On Sunday, Victorian Greens Senator Janet Rice announced via Facebook that her wife, Dr Penny Whetton, has passed away suddenly but peacefully at their house in Sisters Beach, Tasmania.
“She was alone, having arrived at Sisters on Tuesday to spend a week or two while I was in Canberra,” Rice wrote.
“The last anyone heard from her was early Wednesday evening, and she was found on Thursday morning, still sitting on the couch, computer on her lap.
“She was in her favourite spot in one of her favourite places in the world – a lovely place to pass away, but just 20 years too early!”
Whetton was a renowned climate scientist who led CSIRO’s national climate projections work for 22 years until 2014, and was the lead author in three Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, including the fourth assessment report which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.
“She was deeply angry about current politics that is hurtling us to avoidable climate crisis,” Rice said in her post, “and deeply worried about the damage being done and the future prospects for our precious natural world. She was so worried about the coming summer.”
Rice and Whetton met at university and were married in 1986. After several years of marriage, Whetton admitted to Rice that she was transgender.
“It’s been with me as long as I could remember,” Whetton told the ABC in 2017,
“I hoped it would go away when I met Janet but it was always there and it worked its way back and I had to address it.”
Even though she feared it would end her marriage, she began her journey to become the woman she knew she was inside, and underwent gender affirmation surgery in 2003.
“I was afraid for years by even admitting to this that it would lead to the end of the relationship, that’s why it took me so long because the relationship was so incredibly important.”
When Rice was first elected to office, media interest in their marriage was considerable – but it wasn’t until years later, when the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey was announced, that the two took a more public role together.
“In the first years after my transition it would have been harder for me to have a public role,” Whetton told JOY 94.9’s Word for Word in 2018.
“But ten years or more [later] there is no reason for me not to speak.
“The way I live my life is to take things as they come, and this seems to be the time to open up about this.”
Rice wrote: “Penny and I had been a team for almost 38 years. She was my rock, my best friend, my biggest fan. She was proud of me and I of her.
“We journeyed with her in her gender affirmation, and loved her all the more. She was a role model and an inspiration for so many trans and gender diverse people.
“It’s still not real. I can’t imagine life without her. I know so many of her friends and colleagues feel the same. We’ll get through I suppose, but we will miss her so so much.”
The Rice-Whetton family have set up a memorial fund to support revegetation and erosion control work at Sisters Beach in North West Tasmania, a place that was very dear to Whetton.
Sisters Beach is surrounded by the Rocky Cape National Park and is home to birds and animals including hooded plovers and eastern barred bandicoots.
The beach and costal reserve are be impacted by rising sea levels, and the fund will provide much needed support to local coast care organisations working to protect and revegetate areas of the precious coastal and riverside landscape at Sisters Beach.