WHEN Dr George Duncan was found dead near a gay beat on the banks of Adelaide’s River Torrens in the early 70s, the mystery surrounding his murder galvanised a movement that led to South Australia becoming first Australian state to decriminalise homosexuality in August 1975.
Little did the activists at the time know that just weeks after the 40th anniversary of that landmark reform, Greens Senator Robert Simms would become the first openly-gay man sworn in to represent South Australia in Federal Parliament.
[showads ad=MREC]”As a gay man in politics, I reflect on the real bravery of activists decades ago who risked things like jail for being who they are and taking a stand,” he said, speaking to the Star Observer ahead of his maiden speech in the Senate yesterday (scroll down to watch).
“I definitely salute them, I wouldn’t be in this position as a gay politician and be open about my sexuality without their bravery. This 40th anniversary is an opportunity for us to celebrate that, and also look at the other stuff we’ve still got to achieve.”
Before he replaced recently-retired South Australian Greens Senator Penny Wright a couple of weeks ago, Simms served as a councillor for Adelaide City Council and adviser to fellow Greens senators Scott Ludlam and Sarah Hanson-Young.
The 31-year-old was also heavily involved in student unionism during his university days before going on to serve on community organisation boards, such as the former AIDS Council of South Australia. He was also working on a PhD about the Australian Greens, which he has now withdrawn from.
“I think it’s pretty ambitious to try and do my PhD while trying to get my head around the new job,” he joked.
Simms said he will be working closely with his colleague, Victorian Greens Senator Janet Rice, on their shared LGBTI portfolio for the Greens. Simms will focus on sexuality issues, while Rice — whose longterm partner is a trans woman — will focus on gender diversity issues and continue to be deputy chair of the Parliamentary Friendship Group for LGBTI Australians.
“She has a passion, she has been doing a lot of work on issues around gender identity, and in particular looking at trans* issues, so it makes sense to allow her to continue to be doing that work,” Simms said, explaining why the Greens’ federal LGBTI portfolio was split.
Among the various LGBTI issues he planned on addressing in Federal Parliament, he said marriage equality was a top priority.
“There’s no reason to spend millions of dollars — taxpayer’s money — on a plebiscite when you can actually legislate for it now,” he told Star Observer.
“Homophobia, particularly in schools, is another key issue. I know that’s something that’s been getting a bit of attention and I’d really like to elevate that and continue to focus on that.
“There are also issues like discrimination in aged care facilities that I think are really critical… and issues around anti-discrimination legislation and religious exemptions that I’d like to look at.”
While Simms welcomed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull‘s public support for marriage equality, he implored the Coalition to adopt a “change of direction” in their no-conscience vote binding policy now that Tony Abbott has been demoted to the back bench.
“I think people would expect Malcolm Turnbull to actually deliver on what he’s said,” Simms said.
“[Recently] he’s been distancing himself from the position he had previously and one of the reasons I think the Liberal Party turned to Malcolm Turnbull was because he identified with a particular style of leadership and policies.
“I think if the Liberals go down a path with the same old policies wrapped up in a different package, that’s not going to satisfy people. They really need to change direction.”
On the topic of PrEP, Simms was hesitant to speak at length about it.
He said he knew there were lots of different views on the issue, and wanted to consult with the community before advocating to have PrEP more readily accessible via approval by the Therapeutic Goods Administration and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.
“Anything that reduces the risk of transmission of HIV should certainly be considered and prioritised, and we should be doing what we can to encourage safe sex practices,” he told the Star Observer.
“But in terms of products on the market and that kind of stuff, I would like an opportunity to consult with stakeholders and the community around it before saying ‘I’m going to do X, Y and Z’ on the issue.”
Simms acknowledged that he is now the third openly-gay federal parliamentarian, alongside WA Liberal Senator Dean Smith and Labor Senator and fellow South Australian Penny Wong. With this in mind, the Star Observer asked if it was time to have a federal front bench equivalent to Victoria’s dedicated Equality Minister.
“I think it does make sense to elevate that position and to have a member of the front bench in every single party that focuses specifically on those issues,” Simms said.
“We know that there are aspects of politics that impact LGBTI people and ensuring that they looked at specifically is really important.
“We have seen a change in community attitude, change in policies in recent years and that’s really terrific — but we also know there’s still a lot of discrimination [and] homophobia is still a big issue. So having leadership among all the political parties is really critical.”
Simms went on to say that his own coming out journey while growing up in Adelaide’s suburbs was one of the driving forces behind his political philosophy.
“I sometimes get frustrated when people tell me my sexuality is a non-issue. The reality is, it’s still not a ‘non-issue’,” he said.
“You can’t change that unless you actually have people who are in positions of influence or have some level of public profile and are being up front about it and talking about to bring about change.”[showads ad=FOOT]