attracted to”.
These personal, professional and political issues have become more problematic with increased pressure on parliament and MPs on the topic of marriage equality, in Australia and abroad. France’s new president-elect François Hollande is expected to push for same-sex marriage, allowing France to join the ranks of several other European countries that have legalised it. Barack Obama, too, recently declared his support of equal marriage in the United States, affirming his stance that “gay and lesbian Americans should be treated fairly and equally”.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard, however, has stated that her position on the issue has not “evolved”, as Obama described his change of opinion. Talking to ABC radio station 774, Gillard explained that when a Private Member’s bill in favour of same-sex marriage is introduced into Parliament, she “won’t vote for it”.
“When support doesn’t come from the top, from our leaders, where does that leave us as people involved in politics and as people in general?” David asks.
“It’s inhibiting and it’s really disappointing.”
Brendan O’Connor and other ALP figures have taken the same stand as the Prime Minister, despite lobbying by Rainbow Labor and consistent polls showing a vast majority support same-sex marriage.
It’s a situation that doesn’t give our young, gay Liberal much hope.
“When you compare Australia to other countries, and you see how their governments are supporting sexual minorities, you realise just how far behind we really are here and how far we’ve got to go. I just wish that one day I can be comfortable enough to come out, for it to be no issue when I do, and for me and everyone else to be treated equally.”
Names have been changed for the privacy of the individuals involved.