Australia’s newest out gay member of Parliament Stephen Bates had a powerful message in his maiden speech on Wednesday – representation matters. 

Bates is one of the eight out members in the House of Representatives and the Senate in Australia’s new Parliament. The others are Australia’s foreign minister Senator Penny Wong, Senator Loiuse Pratt, Senator Dean Smith, Senator Janet Rice, Senator Nita Green, MP Julian Hill and MP Angie Bell.

Trigger Warning: This story discusses mental health and suicide, which might be distressing to some readers. For 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For Australia-wide LGBTQI peer support call QLife on 1800 184 527 or webchat.

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“If you cannot see it, you cannot be it,” said Greens MP Bates in an emotional speech in Parliament, during which he had to pause, take deep breaths and steady his voice at various moments to keep his emotions in control. 

Two Pivotal Moments

The 29-year-old former retail worker and former head of the National Retail Association, said there were two pivotal moments in his life. 

“There have been two pivotal moments for me that have shaped who I am and what my politics is. My experiences of working poverty wage jobs, and my coming out as gay. Both impacted me deeply and forever changed how I saw the world,” said Bates. 

Bates said he did not come from a wealthy family – his father was a musician and his mother had a career in ballet. Before his election win, all his jobs had been as a frontline retail and hospitality worker. 

Working at Disneyworld in the US and seeing a co-worker break down over having to make a choice between paying rent or buying insulin, informed his choice to fight for the rights of workers and other disadvantaged people. 

“As I stand in this chamber today, I acknowledge that I am just one voice, that I have a responsibility to the community of Brisbane who sent me here, to young people across the country who expect much of me, and to the queer community that I’m proud to be a part of.”

 

Growing Up Gay

Bates grew emotional talking about his teenage years, growing up as gay and being in the closet. 

“I spent my teenage years knowing I was gay and doing everything in my power to hide it,” said Bates. 

“I told myself, I would force myself to get married to a woman, have kids and live in the suburbs. Because that is what you did. That is what you had to do. That is what was expected of me.”

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The MP talked about his supportive family and the role they played in his life. “I was lucky enough to have a very, very supportive family to come out to. But I spent years hiding myself because I could not see anyone in my world who was openly gay,” said Bates. 

“I made a promise to myself once I came out that if I ever found myself in a public role, that I would be open and proud of who I am and hence the rainbow gear,” said Bates pointing to the rainbow-winged Ibis on his lapel. “I would be that person that I never saw growing up because if I can help even one person out there, then my life will have been worth it.” 

Not Enough To Wave A Rainbow Flag

Bates recalled the email that he received from the mother of a 14-year-old child during the election campaign. 

“A letter from me in her mailbox just happened to mention my partner Scott,” said Bates. “Her 14 year old son wanted to donate some of his pocket money to our campaign. When she asked him why he said he had read the letter and wanted me to win. Because if you cannot see it, you cannot be it.” 

Bates spoke out against tokenistic gestures towards the LGBTQI community.  “It is not enough to wave a rainbow flag when it is politically convenient. Our community deserves tangible legislation that protects us from discrimination and empowers us to be who we are,” said Bates. 

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The MP spoke about Maya, daughter of one of his constituents, who took her life earlier this year, and her battles to access mental health care support. “It is my job now to make sure that Maya’s death was not in vain.”

Too Young For Politics?

The Greens MP outlined the issues that he would be work on during his first term in Parliament, including climate change, expanding Medicare to cover dental and mental health care, public housing, free child care, restoring free TAFE and wiping out student debt. 

“It is my duty as the member for Brisbane to fight for my community and make sure no one is left behind,” affirmed Bates. “I am so proud to have been elected by a diverse and vibrant community to be their representative in this Parliament.

“I’ve heard many times that I’m too young for politics, and I don’t seem like a politician, which is a compliment.  But it is these traits that got me here today. This election has shown that the people of this country are done with the status quo. Our parliament is becoming more and more representative of the people who vote to send us here. And I hope that my election can inspire those who are told they shouldn’t be in Parliament, especially young people, to get involved and to run for office,” added Bates.



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