ONLY a couple of months shy of his 29th birthday, Chansey Paech has managed to achieve a pretty incredible feat – he is the first openly gay and Aboriginal person elected to parliament at a state, territory or federal level.
Paech was part of the winning Labor team in the Northern Territory that wrestled back power from the Country Liberal Party in a landslide victory.
He won the seat of Namatjira – a massive electorate which includes the surrounds of Alice Springs and the southern parts of the territory from the border of Queensland to Western Australia – with a 29.5 per cent swing in his favour.
Growing up in a remote part of Australia did not mean Paech lived in the closet, keeping his sexuality a secret. The Eastern Arrernte and Gurindji man always knew he was gay, never kept it a secret, but didn’t really talk about his sexuality until he was ready to enter the dating world.
“I always had my mainly straight friends, say ‘when you are you going to hurry up and come out’ and I would never deny it, I would say ‘I’ll come out when I’m ready to,” he remembers.
“This is going to sound really weird, I’d always known (I was gay), I didn’t really think about disclosing it, until I had become ready to consider dating and relationships. But I was always too busy with student politics and friends and all of that, I never thought about how I was going to tell people.”
When Paech did realise he would have to officially come out to people in his life, he did it by talking individually with people including his parents who were accepting, as were most people.
“There were always friends in my network that needed to take some time to process me coming out,” he explains.
“I think I was fortunate to understand the processes of going through those things. Some people had the religious faith to process.
“Some people came around and were accepting but some didn’t and it was awkward for a while.”
The process of coming can be rewarding or quite terrible, according to Paech.
“I don’t want to say it’s really soul destroying, it can by an anxious and unpleasant time for some and the advice I’d give to people is that you don’t have to do it on your own,” he says.
“But don’t let people define you by your sexuality, don’t let people hold you back.”
Paech believes he has been accepted so warmly by his family and friends because times have changed and there are now many people in his extended family who identify as LGBTI. He says the greater visibility of LGBTI people helps to “dilute homophobia”, even though it is something he has experienced on the campaign trail where some members of his opposing candidates’ teams allegedly told locals not to vote for him because he was gay.
“We had people telling us that they were coming out to the communities saying ‘don’t vote for him, he’s a gay,” he explains.
“But these people were saying, ‘we don’t care if he’s a gay, we just want new homes’.
“People in the political campaign were trying to discredit me because of my sexuality and it worked against them.”
The people of Namatjira don’t define Paech by his sexuality, nor does he, because the MP-elect wants to focus on issues important to his electorate. But he does admit his election is a landmark moment in Australia’s history.
“Becoming a member of parliament as a gay Aboriginal man is a good representation and reflects well on the Northern Territory and it sends a really good message to our young people.”
Paech says LGBTI Territorians want the same things as other Australians, but would like to see the same level of health services as in other parts of the country.
“I think there are some support mechanisms in the Northern Territory for our community to access, but we should have the same services as you do on the eastern seaboard,” he says.
“Parts are regional and remote but that’s no reason that we shouldn’t have the same level of services as other places. I want it to be that an LGBTI person doesn’t have to move interstate to access services.”
He believes the Federal Government should ditch the plebiscite and pass marriage equality in parliament, because so many Australians were in favour of it, including his mum who is pressuring him into settling down.
“We want the same things as heterosexual people, I want a stable life, a home and family. Gay people want the same things as ‘normal’ people,” he explains.
“My mum said to me ‘you’re 28, about to turn 29, you should really start thinking about having a kid and starting family.’”