Greens leader Christine Milne has spoken out about the personal side to her fight for gay rights in the lead up to the Sydney Mardi Gras parade, where she’ll be marching in the Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) float alongside her openly gay son, Tom.
“I got the idea after I went to Toowoomba for [ABC program] Q&A,” she told the Star Observer.
“A young man in the audience spoke about how hard it was to be gay in a country town. He was shaking like a leaf, and I thought how challenged and unsupported he must feel.
“I want young gay kids in rural communities like him to know there’s at least one mum who thinks they’re terrific. I think there’s a nice symbolism in being on the PFLAG float in that way – if I’m a mum to one gay son, I’m a mum to many.”
Tom Milne grew up in rural Tasmania while his mother battled against widespread homophobia in Tasmanian society and state Parliament.
“When I became a [Tasmanian] senator in 1989, Thomas was about four or five. I always made sure he knew he was in a house that loved and supported gay people, because it was just vicious when he was growing up,” she said.
‘Vicious’ might be putting it lightly. During the protests and demonstrations that brought Tasmania’s anti-gay laws into the public eye in the late 1980s, Milne faced anger and death threats from conservative opponents – a highlight was Liberal politician Michael Hodgman calling her “the mother of teenage sodomy”.
While both Tasmania and Australia have come a long way since then, Milne is still frustrated at the pace of progress.
“It’s such a joy to see the vast majority of Australians getting behind gay rights after so long, but there are still a substantial number of people in Parliament who think that gay people are somehow ‘not normal’ and can be made ‘right’ with counselling or whatever,” she said.
“To see the Cory Bernardi types stand there and go on, saying that parents somehow turned their children gay and can turn them back, I can’t bear it.”
It’s not just hard-right Liberals Milne has little time for. She lays the blame for Australia’s continued failure to legalise same-sex marriage firmly at the feet of the Australian Labor Party and Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
“Julia Gillard has no coherent reason to oppose gay marriage. She’s extremely socially conservative, she doesn’t have an environmental bone in her body, she doesn’t have a progressive social or environmental agenda at all. She opposes it purely for factional reasons and she’s on the wrong side of history.”
Milne reserves special disdain for the socially conservative Labor powerbroker and long-time opponent of gay marriage, Joe de Bruyn.
“He told the Australian Christian Lobby in a speech that 80 per cent of the Labor caucus would support marriage equality if they could. He and the ALP Right turned it into an issue of the Prime Minister’s leadership; many Labor MPs voted against it because they didn’t want the Prime Minister to suffer a major defeat,” she said.
“That was why Labor backbenchers put up marriage equality bills in the first place, to kill momentum for the issue going into an election year.”
Despite the likely prospect of an Abbott Liberal government come September, Milne has no intention of letting gay marriage fall off the national radar as the federal election draws nearer.
“We’re going to keep it on the agenda because no one else will. We were fighting for gay rights long before it reached the mainstream, and a lot of us have taken an awful lot of flak over the years, but we did it because it’s the right thing to do.
“If the Greens aren’t holding the balance of power in the Senate after the election, there will be no voice for progressive social policy in Australia, including gay marriage.”
Even with the failure of same-sex marriage bills so far, Milne remains optimistic about the long-term prospects of the movement, placing faith in young gay people who, like her son, have grown up more confident in their identities than those who came before them.
“The young gay activists who really drive it on the ground are inspiring – they give me the strength to keep fighting. I’d love to bookend my career with gay reform on both ends, that’d be something to look forward to.”