A LEADING advocate for LGBTI rights and marriage equality has criticised former Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s about-face turn on marriage equality, saying that her words were now “worthless” and that she used the wellbeing of the LGBTI community as “a pawn”.

Gillard’s revelation last night that she now supports marriage equality, provoked a mixed bag of reactions from the LGBTI and wider communities, with some welcoming her change of heart while many criticised the announcement as “too little, too late”.

Australia’s first female PM, who once drew the ire of many marriage equality supporters and was seen as responsible for holding the issue back during her time in office, announced her change of heart at the Michael Kirby Lecture at Victoria University.

The former PM also used her speech to level a critique at current PM Tony Abbott’s desire to see the issue voted on by the public by way of a plebiscite or referendum.

“What is motivating me is the sense of concern I have developed over the last few weeks about the proposal to have a plebiscite or referendum on same sex marriage,” Gillard said.

“I am genuinely troubled about this proposal’s potential long term ramifications for our democracy and its capacity to sustain reform.

“As we all know, there is no logical reason for having such a vote on same sex marriage. No constitutional change is actually needed. No referendum has been required in the past to change the Marriage Act. No plebiscite was seen as necessary when the traditional approach to marriage was changed through the introduction of no-fault divorce.”

She said Abbott’s push to hold a public vote on marriage equality would send a message to the country that the ability of politicians to manage these issues would be “inadequate”.

“With no logic to support it, the only foundation stone for the idea of a plebiscite or referendum is an appeal to the all too popular sentiment that politicians are inadequate, that their decision making is somehow deficient,” Gillard said.

“If, much against my views about what is best for our nation, a plebiscite or referendum is held on same sex marriage, then as a voter, I would certainly cast my ballot in favour of same-sex marriage.”

With a view to not changing the “old” institution of marriage combined with a concern from “a gender perspective with traditional marriage” based on her self-confessed 1970s feminist beliefs, Gillard had previously argued against marriage equality, stating her desire to see “something new” created with civil unions for both heterosexual and same-sex couples.

“However, in the years since, the debate has quickly moved on, and the claim for civil unions has been discarded in favour of a campaign for same sex marriage,” she said in her speech.

“In my time post-politics as key countries have moved to embrace same sex marriage, I have identified that my preferred reform direction was most assuredly not winning hearts and minds.”

One commentator on Twitter condemned Gillard’s reference to her past feminist views.

Speaking to the Star Observer, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) national spokesperson Shelley Argent — who, along with other advocates including Australian Marriage Equality national director Rodney Croome, met with Gillard in 2012 with hopes to persuade her — said her comments now were “worthless”.

“Personally, I think she always believed in marriage equality but being a politician she played the game well,” Argent said.

“Additionally, her comments now are worthless and mean nothing. She had her chance and could have made a real difference but allowed herself to use the wellbeing of LGBTI couples as a pawn while she was in power.

“She lost and so did the LGBTI couples. As a parent of a gay male her revelation is very disappointing.”

Argent’s criticism of Gillard appears to represent a majority view of many in the LGBTI community and other marriage equality supporters, who said it was disappointing that she was in a position to bring about change but refused to.

However, Croome welcomed the former PM’s change of heart.

“We welcome Julia Gillard’s decision because it shows that even the most high profile opponents of marriage equality can open their hearts to the reform,” he said.

“But we urge other political leaders not to wait until it is too late for them to show leadership in parliament, as Ms Gillard has done.”

Openly-gay South Australian Labor Senator Penny Wong also welcomed Gillard’s new found support for marriage equality.

“Julia led a government committed to reducing discrimination against LGBTI Australians.” Wong said.

Meanwhile, Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek took to social media to praise Gillard.

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