Next Monday Australian political history will be made when the first Asian woman takes her place in the senate.
It will also be a historic occasion because the woman in question, South Australian Labor senator Penny Wong, is known to be a lesbian.
Known but not personally confirmed. Wong was quietly outed in an Adelaide Advertiser article on the weekend and sources in the city of churches say she has long been open about her sexuality.
In a feature story about Wong and fellow senate newcomer Linda Kirk, Advertiser reporter Samantha Maiden wrote: In Labor circles, it is also well known Senator Wong is gay, a fact she would prefer to leave as a private matter.
According to her media staff, Wong was too busy preparing for parliament this week to speak to the Star. Wong’s spokesperson said he might be able to organise an interview after her maiden speech on Wednesday 21 August, but stressed the politician would speak only on politics and policy, not her personal life.
As one of two openly gay men in the Australian parliament, Democrats senator Brian Greig said he sometimes felt under pressure to represent the gay and lesbian community.
In some ways it’s a duty. I feel if you are comfortable in your sexuality it’s important to present yourself as a role model, he said.
Greig said the decision whether to come out or not should have been left to Wong herself -“ he would not support the outing of a public figure unless they were actively working against the gay and lesbian community.
And he said he had no problem with politicians who weren’t out on the front foot but still supported gay and lesbian issues.
My strong criticism is of those closeted people who attack and criticise gay and lesbian people. There are a number of gay and lesbian people in the coalition who must be very uncomfortable with the strong anti-gay sentiment coming out of that party.
His thoughts were echoed by Anthony Schembri from the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, who said the Lobby did not support the notion that every person in the public eye should have their sexuality put on the public record.
People are entitled to a degree of privacy that we all need to respect, he said.
Schembri hoped the new senator would be supportive of gay and lesbian law reforms, but did not expect her to become a new voice for the community: Being a lesbian doesn’t automatically make you a spokesperson for gay and lesbian issues.
Rainbow Labor co-convenor Kirsty Campbell said it was limiting to rely on the small number of openly gay and lesbian politicians for representation.
If one or two people who are in a position of understanding of these issues because of their own sexuality are solely put in the position of speaking about them, no other politicians get educated, or challenged about these issues, she said.
I think there’s some progressive politicians in parliament that do progress our issues, regardless of their sexuality. Looking to the few openly gay politicians to be absolute champions of gay and lesbian rights is very limiting.
In Penny’s case she also comes from a union background. She’s also an Asian woman, she’s also a young woman. There’s a huge amount of expectation on her. She’s going to face a fair bit of pressure and people are going to define her by these labels. I think it’s really, really important that she is allowed to be the person she is -“ a strong, articulate woman who will argue on a wide range of issues.
Campbell’s Rainbow Labor co-convenor Ryan Heath agreed Wong’s entry into the Australian parliament was a massive leap forward.
And he said he expected the new senator would be supportive of gay and lesbian issues.
But it’s one thing to support members of the community and another to create an expectation that you are going to be the one person to fix everything.