catherine-cusakIn extraordinary scenes at NSW Parliament, a state MP has claimed that HIV awareness organisation ACON was “taken over by gay men” in the 1980s and that the male gay community has an “attitude problem” towards women.

During a public hearing into proposed state-based same-sex marriage legislation, Liberal MLC Catherine Cusack (pictured) asked ACON CEO Nicolas Parkhill if women were referred to as “breeders,” “beards” and “fag hags” within the gay community, before going on to claim that gay men “kicked out straight women” like herself during the body’s early years in the late 1980s.

Cusack questioned whether ACON provided adequate services for HIV-positive people who were not gay men, claimed she feels “looked down on by the gay community” and asked Parkhill if he agreed that “gay attitudes towards women are a problem”.

Cusack is a member of the Standing Committee on Social Issues, a panel of six state Upper House members that is investigating the legal viability of proposed state-based same-sex marriage legislation. ACON was giving evidence to the committee in that capacity when Cusack began her line of inquiry.

Speaking to the Star Observer, Cusack defended the relevance of her questions, saying they “arose from the evidence” ACON gave about the need for inclusiveness to improve mental health in the gay community.

“I found it ironic. That message of inclusiveness resonated with me, so I asked whether the gay community was as inclusive of outsiders as it wishes the broader community to be,” she said.

Cusack recounted her experience as an ACON member in the 1980s, claiming that the organisation had “not been inclusive of people with AIDS who aren’t gay”.

“I wasn’t involved in any substantive way, but I felt it was important to support the cause. They decided not to renew the membership of a lot of people and I got the impression we were dumped because we weren’t gay,” she said.

Cusack also called the treatment of women by the state Young Liberal Party movement “absolutely pitiful,” claiming they were excluded from “political cliques you need to access in order to progress your career”.

“Women in the Young Liberal movement have really struggled – I was the first female Young Liberal President in NSW, and there have only been three female presidents in the 30 years since. On the other hand we’ve had maybe 10 gay Young Liberal presidents since then.”

Cusack said she has no intention of following up with ACON, saying her comments were “unpremeditated” but that she stands by them.

“I felt bad for Nicolas – this was before his time and I didn’t mean to lump it all on him – but there’s a bigger principle. Women and gay men both have a tough time of it, and I think we need to be supportive of each other. A lot of women support the gay community really strongly, and I honestly don’t feel that’s reciprocated.”

Cusack added that she has “done a lot for gay rights in NSW,” saying she has “always supported equality and will always vote that way”.

She was one of six Liberal Party MPs who last year voted in favour of a gay marriage motion in the state’s Upper House.

Social Issues Committee chair and Nationals MLC Niall Blair also raised concerns about the role of women in the same-sex marriage campaign, questioning the fact that no women were among the eight representatives of the three pro-gay marriage organisations – ACON, the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby and Australian Marriage Equality – invited to present at the hearing.

ACON CEO Nicolas Parkhill said the line of questioning came as a shock considering the purpose of the hearing and defended ACON’s record.

“ACON was founded by the gay community for the gay community in response to the HIV epidemic. Its very essence is as a gay organisation – some of our first meetings were held at the Midnight Shift. I wouldn’t know what motivated those comments, but I think they relate to some personal experience,” he said.

Parkhill also questioned the assertion that the gay community had a problem with women.

“I think there’s always room for improvement for how women are treated in society, but to characterise the gay community as having some sort of issue over and above the rest of society I think was unnecessary.”

AME national director Rodney Croome, however, conceded that AME “made a mistake” in not including a female representative in its four-member delegation.

“There are lots of high-profile advocates for marriage equality who are women, but we didn’t illustrate that by having women speaking to the importance of this reform. All of the organisations that appeared need to be more aware of that so we don’t open ourselves up to that criticism,” Croome said.

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