“Of all the rights of women, the greatest is to be a mother”.- Lin Yutang, Chinese writer
The Australian people may know me as a politician but I am, and will always be, a mother first.
I am incredibly proud of both my sons and love them both equally and passionately.
Both my children were brought up in a household where there was a very clear ethic of no discrimination against anyone; an ethic of women’s rights and environmentalism.
The children were always aware that my close friend Bob Brown, former Leader of the Australian Greens, was a gay man and that wasn’t a matter of conversation in any shape or form – it was just totally accepted.
So unlike a lot of other young gay people, who go through the trauma of having to tell their families and worry about what the consequences might be at a family level, there was always total acceptance.
Both my ex-husband and I embraced the fact Tom (pictured with Christine) was gay. We never felt Tom was any different from his brother or his friends. Sexuality never came into it.
So when Tom came out at 15 or 16, the most confronting thing for him was the level of discrimination in the broader community.
When Tom was only four, I was elected to the Tasmanian Parliament. Back then there was much vitriolic anti-gay debate. In fact, LGBTI people were ostracised and subjected to abuse and discrimination. To be openly gay in Tasmania was very hard and made worse because you could be jailed for 21 years!
Both issues were central to the election in 1989 when Bob Brown and I ran with three other independents, on a platform including gay law reform. It was extremely nasty and divisive.
Being both an advocate of gay law reform and protection of forests and farmlands, as well as an anti pulp mill activist, like Bob Brown and so many others, I was the target of death threats and warnings that my family home was going to be burnt down.
I remember a time when I had a plain clothes police officer in my waiting room pretending to be a constituent and a police car parked in the driveway opposite my home.
At one stage the police rang and told me not to take the children home. These were very confronting times for gay activists and environmentalists alike, including my family.
I remember, not long after I was elected, a public meeting was called in my home town of Ulverstone to protest against gay rights. Some of the gay activists, including Rodney Croome, travelled from Hobart and very bravely tried to hand out information to those attending. The crowd chanted, Kill Them, Kill Them..
This is why I’m incredibly proud, after such a long struggle by so many, that it was my Private Members Bill that decriminalised homosexuality in Tasmania in 1997. I was the Leader of the Greens in Tasmania and used our position in balance of power with a minority Liberal government to make it happen. We went from having the worst laws in the Commonwealth in relation to the severity of punishment for, and discrimination against, gay, lesbian and transgender people to having the best laws.
As a politician this was a defining moment in my career, but on a personal level it was even more satisfying. I wanted to show my sons that if you have the courage to stand up for what you believe in, no matter how much the odds are against you, you can make a difference.
Although I didn’t know Tom was gay at that time, I certainly didn’t want him or any of his friends and peer group to grow up in a state where he could face the possibility of being sent to jail simply because of his sexuality.
This is a legacy that I am proud to leave for not only my son, but for everyone else’s children as well.
As a mother it is so important to me that my son can be openly and proudly gay without being discriminated against.
It is incredible that Tasmania has moved so far in the last 15 years. We almost became the first state in Australia to allow same-sex marriage with legislation being narrowly defeated in the state’s parliament last year.
This is the same place where I was labelled by a Liberal politician, Michael Hodgman as the “mother of teenage sodomy”. So it’s exciting to see so many Tasmanians and Australians throwing their support behind the push for marriage equality.
Unfortunately, I know that not all gay children have the same love and support that Thomas had.
During my career I have met thousands of gay people from all kinds of backgrounds and there are often many stories of heartache and tragedy where children have been rejected by their families for being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex.
I wish I could say that it doesn’t happen, but it does. It is particularly devastating for gay children from rural and regional backgrounds where communities tend to be more conservative right through to homophobic. It is sometimes too much for parents who want to be supportive but cannot face the gossip and judgement metered out by other people or even the Churches.
It breaks my heart when I hear these stories and I wish I could throw my arms around all of these children and say: “There are people who love and value you so never be ashamed of who or what you are.”
Last year I was on ABC TV’s Q and A program in Toowoomba in Queensland and a young gay man stood up in the audience and shared his struggles live on national television. He was shaking like a leaf and I was really rocked by that. I felt upset that he was struggling to cope with being gay because he did not have the support he needed.
I felt angry that in Queensland, even in 2012, it was still acceptable for an MP to say that there are no gay people in his electorate. This shouldn’t be happening in this century. We should be embracing people as they are and not how others think they should be.
It was this courageous young man and my son, Tom, who have inspired me to take part in the Sydney Mardi Gras this year.
I have often been part of the crowd, but this is the first time I will be marching proudly by my son’s side with the Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) float.
I am so proud that I can support my son at his event, and to send a message to all mums and dads that it is important to embrace your children regardless of their sexuality.
I am often asked by parents how I coped when I found out that my son was gay. It was never a matter of coping, I just accepted and embraced it. In fact I had probably intuitively known for quite some time before I became aware of it .
I love both my sons equally and their sexuality has never been an issue. There was never any moment where I felt shocked or disappointed about his sexuality – far from it, I am happy to have a gay son and his great friends are a real bonus.
The best advice I can give parents whose children are gay is to support them and love them all the same.
For some parents this maybe a more difficult issue to face than for others.. As parents we all worry about our children and want the best for them. There is no doubt that being gay can be a challenging experience for young people, which is why it is important to make them feel loved and accepted at home.
It’s also why we all have to stand against ignorance and discrimination in the community when we confront it. It’s why we need to be loudly and proudly supporting marriage equality and the end of discrimination in our country.
Sitting down as a family, talking through your fears and concerns sometimes brings unexpected insights. The siblings of a gay child also need plenty of support as they are often teased or subjected to family jokes so take the time to talk through the issues.
Talk to people who understand your situation. There are plenty of support groups like PFLAG who are happy to discuss their experiences with you. Every child needs different things from his or her parents, the key is just to keep talking.
Remember many gay children are afraid of being rejected by their parents and family. Let them know you love and accept them at home because it will empower them to be confident and open about their sexuality in the community.
As parents, none of us are perfect or get everything right, but children need to hear and feel from us that we care about them, support them and love them, just as we did when we embraced them on the day that they were born. It is what gives them hope for the future.
At a gay rights celebration dinner in Tasmania, I had the privilege of listening as Justice Michael Kirby read from aboriginal poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s poem A Song of Hope. It speaks to me and what I hope for my children and all who come after.
Look up, my people,
The dawn is breaking
The world is waking
To a bright new day
When none defame us
No restriction tame us
Nor colour shame us
Nor sneer dismay…
To our children’s children
The glad tomorrow.
Christine Milne is an Australian Senator and leader of the parliamentary caucus of the Australian Greens. You can follow her on Twitter here