In Defense of Senator Penny Wong, “Australia’s Worst Lesbian”

The gay rights movement is such a baby in terms of civil rights movements, and lasting social change is often slow. It took SO LONG to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, which made the queer community pretty nervous — nobody wants bigots & homophobes controlling the process of change.

But sometimes that needs to happen.

Think about how long it took for women to get the vote, or for desegregation, or for the rights of indigenous groups to be recognised to the extent that they are today. Actually, the gay rights movement has achieved a LOT in the forty-odd years it has been in existence, and now we’re in the hard part, the part that involves changing hearts and minds. This part, my friends, takes time.

To illustrate my point, I’d like to take you on a little trip to Australia, home of the Great Barrier Reef, Missy Higgins, Vegemite, Music Editor Crystal and (so I am told) v. cute accents. One thing we don’t have, however, is gay marriage. In the last couple of months, the debate around gay marriage has greatly intensified. A key figure in the debate has been Penny Wong, the Minister for Finance and Deregulation, and an out lesbian, who Queerty sometimes calls “Australia’s Worst Lesbian.”

Penny Wong

Cute, huh? Penny is a senator from South Australia, and Australia’s first openly gay Cabinet Minister. (Australian Cabinet. is not like Cabinet in the States; our Cabinet is appointed by the Prime Minster from elected Members of Parliament.) Penny is a member of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). which is the left-wing party. Now the ALP doesn’t support gay marriage. Neither does the other major party, the Australian Liberal Party. (contrary to you know, language, they are the right-wing party, it’s confusing). The Australian Labor Party presents a unified party line on political issues, and this line is developed through internal party processes. This means that they have their discussions behind closed doors, and when a decision is reached, they all stand behind it. In the case of gay marriage, the decision was reached at the 2009 ALP National Conference, where the left and right factions of the party made a deal to stick to the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act., precluding debate on the issue of gay marriage.There is one party that does support gay marriage, a minor party called the Australian Greens.. Are you confused about the system? Fair enough. Click here..

So back to Senator the Honourable Penny Wong. She’s been the target of lots of criticism for being a gay lady who refused to challenge the Labor Party on its stance on gay marriage. A lot of this criticism has been extremely personal, as well as racist, sexist and homophobic.

In 2004, under pressure from social conservatives and religious groups, the previous Government made an amendment to the Marriage Act 1961. to restrict the institution of marriage to “a union between a man and a woman”. Members of the Labor party have all stuck loyally to this decision, but during this last year, dissident voices from within the party have started publicly questioning the party’s stance. Until very recently, Senator Wong was not among them. I’ll let her explain why in her words:

By virtue of who I am, prejudice and discrimination are things I have some firsthand knowledge of and when I entered the parliament. I did actually think very carefully about how to handle being Asian and gay and in the parliament, because it hadn’t been done before, and I thought a couple of things… to be absolutely open about who I am, to never shy away from that and try to be dignified… I thought it was very important to show that you should never be ashamed of who you are, even when there are people who would try to make you be… there are a number of us in the party … who have worked very hard to try and improve the party’s position and policies on gay and lesbian Australians. And since that time I think you’ve seen progressive improvements… with the most comprehensive set of law reform in relation to gay and lesbian rights that the country has ever seen and we have delivered them all.

Those reforms she’s talking about? They were pretty massive. Because of them, same-sex couples get the same rights as de facto heterosexual couples. under federal law. This is huge, because de facto couples have almost all the rights of married couples.It means in practice that the parental rights of parents in same-sex relationships are recognised in the Family Law Act. Same-sex relationships now qualify as relationships for the purposes of social security payments to students, parents, jobseekers and those who are unable to work, as well as retirement pensions. Same sex relationships are recognised under the tax and Medicare. The changes to the laws regarding de facto partnerships mean that the gay and lesbian de facto spouses now need to be recognised as such in terms of medical decisions.

These are big reforms, reforms that make a massive difference to the quality of the lives of gay and lesbian Australians, and Penny Wong was, by all accounts, an instrumental member of a small group of Australian politicians who worked to ensure the reforms happened.

Are they perfect? No. Do they go far enough.? To my mind, no. However, they were brought in with minimal opposition and minimal fanfare, and they have exponentially improved the legal rights and recognitions of gay and lesbian Australians. I don’t believe that these reforms would have been possible if there had been a concurrent debate about gay marriage taking place. Not because there was a lack of support for the changes – major and minor parties alike voted in favour of the reforms – but because a debate about gay marriage would have become so politicised and polarised that it would have eclipsed and probably prevented these reforms.

Now this piece started out about Penny Wong’s refusal to publicly support gay marriage. But, in the middle of writing it, she came out to support calls for the Labor party to change its stance.:

I will be advocating for our party to support equality including to in relation to marriage of same-sex couples and I do so because I have a deeply held commitment to equality.

Senator Wong has been a driving force in creating reform for gay and lesbian Australians, and part of her ability to be the instigator of reform stems from the fact that she has chosen to refrain from advocating for gay marriage. She has picked her timing carefully, (to mix a metaphor) waiting to play her cards, and when she felt the time was right, she struck.

The current political climate, with a hung Parliament giving minor parties (like the pro-gay marriage Greens) more power both within the Parliament and in terms of the ability to shape the public debate, gay marriage is suddenly a big political issue. The timing is right. Gay marriage is going to be on the agenda at next year’s ALP National Conference, and so far, signs are pointing towards a change in policy. We’ve got Penny publicly in our corner now, and that’s a lot. We’re well placed for the next fight.

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Julia has written 4 articles for us.

45 Comments

  1. Thanks for this write-up. Try as I might to keep up with gay rights issues the wide world over, it’s not always possible. I have some friends in Australia, though, so I’m happy both for their sake and the sake of the Aussies I *don’t* know (which is, y’know, a lot of people with cute accents).

  2. I laughed out loud at this post’s title, no joke.

    Something I think it’s important for readers who are not familiar with Australian politics to understand – politics in this country is such a chess game. Even more so, I’d argue, than in the US (and I say this as a US voter who follows US politics as closely as one can from across the Pacific Ocean). I think it has to do with the nature of party politics here being so much more opaque than in the US, for better or worse.

    So I think Wong’s political maneuvering is just part of the Australian political game, and while it looks really suss to us outsiders, we don’t know what went on behind those closed doors at the party meetings.

    At the same-sex marriage rallies I’ve been to at Sydney, I’ve been really disheartened to hear the cries of “traitor!” that inevitably start up whenever Wong’s name comes up.

    • Oh, and I meant to mention that I am SO FREAKING GRATEFUL that we have defacto rights now. It’s not perfect, and it’s no place to stop having the conversation, but for the time being, I’m really glad I have those protections.

      • Well said Dina (as always!)
        I have to agree that it is disheartening to hear her name slandered soooo often.
        People seem to forget that being part of a Party (which ever side it may be) means you are essentially a part of a “team”. Even if you don’t agree with everything that your team does, you gotta run with it otherwise you will get kicked off.
        So even if the girl playing left-half-back is a total bitch and is always coming up with dumb ideas, which everyone agrees with (only because she is pretty and sparkly) you have to go along with it too. Yes you may fight like cat and dog in the locker room, BUT you have to put on a ‘united front’ when out in public.
        Penny Wong is stuck in the middle so to speak. Yes she obviously has her own personal views, and I am sure she voices them when appropriate. But at the end of the day she is part of a team and has to go along with the party line (or at least most of it until she convinces them that its a douchey party line)…
        Of course there is the option of running as an “independant” but usually that acheives verrrry little and people assume that you are a complete nutjob…

  3. great article!

    i don’t think it helped penny wong that during her time as climate change minister her emissions trading scheme policy got shot down 2 or 3 times, maybe because she was secretly working on gay law reforms. pretty awesome though.

    speaking of the 2004 amendment to the marriage act, i really really really hate that the celebrant or whoever specifically has to say, ‘Marriage, according to law in Australia, is the union of a man and a woman TO THE EXCLUSION OF ALL OTHERS, voluntarily entered into for life’. and therefore i don’t like weddings because they seem intrinsically discriminatory after that. fucking philip ruddock. i wish everyone would chuck a brad and angelina and not get married at least until those offending words are removed. /rant

    • I really really really hate it too. I was at a wedding this past weekend and heard the official line for the first time – the “to the exclusion of all others” part shred my little homo heart into a thousand pieces.

      Awesome article Julia, thanks so much.

      • For a lot of people, this shit is a key aspect of heterosexuality, so it makes sense that they would say it at their wedding. Many heterosexuals don’t have an identity as far as their love/sexuality/relationship selves go. They can only grasp blindly at an identity when defining themselves in relation to gay people, and the way they typically do that is to define themselves as being superior to/dominant over us. A wedding cements your legitimacy as a valid person, i.e. a heterosexual. There’s an occasional heterosexual who is a kind of John-n-Yoko type that doesn’t do this.

    • Unsurprising.

      I actually wish straight people did stuff like this more. Most of the time they don’t have the balls/ovaries to say shit to my face.

      If anyone reading this is a heterosexually married Australian (or is planning to become one) and said/will say this during the ceremony, speak up.

      • just to clarify it’s not the people getting married who say it but the marriage celebrant or priest officiating the wedding says it as part of the ceremonial legalese, but obviously there is implicit condoning of it by the parties involved.

        I wonder how many straight people hear that during their wedding rehearsal and call the whole thing off HAHA HA anyone want to take bets?

      • There are people who try to do stuff to mitigate it – including pro-gay wording in the surrounding readings, saying something around it to show that the couple doesn’t agree, etc. (Here’s a post with comments saying what some equality-minded couples have done about it.)

        Technically if you explicitly say anything that detracts from the monitum the marriage could be found invalid, but of course some people do omit certain words or have the celebrant say something like “that’s the law, but it’s not what the couple thinks.”

    • I thought “to the exclusion of all others” meant you couldn’t be married to more than one person at a time. A union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others. makes sense.

      • The “exclusion of all others” bit does kind of mean that, but it has to be said in conjunction with the “between a man and a woman” bit, and you only have to say that bit since AFTER the amendment to the Marriage Act. Before that there was nothing about restricting the genders. That is the key issue.

      • I knew I should have thought about how old was that Tim Minchin song, oh well. yay lady PM
        Maybe not relevant i grant you, but you take everything you can get to distinguish between politicians. For example, my president is small, and a jerk 😀 and I keep confusing Nick Clegg/David Cameron.

  4. My inexplicable love for Missy Higgins is finally explained. I didn’t know she was ‘not so straight’ until I read her name in the article and googled ‘Missy Higgins gay’ (um..sorry to lower the tone of an otherwise serious piece).

    Also, great article. Being from New Zealand, where we have civil unions for heteros and homos alike as well as equal rights for same sex de facto partners, it is always interesting to hear about the progress of the gay marriage debate in neighbouring Aussie.

    • waitwaitwhat? New Zealand has civil unions for heteros and homos alike?
      This is like finding out that unicorns exist, Ellen Page is gay, and chocolate is now a fruit, vegetable, and source of protein. I had no idea such magical lands existed.

      • Also de facto relationships are the same for all couples (basically only relevant wrt property rights in the event of a break-up), IDK, it’s not that flash though, it was just the only politically viable compromise (apparently) at the time (2001). While making civil unions open to all couples takes away a little bit of the separate-but-equal thing, IMO it still lacks quite a bit. (Also there’s the adoption thing which is sort of convoluted and boring.)

  5. Ok, so why the heck do we even have marriage? I advocate civil unions for EVERYONE, and if you want to get married, find a church to do it so your invisible friend of choice can beam his/her/its love down upon you. Marriage is a religious ceremony in which the state has NO PART.

  6. As someone from Malaysia and is gay, you have no idea how amusing it is to think about what the idiot politicians in my country think about her. And wonder about whether she could come back and change the country, of course.

  7. I can’t contain myself . . . it was John Howard who made that ammendment to the marriage act, and that is just one of the many fucked up backward things that he did! He also cut funding to many women’s organizations and even completely dismantled some of them. And he was in power for what, eleven years? Sometimes i’m ashamed to be Australian.

    /end rant

  8. Pingback: More women in politics: Penny Wong edition

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