Originally published in FUSE, June 2011
Around the world, GLBTI people are having increased influence on the political stage. More GLBTI people are now being elected to higher political positions, and in doing so are breaking down some of the barriers put up against queer people who want to enter the political field. Yet, as the number of GLBTI Parliamentarians increases, so does the challenges queer people face when they enter the political world.
The influence of GLBTI politicians is increasing. In 2009 Iceland elected Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir to the position of Prime Minister, becoming the first openly gay or lesbian head of Government in the modern era. In Australia, GLBTI politicians are breaking new heights every year. Australia now has an openly gay leader of major party (Bob Brown for the Greens), an openly lesbian Finance Minister (Penny Wong) and an openly gay deputy Chief Minister (Andrew Barr in the ACT).
Yet, our political system still places many barriers in front of people who want to get involved and be open about their sexuality. The stigma around homosexuality and politics is still extremely present, with many being forced to hide about their sexuality or face the continued hatred of many due to their sexual preferences.
Politicians in Australia are still expected to live up to the traditional family model to succeed. For example, Julia Gillard not being married has caused significant problems for her throughout her career, and talk about a potential future marriage is constantly popping up in the media. Some parts of the media and community seem constantly obsessed with the marital status of our politicians, as if that is an indicator of their abilities in the political world. It is still expected that politicians will be straight, married and to fit the traditional family mould.
In this context, GLBTI politicians face the fact that due to their sexuality they are unable to fit within the traditional family mould. Queer politicians often face intense discrimination in the political world, with rumours, innuendo and accusations about sexual misdeeds following them wherever they go. For example, the former majority leader of US House of Representatives, Dick Armey, once famously referred to influential gay Democrat, Barney Frank, as ‘Barney Fag’. For Frank, as with other queer politicians, his sexuality has followed him wherever his career has taken him.
It is only the GLBTI politicians that are able to conform in some way to traditional values about how they run their relationships that are able to, in some way, avoid this discrimination. You rarely see a GLBTI politician (or any other politician for that manner) who doesn’t face ongoing community or media discrimination, whilst not being in, or having plans to be in a long term, monogamous, relationship. The idea of bisexual politician for example, who is able to be active sexually with both men and women and still be successful, is simply impossible.
It is good to see GLBTI politicians rising in the ranks of the political field. Yet, we cannot expect that an increase in the numbers and power of these people will lead to significantly better results for queer people. GLBTI politicians are still required to play the role of the traditional family life to be able to enter the political elite and be successful and are therefore are unable to challenge the very nature of the heteronormative society through their political system. Whilst this is not a criticism of GLBTI politicians and lifestyle choices they make, if we are to support these politicians and the many others who wish to follow, we must not just do so through standing up for them in Parliament but through challenging the very nature of our political situation to remove the idea that there is one ideal ‘family mould’ that you have to confirm to to be successful.