The Hon. Penny Sharpe is the Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Council and Labor’s Shadow Minister for Environment. Penny’s policy interests include equality, the environment, transport, better cities, innovation, LGBTI law reform, women, and using technology to improve democracy.
Penny, how did you come to be in Parliament?
My story about coming into parliament is standard. I was a very opinionated, young person. The issues for me when I was young were issues around inequality and poverty. I was very anti-war when I was a child, and I decided when I went to university that I had to stop talking about these things and get involved. I did that through joining the Labor Party. I never, ever thought that I would be in parliament. I just wanted to be where decisions were being made and try to have some influence. I put my hand up in 2005 and I was extremely lucky and honoured that the Labor Party supported me into parliament.
You were the first openly gay woman in Parliament, how was this taken by the press and your party?
During my 20s, I met my partner. I didn't think that being gay was a particularly big issue. Obviously, my family knew and everyone that I worked with knew.
Parliament was quite an interesting workplace to walk into, but I've got to say that generally, it was fine. I do make the point that I'm the second person elected to the NSW Parliament who identified as being gay. I always make the point that I do not believe that I'm the first lesbian to have sat in the parliament. I just believe that I was the first one who was able to be visible and acknowledge that.
The day it was announced that I was going to go into parliament was the day a newspaper rang me up and said, "Hey, we want to talk to you about you being a lesbian." And I thought, "Oh, okay. Why?" And I was quite worried about where that was all going to go. In the end, I think that they just didn't know how to report this issue. They wanted to report it, and so they splashed with some very big headlines which I was a bit disappointed with. And it just sort of said, "Labor's new MP has a big secret." That was the headline. The story itself was straightforward. It just said, "Yes, Penny Sharpe is coming into parliament. She's been with her partner for X amount of years and they've got two children."
Have you experienced any issues being ’out’ in politics? Has it improved? What surprised you?
The good: in the beginning I was a curiosity and spent a lot of time explaining to colleagues where my kids came from, who was the "dad" etc. I also found that MPs and staff in the parliament often came to me on the quiet to talk about a child who had just come out or concerns about people they knew going through tough times. It is where I learned that visibility and openness was important. Allowing people to ask questions without being worried about saying the wrong thing was helpful.
The bad: having to listen to parliamentary debate that was so ignorant about the lives of LGBTIQ people. Having people make claims about same sex parented families that was harmful and hurtful was hard. The remedy was pressing on with law reform.
The ugly: occasional hate mail and some men deciding that they needed to send me pictures of their genitalia. This is rare but it has happened.
Overall, it is better, but I remain concerned that gains that have been made can be wound back without vigilance.
What advice would you give to leaders?
When I first came into parliament, lots of my colleagues who were very supportive, essentially said to me, "You don't want to become the Minister for the gays. You don't want that to be the only thing that people know you for." And I really felt that at the time. But the big lesson that I've had over time is that with visibility and being able to be who you are, there is a real responsibility for me to speak up on these types of issues. People look to those in leadership on how they respond to these issues. What are their experiences? And are they visible. I'm very lucky I can speak out where others can't, and it's my responsibility to do that in whatever way I can. It is incredibly important for leaders to be strong and to speak out for others.
How can allies support the LGBTQAI+ community?
For allies, at the end of the day, when all the pressure is coming down, it's actually just about holding the line and saying, "We want to treat - in the context of MetLife - our staff the same way, no matter their orientation, and we want to support them and their families. And we don't believe that discrimination is acceptable."
What challenges do you think the LGBTQAI+ community face in the future?
I think that there is still a lot of work to be done in the gender diverse space. For trans people, for intersex people, the issues are different, but the law has not kept up there. I think that's a big challenge.
But what we're also seeing - and this worries me - is that we're now having to defend even just the status quo and trying to stop attacks coming back. Trans kids, particularly non-binary kids, are being put in the firing line. And we're seeing the same old arguments that we did against same-sex marriage. When it comes to kids in schools, getting support from their teachers, having things like Wear It Purple Day, to recognise that kids can be whoever they are.
Where to get help
If you, or someone you know encounters discrimination and needs help and are not coping, here are some links and numbers to contact. Reaching out is winning, it should not be considered defeat: