The rise of LGBTIQ politicians

Is the parliament more diverse and does it matter?

By Heath Pickering and Scott Brenton.

The number of politicians identifying as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex or Queer (LGBTIQ) appears to be increasing.

Only a few months ago, Liberal Trent Zimmerman became the first openly gay Member of the House of Representatives after winning the North Sydney by-election.

After this election there will be at least two more joining him, with Liberal Tim Wilson contesting the safe Melbourne-based seat of Goldstein, and both major party candidates for the seat of Brisbane are also openly gay.

The Labor candidate for Brisbane is former army major Pat O’Neill. The LNP candidate is Trevor Evans, a former CEO of the National Retail Association and former chief-of-staff to Immigration Minister Peter Dutton.

Trevor Evans LNP candidate for Brisbane
Openly gay LNP candidate Trevor Evans is vying for the marginal seat of Brisbane

Also in the field is Veterans Party candidate Bridget Clinch, who also served in the Australian Defence Force, which supported and funded her sex change operation.

While an outside chance, Clinch could become the first transgender federal parliamentarian. Another possibility is transgender activist and Greens’ candidate for the Tasmanian seat of Franklin, Martine Delaney, although she will also likely poll behind the major parties.

Another long shot for the Liberals is openly gay indigenous man Geoffrey Winters, who is contesting the progressive seat of Sydney currently held by Labor’s Tanya Plibersek.

There are many other openly LGBTIQ candidates in this election who could at least seriously challenge the incumbent. One of the few lesbian-identifying candidates is Labor’s Sophie Ismail, contesting the seat of Melbourne held by the Greens’ Adam Bandt.

Bordering it is the Liberal seat of Higgins held by Assistant Treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer. Challenging her will be two openly gay and high-profile candidates: the Greens’ Jason Ball, the first openly gay Australian Rules player; and Labor’s Carl Katter, who is the half-brother of conservative politician Bob Katter.

Bob Katter is the cowboy hat-wearing member for the North Queensland seat of Kennedy, who once ignorantly claimed that he would “walk backwards from Bourke to Brisbane” if a homosexual could be found living in his electorate. He better have a comfortable pair of walking shoes as his biggest challenger is openly gay LNP candidate Jonathan Pavetto.

LGBTIQ politicians in the Senate

LGBTIQ-identifying politicians have been consistently more successful in the Senate than the House of Representatives. In the 1990s the LGBTIQ senators included Greens’ leader Bob Brown and Democrat Brian Grieg; in the 2000s Labor’s Penny Wong and Louise Pratt; and in the 2010s, the Greens’ Janet Rice and Robert Simms, and Liberal Dean Smith were elected.

The Senate has long been more diverse than the lower house, with more women (including the youngest elected women), the first Indigenous parliamentarians and the first parliamentarians from an Asian background.

One argument is that parties have been more comfortable placing minority candidates on Senate tickets where they receive less scrutiny during elections. It is no coincidence that most of the LGBTIQ candidates for the lower house are standing in less conservative inner-city electorates. Another factor is that minor parties have generally been more successful in the Senate, and left-wing parties have been more committed to diversity in representation.

It should be remembered that there have been many LGBTIQ politicians (mainly gay and bisexual men) who did not publically discuss their sexuality. Rather it was sometimes an “open secret” in Canberra and among political insiders.

Former Liberal Prime Minister William McMahon was subject to slurs and rumours that were used to impede his political advancement. Just the perception of being gay was believed to be damaging.

Former deputy leader under John Howard, Neil Brown, let his membership of the party lapse partly because of homophobic verbal attacks on Justice Michael Kirby in Parliament.

Under Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke in the 1980s, Health Minister Neal Blewett initiated a world-leading HIV/AIDS prevention strategy that arguably saved countless lives. After retiring from politics he came out as gay.

There have been other politicians who have left a lasting policy legacy, particularly at the state level. Former South Australian Labor Premier Don Dunstan is undoubtedly the exemplar, with his government the first in Australia to decriminalise homosexuality along with a raft of other socially progressive reforms.

The first openly LGBTIQ head of an Australian government, Labor’s ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr, has been one of the leading figures in changing his party’s position on marriage equality.

LGBTIQ politicians may not be more socially progressive

It’s not the case that LGBTIQ politicians will be more socially progressive. While Trent Zimmerman used his first speech to parliament to pay tribute to former gay parliamentarians and to highlight sexual discrimination, Tim Wilson—the Liberal candidate for Goldstein—has voiced concerns about the anti-homophobic bullying Safe Schools program, despite being part of its launch.

Wilson has also consistently been a critic of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which makes it unlawful to ''offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate'' people because of their race or ethnicity. Senator Smith has also been trying to change the law, and is on the conservative side of his party on many issues. However, he advocated for Australia to accept LGBT people from among the 12,000 additional refugees from Syria.

Just as all female politicians cannot be expected to advocate for every policy affecting women, LGBTIQ politicians are as diverse as other groups. Indeed, there have been gay leaders of far-right populist parties, such as assassinated Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, and persistent rumours about deceased Austrian politician Jörg Haider.

Yet most LGBTIQ politicians have been on the left of the political spectrum, such as the world’s first LGBTIQ head of government in 2009, Iceland’s Social Democratic Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir. Belgian Socialist Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo became the first openly gay head of government in 2011.

The only current LGBTIQ-identifying head of government is Luxemburgish Prime Minister Xavier Bettel. While he belongs to a centre-right party, he leads a left-wing coalition government and presided over the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

Banner image: Flickr/BensonKua


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