Whatever your position on the Greens or outgoing leader Bob Brown, there is no doubt he’s made a considerable contribution to gay rights reforms, not only in Tasmania, but across Australia.
Saying he was the first publicly gay man in Tasmania (Brown came out in the Launceston Examiner in 1976) doesn’t mean much these days, but one can only imagine the personal hardships associated with that particular claim to fame.
Homosexuality was still illegal in most Australian states and decriminalisation in Tasmania was two decades away.
Brown must certainly be built of tough stuff. Fielding questions from journalists following his resignation last week, Brown responded to one query about whether the bruising debate on the carbon tax had played any part in his decision to call it quits.
He appeared slightly amused at the suggestion and went on to explain the talk-back fury and ‘convoys of no confidence’ pale in comparison to the frightening personal abuse he received as an openly gay man (and an environmentalist) standing for office in a state where homosexuality was still illegal.
As fellow Tasmanian and long-time gay activist Rodney Croome says, it’s hard to put the feeling of hatred towards homosexuals at that time into words.
“You only have to look at the gay law reform debate in Tasmania and look at how protracted and angry it was and how deep the homophobia was in some parts of Tasmania,” Croome said.
Brown was elected to the Tasmanian Assembly in 1983. By the time he was elected to the Senate in 1996, the federal stage must have been something of a welcome relief.
“We’re talking about a situation where there were state MPs, particularly in the [Tasmanian] Upper House, calling to track down and wipe out homosexuals and for the re-introduction of the death penalty for homosexuals,” Croome said.
“[Being openly gay in] Tasmania was like living in a police state and to be elected to public office, and for that to be the first time for that to happen in Australia, in Tasmania … it was unbelievable.”
Perhaps one of the most important offerings from Brown, as far as his ability to shift minds on gay issues, is his air of the ordinariness of his own sexuality.
For Croome, Brown’s early openness galvanised him and others to keep pushing until rights were won.
“I can’t begin to describe how inspiring that was for young people like me, to see a gay man, not only living happily in Tasmania, but changing Tasmania for the better,” he said.
Croome believes the community owes Brown a great deal of gratitude for his fight for gay rights. I don’t suppose he’s wrong.