THE announcement that the Liberal Party had pre-selected a 27-year-old lawyer in the high-profile Federal seat of Sydney for the upcoming election made national headlines.
Geoffrey Winters’ candidacy – while a great achievement for him – isn’t really the kind of news that would normally go viral.
But what caught the media and public’s attention about Winter’s preselection was that he is an openly gay, Aboriginal man running for a conservative party.
Social media was quickly inundated with comments about the implausibility of a gay man pledging allegiance to a conservative party like the Liberal Party.
For many it seemed identifying as both LGBTI and with a conservative political party were mutually exclusive.
The Liberal-National Party Coalition (LNP) is guaranteed to have at least three openly gay Members of Parliament after July’s election – North Sydney’s incumbent MP Trent Zimmerman, Western Australian Senator Dean Smith and Tim Wilson in the safe Victorian seat of Goldstein – and it might even have a third if Trevor Evans takes out the tight race in Brisbane.
This rainbow trifecta would make the Coalition not only the gayest party in Federal Parliament, but perhaps in the history of Australian national politics.
This fact may blow the minds of armchair critics, but there has been an unprecedented increase of openly gay LGBTI candidates in the 2016 election campaign – especially in conservative parties.
Political observer Kate Doak credits the exponential rise of gender and sexual diverse candidates in this Federal election with not only the increasing visibility of LGBTI people but also the wider acceptance by the general public.
“Firstly, a lot more individuals have become more comfortable stating their sexuality, but there’s changing attitudes across the entire political spectrum in regards to LGBTI rights,” she says.
“I think a lot of people forget that everybody is moulded by various different factors in their life. It just depends on your own life experience.”
Which begs the question, what does it mean to be gay and liberal?
Speaking from a Native Title conference in Darwin, Winters says he is not shocked people are fascinated by him, but admits he has talked more about his race and sexuality since his candidacy was announced in May than in his entire life.
“It’s not a surprise to anyone that this was going to be an issue, people were really interested and curious. It is interesting and it is curious and I’m the first to admit that,” he explains.
“The reason I’m in the Liberal Party is that I’m progressive and have huge social goals, but I think the best way to get there is making sure we can afford them.
“At the end of the day I am gay and I am Aboriginal, but there is so much more than those two parts of my personality and I’m certainly not running just because I’m gay and Aboriginal. They are important issues to me, of course they are.”
LGBTI supporters of the LNP are quick to label themselves as moderates rather than conservatives, including Blaise Bratter, who while the development officer of the New South Wales Young Nationals in 2015, broke ranks with the Federal Nationals party policy by moving a motion for his branch to support marriage equality.
Born and bred in Gundagai in regional NSW, the Nationals Party has had a huge influence on Bratter’s life.
The senior members of the party weren’t impressed with the NSW Young Nationals when they declared their support for marriage equality but according to Bratter, conceded they must accept the decision because that is the party’s way.
“Why I went to them was because of the openness of the party,” he explains.
“As long as you put regional Australia first, they are accepting of differing ideas.”
Bratter, 26, “laughs” at the idea that you can’t be an LNP supporter if you are gay. Despite worrying that his sexuality would be an issue in his early days in the party, he now realises he can affect the most change from the inside.
“People who haven’t had exposure to those parties don’t realise there’s heaps of gay people in them,” he says.
“I want to see marriage equality happen, we’re slowly getting there. Some of our members have said they won’t support the outcome of a ‘yes’ vote in the plebiscite, so we’re working on them.
“It’s a lot easier to make change from the in- side rather throw rocks from the outside.”
Last year, Trent Zimmerman became the first openly gay Member of Parliament in the House of Representatives and used his maiden speech to call for marriage equality to pass in Australia.
“I have been a member of the Liberal Party since I was 17 years old,” he says.
“I have always identified myself as a liberal and a commitment to the personal and economic freedoms of the individual.”
While Zimmerman has never had any difficulty reconciling being gay with being a member of the Liberal Party, he admits there are many who hold more conservative views in the Party.
“But the Party also represents those who have argued for personal liberty and an approach that has seen society and government recognise that discrimination based on sexuality – or any other personal attributes and beliefs – as fundamentally wrong,” he says.
“That’s not to say that people within the Party agree on everything related to LGBTI issues, but it is fair to say we have plenty of healthy debates.”
City of Sydney councillor Christine Forster joined the Liberal Party a couple of decades ago when she was in her 30s.
“I joined because it represents the values I cherish: the rights of the individual, free enterprise and small government,” she explains.
“The proposition that LGBTI people cannot also be conservative or Liberal in their political beliefs is frankly a pretty ludicrous idea.
“The reality is that there are many, many LGBTI people who also hold to conservative principles, for the reasons I’ve already mentioned. That’s also why there are so many gay and lesbian members of the Liberal Party.
“It is certainly not my view or experience that a person’s sexuality defines their political persuasion.”
But given the Coalition’s recent shaky record on LGBTI issues, including overhauling the Safe Schools program and not holding a parliamentary vote on marriage equality, how can a gay person justify being aligned with the LNP?
“I don’t think it should, like with any political party you’ve got people who have ideological persuasions with specific issues, in a lot of different ways, we’ve seen a lot of Liberal Party members becoming a lot more accepting of the LGBTI community,” Doak says.
“We will never have everyone supporting LGBTI rights, but again there’s nothing wrong with that, because if everyone was thinking the same thing, politics would be rather dull.”