Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Gay Australian senator lives life on a limb


Australian Senator Bob Brown was honored in San Francisco by the Rainforest Action Network. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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Australian Senator Bob Brown constantly finds himself in precarious positions. The only out politician in his country's Parliament, the Green Party member is a lone voice in a government controlled by conservatives. He caused a minor scandal in 2003 when he disrupted a speech by President Bush and refused to leave the parliamentary chambers.

At home on the heart-shaped island of Tasmania, the 61-year-old Brown is a leading environmentalist who is suing Forestry Tasmania in court to prevent the logging of habitat for several endangered species in the old growth forests of Wielangta in eastern Tasmania. Risking personal bankruptcy to do so, Brown has gone "out on a limb" to save such rare Australian animals as the Swift parrot, Tasmanian Wedge-tailed eagle, and the Wielangta stag beetle. [The trial ended in August and the judge in the case has yet to issue a ruling.]

He plays up his tree-hugging image in a fundraising drive to raise $250,000 to help support his legal case. Postcards depict Brown using rock-climbing gear to repel up a tree in the forest with the tagline "Bob Brown's out on a limb." He is also battling the logging company Gunns Limited, which sued him and 19 other individuals and environmental groups for damages of up to $6.9 million (Australian) to its reputation and business. [The country's supreme court threw out the claim in August and the company has until November 2 to re-file its suit.]

Brown, who founded the Green Party in Australia in 1992, devotes such passion and personal risk for saving the trees in order to protect the next generation, he said during an interview with the Bay Area Reporter on a recent visit to the Bay Area during which he received the World Rainforest Award from the Rainforest Action Network.

"We have a built-in need for the forests. It is why we have built-in flower boxes on our windows and put up posters of forests in our offices. We don't put up posters of chainsaws or bulldozers," said Brown, who was born in Sydney but grew up on Tasmania. "We have saved some but we have seen a massive amount go to the chainsaws."

It was his second visit to San Francisco to pick up an award. In 1990 he came to receive the Goldman Environmental Prize. A fan of Muir Woods in Marin, Brown lamented the fact he has only made it to Yosemite for one evening visit.

"I am so busy saving the planet at home," joked Brown, who had adorned his suit jacket with a bronze stag beetle pin he is selling for $10 to raise money for his legal fund. "I just sat in the dark listening to it all. It was fantastic, just beautiful."

His environmental activism began in 1976 – the same year he came out of the closet – on a raft trip down the Franklin River in Tasmania. A family practice doctor, he decided he had to stop a dam project that would mar the river. He joined in a blockade of the dam site and was arrested. He spent three weeks in jail, and on the day of his release was elected to Tasmania's Parliament.

Seven years later the dam project was scrapped and 10 years after entering public office Tasmanians sent Brown to Australia's mainland as their senator. A member of the minority party, Brown has had little influence on the conservative government, led by John Howard since 1996. Howard leads the misleadingly named Liberal Party and has been a strong ally of the Bush administration.

[Howard surprised his country last week, a day after the October 19 interview with Brown, by announcing that he would push a bill to end legal discrimination against gays and lesbians in such areas as the workplace and medical benefits. Brown has been fighting for passage of just such a bill for 11 years. Earlier this year Howard squashed a civil union law passed by the Australian Capital Territory government, though leaders of the Washington D.C.-like district plan to reintroduce a modified law allowing same-sex couples to form "civil partnerships," according to local press reports.]

Brown called the day in 2004 when the federal parliament outlawed gay marriages "harrowing" because "one million people-plus immediately in Australia were denied equality. I said in Parliament, 'I honor Prime Minister Howard and his wife, Janet. Why can't he honor my relationship with Paul?' The question still hangs in the air," said Brown, referring to his partner of 11 years, Paul Thomas, 50, a sheep farmer.

Unlike on the mainland, the Green Party is the dominant political force in Tasmania, and as such, has led the country in passing pro-gay laws. The territory cannot pass a gay marriage law – only the federal government has the authority to do so – but it has enacted other legislation.

"You can have a civil union in Tasmania," said Brown, who has yet to enter into such a union with Thomas. "I keep talking to Paul about it. We will someday."

In his lifetime Brown has seen his country make enormous strides in the fight for gay rights. He said opinion polls show most Australians support same-sex rights.

"I am very lucky. I have seen the world change from the 1950s to now. The vilification I received early on in my political career just does not happen anymore," he said. "Paul and I travel around Tasmania everywhere. On occasion a person will mumble something on the street and I will give them a little talk. They can't even follow through and look down at the street."

"I am really happy to be a content gay man with a wonderful partnership. I won't second rate that to anybody," added Brown.

He has no qualms being a role model for a younger generation of Australian gays. He made a promise to himself when he escaped the confines of the closet that he would help other people come out.

"I love it if some young gay says thank you for being open and speaking out on gay and lesbian issues," said Brown. "I talk about my relationship. I am proud of it. Paul is my anchor."

Asked for his thoughts of San Francisco, Brown eyed a flowering iris planted in a nearby flowerbed and realized it was native to Tasmania.

"It is called the flag iris. I am feeling right at home," said a smiling Brown. "I have a great soft spot for San Francisco and America. I have just one request: Can you do something about Bush?"

For more information about Brown and his environmental crusades, visit

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