National

Marriage focus for gay reform activists

A CATHOLIC family in the conservative and rural southern Queensland town of St George was not the first place you'd expect to meet a couple of gay blokes.

Graham Perrett, now a federal MP, was under the impression he did not know any homosexuals while growing up.

Marriage focus for gay reform activists
Marriage focus for gay reform activists 

At least he thought he didn't.

That was until two of his many knockabout brothers "came out" after they had left the small community.

Marriage focus for gay reform activists
Marriage focus for gay reform activists 

"The family was surprised, especially being Catholic," Mr Perrett said.

"One of them was a beefy footballer who played schoolboy rugby league for Queensland.

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"It surprised many of his teammates."

Mr Perrett, a heterosexual, said the place he grew up had a constant element of homophobia.

Indeed, he explained he can now look back and concede he too had a narrow view of the world of sexuality.

After discussions with his brothers, he believes a number of others they knew while growing up had also suppressed their sexual inclinations.

"I was very homophobic," he told the Sunday Canberra Times.

"Going back [to St George] now I see the repressed aspects, and the secrets and lies of that community."

Today - sitting around the Perrett dinner table at functions with the happy extended family - Mr Perrett, member of the House of Representatives for the seat of Moreton south of Brisbane, is ribbed by his two gay brothers about the Labor Party's stance on gay marriage.

"They're of the belief that times have moved on and the law should be changed."

Mr Perrett said he would gauge the opinion of his electorate and base any lobbying or voting he does on their opinions.

Leading his party is Julia Gillard, who is not pushing the gay marriage agenda.

Meanwhile, senior Labor Minister and Senator Penny Wong cannot marry because of Australian law.

She is gay but works for a government that has yet to legalise gay marriage. This past week she announced she and her partner, Sophie Allouache, would be having a baby thanks to a sperm donor.

Late last year the Finance Minister gave a speech to the ALP state conference in South Australia advocating gay marriage, explaining she had been brought up through much discrimination.

"Labor governments were responsible for abolishing the White Australia Policy, introducing the first land right legislation and the Disability Discrimination Act," she said at the time.

Mr Perrett, while understanding of the challenges facing two of his brothers and the wider gay community, said that he hadn't been asked to "lead the Mardi Gras" and nor would he.

"Perhaps one of the most memorable moments for me in the 2010 election campaign was watching a Vietnam veteran talking about his daughter who could not marry her [female] partner," Mr Perrett said.

Now he has the rare opportunity to look at the gay marriage debate from both sides: as a heterosexual who grew up in a conservative rural community and as someone who now knows he has two gay siblings.

He is wary that many Australians, especially those in his seat, have more pressing issues to worry about.

These include financial constraints and, in Queensland electorates such as his, the long-term job of repairing severe flood damage.

Other issues he says are getting more attention in his electorate are climate change, immigration and Centrelink payments.

Gay marriage has become the main focus of the same-sex equality movement in the lead-up to the Labor national conference later this year.

It comes at the expense of victories for them that appear to have been forgotten about by many. In fact, 80 laws have changed under Labor in favour of same-sex couples.

Dozens of reforms have come into play under the Labor Government since 2009.

Tax and superannuation reforms were introduced two years ago to include same-sex relationships.

Gay couples can now be recognised for social security and family assistance payments.

Same-sex couples can now access Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme as a "family". Gay couples with children who later separate can apply for child support.

Members of a same-sex couple family are now classed as being in the same "family unit" for visa purposes.

Veterans affairs welfare payments have also changed. Members of same-sex relationships can apply for widows or widowers pensions.

But the final symbolic victory is yet to happen. What is certain is that, whatever the outcome at the national Labor conference later this year, the Perrett family will have plenty to talk about at their gatherings in times to come.