If Greens councillor Rohan Leppert is elected lord mayor of Melbourne this year, it would make him the city’s first openly gay mayor. Matthew Wade caught up with him ahead of the city’s May by-election.

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As an openly gay Greens councillor in Melbourne, Rohan Leppert has received his fair share of anti-gay hate mail.

“I’ve learned to ignore it for the most part,” he says.

“And I’m not going to start complaining about being a gay man in politics, because I’ve had a pretty privileged experience.

“But I do want people to recognise that not everyone has the same opportunities in life, and not everyone is respected the same in society.”

Leppert was elected to Melbourne City Council six years ago and has recently decided to run for lord mayor, after allegations of sexual harassment forced longstanding Liberal mayor Robert Doyle to resign.

A by-election will be held in May and if Leppert is successful, he will become the first Greens mayor of an Australian capital city and the first openly gay mayor in Melbourne.

However, he’s quick to point out that he doesn’t want people to vote for him because of his sexuality, despite the fact it may better reflect the city’s diversity.

“The median age in Melbourne is 28, it’s a young and progressive city,” he says.

“I think a younger and non-conventional lord mayor might be a good thing, it would better represent some of the values and demographics in the city.

“My sexual orientation is mostly incidental, but it would be the first of its kind and I’m aware of that.”

As head of the city council’s arts, culture, and heritage portfolio, Leppert feels lucky to be able to partner with important LGBTI events and festivals throughout the year like Midsumma and the Melbourne Queer Film Festival.

Last year, he was particularly proud to be involved in the Coming Back Out Ball, an event at the town hall which helped bring visibility to older sexual and gender diverse Australians.

“The Coming Back Out Ball was just incredible, as was the way our local government was able to help change people’s lives,” he says.

“We help to make people feel truly valued in the city, people that perhaps haven’t always felt that, like older generations of LGBTI people.

“That’s what I love about [Melbourne]. We need to make sure there’s leadership and a voice championing those people, because everyone should have a place here.”

Leppert says part of the impetus behind his run for mayor is Melbourne’s current development boom.

“It’s the biggest since the gold rush,” he says.

“And I’ve always been passionate about making sure we’re designing a city that’s going to be sustainable and vibrant for future generations, so that everything we cherish now can be kept.

“I don’t think the government is doing enough at the moment.

“There’s so much more to be done – we don’t have an affordable housing policy in council because of the political makeup of the previous council, and I’d like to change that.”

He adds that on a federal level there isn’t enough support for minority communities, and believes this is something local governments are able to champion.

“The thing I absolutely love about this city is its diversity and ability to support people no matter what their background is,” he says.

“Everyone should have a place in Melbourne, and feel safe in their city.”

When it comes to issues affecting LGBTI people around the city, Leppert believes the passing of marriage equality last year has allowed the focus to be shifted onto other urgent forms of discrimination.

“I’m glad the [marriage] debate is out of the way so we can focus on other things,” he says.

“I think there’s still a completely unacceptable amount of stigma associated with the trans and intersex communities.

“A lot of work needs to be done by gay men in particular to better understand the issues facing trans and intersex people.

“Another issue close to my heart is HIV – cities have a strong role to play to make sure we’re talking about the health issues around transmitting HIV.”

While Leppert isn’t running for mayor because it would make him the first gay mayor in Melbourne, he does admit it would be “wonderful” if he could help inspire younger generations of LGBTI people interested in politics.

“I know for some people it can mean a lot to have people in public life who are openly queer, so that’s not lost on me,” he says.

“It’s an added bonus.”

Note: in the April 2018 issue of the Star Observer, we incorrectly stated that Leppert could become the first openly gay mayor in Australia, however, if successful, Leppert would be Melbourne’s first openly gay mayor. John Fowler was the first openly gay mayor of Sydney, and Bruce Notley-Smith was an openly gay mayor of Randwick.

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