Adrian Foon writes:
When I first read about Penny Wong’s comments on same-sex marriage, I was extremely disappointed — and, truth be told, angry. Here was a high-ranking cabinet minister who also happened to be gay. Yet here she was, proclaiming a need to respect one particular “cultural, religious, historical” view of marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
I wasn’t the only one who felt disappointed. Bob Brown claimed he was horrified. Tim Dick of the Sydney Morning Herald wrote passionately about Wong’s failure of nerve. This morning, Samantha Maiden has commented on abuse hurled at Penny Wong from within the gay community.
Meanwhile, the condemnations on Twitter and elsewhere rang loudly against Wong’s betrayal of the gay community.
By the time she appeared on Q&A on Monday, the attack had reached fever-pitch. When, inevitably, she was called on to discuss same-sex marriage, her words were measured — but also, I think, heartfelt.
She began by talking about her first days in Canberra, when she had “to think very carefully about how to handle being Asian and gay and in the parliament, because it hadn’t been done before.” Speaking about her own experience, she observed: “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 — Anthony Albanese, Tanya [Plibersek], others — who have worked very hard to try and improve the party’s position and policies on gay and lesbian Australians,” she said.
She went on to cite the slow but sure “modernisation” of the Labor Party’s platform from the National Conference in 1988 to 2008, when the government delivered the widest raft of legal reforms with respect to same-sex relationships the country has ever known: 85 of them, concerning “recognition of children of same-sex relationships under the Family Law Act, recognition of same-sex relationships as de facto law relationships under federal law, in veterans’ affairs in terms of Medicare access”.
Finally, Wong addressed the disappointment felt by people like me at her party’s position on same-sex marriage. “But what I would say to you is, do take a moment to consider what we have tried to do, what we have advocated for and what we have delivered for gay and lesbian Australians,” she declared.
I have considered the ALP’s past achievements, and I still think its present opposition to same-sex marriage is a mistake and an injustice.
But I can’t level all the criticism at Wong. After all, she isn’t her party’s leader, on whose shoulders the greatest responsibility for policy decisions must surely rest. And she’s certainly not the only person in Canberra who has publicly upheld a heterosexist view of marriage.
Indeed, there was something galling about the way she was attacked on Q&A for her comments about same-sex marriage when other active politicians on the panel have espoused similar views — namely, Malcolm Turnbull.
Now, Turnbull is a long-time advocate for gay rights — and I’ve seen him before, sharing drinks with his constituents at Mardi Gras. But, like Wong, Turnbull has never publicly supported same-sex marriage.
And yet, unlike Wong, he wasn’t subjected to fierce questioning on this issue. Instead, he was praised as some kind of “conviction warrior” for staking his party leadership last year on the ETS.
Turnbull wasn’t held to the same standard by which Wong was crucified. And that, it seems to me, was a double-standard. Should Turnbull be let off the hook on same-sex marriage, perversely, because he’s straight?
Wong has been subjected to ad hominem attacks for the broader failure of her party, and indeed of both major parties, to take up the mantle of marriage equity. Something similar happened recently to Elena Kagan, the US Supreme Court nominee whose sexuality and position on same-sex marriage have become the subject of intense speculation.
This ironically perpetuates an unseemly stereotype: that all gay people should automatically espouse the same views on everything.
Having said that, I strongly suspect that Penny Wong privately supports same-sex marriage. But I think she has chosen to fight many of her battles — on same-sex marriage, on the ETS — from within caucus, away from where you and I can see her, where she believes she has the best chance of gaining a consensus among her own party. She’s probably right.
I’m disappointed by Wong’s simple restatement, without any personal qualification, of her party’s view on same-sex marriage. I wish our leaders and representatives felt free to say what (I think) they really believe. But I also acknowledge that it takes different kinds of people to prosecute the case for reform, through various means and forums. There are parliamentarians, judges, activists and community members. There are the speech-givers and the behind-the-scenes operators. The martyrs, the great dissenters and even, yes, the Caucus members.
*Adrian Phoon is a writer based in Sydney with particular interest in sexuality, religion, education, and literature and the arts.