Around the World: Senator Janet Rice, Melbourne, Australia

Jun 1, 2023 | 2023 Summer - Bi+ History, Around the World

Interviewed by Sally Goldner

Senator Janet Rice and community activist Sally Goldner sat down together in Melbourne, Australia, for this conversation on March 24, 2023.

Sally Goldner: I’m speaking with bi-con (bi icon) Senator Janet Rice, a loyal supporter of bi+ and LGBTIQA+ people, on the lands of Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation here on this big island that is now called Australia. Janet, tell us how you’ve gotten to this point, where you are now, and where you would like our communities to be in the future. 

Janet Rice: I grew up in Altona, a working-class and multicultural suburb to the west of Melbourne. My mother was a teacher, my father an engineer. I’m the middle of five kids, and I had a bit of a niche in the family of being the “responsible, good one,” something I got lots of positive feedback for. Both of my parents were actively involved in community activities, and I had a very supportive and loving home environment.

I went to uni, studying science. I learned about climate change in 1980, when I was 20, and thought: “This is bloody serious. The world needs to take action about this.” I decided then that after graduating, rather than becoming a climate scientist, I was going to be a campaigner and activist. A significant event during my university years was the Franklin River blockade, a massive environmental campaign that we won. Understanding the problems that the world was facing and participating in a successful campaign gave me a sense of agency: if large numbers of people work together and run a good, strategic campaign, we can make progress. 

When I decided that I wanted to be a campaigner, I looked for work as a climate activist, but those jobs didn’t exist yet in the environmental movement. I found myself working to protect the forests of far eastern Victoria. They are among the most wonderful in the world: huge, magnificent, and still underrecognized. We succeeded in getting some of them protected as national parks, but there was still ongoing logging of the other forests. Then, basically, I got fed up with lobbying the big parties in Australia: the Liberal and Labor parties. This was when Bob Brown and Christine Milne had just formed the Greens in Tasmania. I decided we needed the Greens in Victoria, so I threw myself into being one of the founders of the Greens 31 years ago, in 1992. My focus shifted to building the party. We started off in Victoria with—I think it was seventeen members—and it’s been a big journey ever since.

SG: You’re a political campaigner, but of course you’re a whole person. 

JR: Yes. My two kids were born in the early 1990s, and Penny, my wife, had a massive career as a climate scientist. We were juggling activism, work, kids, community. I was working mostly as a consultant at that stage. I decided, with the Greens growing and my kids getting older, that I would throw my hat in the ring to be an elected representative. I stood for Council here in Maribyrnong. The first time in 1997 was very much a trial. And then I ran a pretty serious campaign in 2000 and lost by 26 votes. I was elected to Council in 2003 –20 years ago this month.

I was on Council for six years, which is about as long as you can do it. It takes a lot of time and entails huge financial sacrifices. I was fortunate that Penny was earning a good income as a climate scientist, so I was able to work part time and be a Councillor pretty much full time. Then I decided to stand at both state and federal levels. I threw my hat in the ring for a senate seat in 2007 and in 2010. I was preselected for the Greens, then elected in 2013, and took my seat in the Senate in 2014. 

SG: That’s the political journey, but let’s catch up on something of huge relevance: the wonderful Penny and her journey, and how that has affected your journey as a whole person. 

JR: As I said, I married Penny in 1986 when I was 26, a very long time ago. We were the classic white-bread, middle class, not quite white-picket-fence family with two kids. As Penny’s career took off, she was doing more overseas travel and her gender issues—which she had done her best to stick in a box and say “no” to—kept jumping out. Penny realized that her gender issues were not going to go away. On her overseas trips she was buying and wearing clothes and wigs and then, before returning home, throwing them away and feeling guilty about the wasted expense. She also felt bad that she had this huge secret that she hadn’t shared with me. Our relationship was such that she and I shared everything, but there was this big thing I didn’t know about her. One night, a couple of days before she was about to go off on another overseas trip, she handed me a letter when we were lying in bed, and we talked all night.

SG: What was it like for you to read that letter? 

JR: It was overwhelming. The biggest thing was the shock. She described herself as a crossdresser at that stage, and there was a sense that this sort of thing doesn’t happen to normal people. But for me, the biggest thing was that there was this enormous thing in Penny’s life she had kept secret from me. I remember being asked, “Do you feel betrayed?” No, I didn’t feel betrayed. I just felt so sad and upset for her that she’d had this huge secret. She had talked to nobody before that night about her gender. I think this was in 1998, about five years before she transitioned. She was 40. Penny did her best to repress it and lived, basically, in her head. She hated her physical body and did her best to disassociate herself from it, which is not a healthy way to live.

The next day, we went out and bought her some clothes and sent her off on her trip with women’s clothes in her suitcase. That was near the time when you first met Penny. She joined Seahorse (a social and support group for the trans and gender diverse communities) and met you and other people like her, but she was still feeling she didn’t want to go further with her transition, saying she was happy to keep it in the box, to “just” be a crossdresser if it was going to affect our relationship and if it was going to impact our love for each other. 

There was a turning point when we went out dancing together. Penny was in girl mode, and I looked at her and I thought, “Oh, I find her really attractive,” and I told her that I can love Penny like I’d loved her previously. That was a huge lid-off-the-box volcano moment for her because of all those feelings that she’d kept repressed because it was going to impact her relationship with me was freed. Suddenly it was okay to go forward. 

SG: And for you, was there a realization that you weren’t just a heterosexual woman only attracted to men, but rather you were attracted to people regardless of gender?

JR: One of the things about heteronormativity is that I had assumed I was heterosexual because even if you were attracted to both, if you were attracted to blokes you were heterosexual and repressed anything else. That’s what you were. At various times, I’d found myself thinking that women are attractive as well. But then, I was in a long-term loving monogamous relationship and so that’s irrelevant, you know? So, it was a realization to find Penny attractive as a woman, as a person. I did find her attractive and her gender didn’t matter. 

SG: So, you and Penny were, in terms of your relationship, flying higher, so to speak. Your political career was rolling and then Penny affirms her new gender identity and you’re being more authentic in your own sense of self. How did that all go when you put it all together? How did people respond? 

JR: We’re now in the early 2000s. As somebody who is aware of the connection between the personal and the political, and someone who’d been a political campaigner on a range of other issues, I realized gender and sexuality was another really needed area that I could throw myself into as a campaigner. Looking back, it wasn’t something that I had felt strongly connected with at first. There was this gradual realization that these issues were very personal to me as well as being a political injustice that needed to be tackled.

SG: You’ve given so many great speeches as part of the long campaign for marriage equality, for marriage to be between two legally consenting adults, regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, or sex characteristics. I remember one on Celebrate Bisexuality Day with you and a bisexual flag in Parliament, and then your speech in November 2017, when the bill was finally passed after being approved by a postal referendum by 61.6%. I remember I was outside the State Library on November 15, 2017. 

JR: It was my youngest kid’s birthday. I was in Canberra so I didn’t get to be at the huge celebrations outside the State Library. Relief was the overwhelming emotion. In the final year of the campaign, Penny had realized that she had a role to play. Penny was a private person, much happier with me being up on the stage, and not that keen on talking about herself, yet we joined together and were a very prominent couple campaigning for marriage equality. We were very invested in it, which is why, when the results came through, it was a huge sense of relief. Things were going to change. 

SG: You and Penny spoke out about the fact that marriage equality was needed to stop forced divorce for trans and gender diverse people, and some people of intersex experience. It was just that extra factor that heightened the ludicrousness of the situation. It was just so stupid. 

JR: Exactly. Penny could get a passport with her female gender and female name. But if she had tried to change her birth certificate, we would have had to divorce. So ludicrous! 

SG: I’m trying my hardest to be an objective interviewer, I’m BI-ased, so I have to say I loved that speech [in Parliament, November 2017] because you put bi and trans people up at the start, and that was just so important. 

JR: Yes, there was the realization that mainstream campaigning had very much focused on gay and lesbian people. It was an implicit attitude of “We don’t want to talk about trans people or bi people, essentially because they haven’t got much support in the community, and it might muddy the waters and erode support for us,” which was just discriminatory and hurtful and harmful. We were all already being harmed by having to have a public debate about our rights, yet some of the campaigners weren’t acknowledging the rights of trans or bi people.  

SG: Absolutely, which brings us to the next question: What’s been your experience of being an out bi+ legislator in our national Parliament? What are the pros, the cons? What superpowers does it bring being a bi+ legislator? 

JR: I don’t know about superpowers, but there’s certainly the sense of being there as a prominent person and actually saying that bi+ people exist and that things aren’t black-and-white binary. I find it extraordinary that there are a dozen or so out gay or lesbian legislators, but I am the only out bi+ legislator in the Australian Parliament. I know that there are others—there must be others—but the prejudice against bi+ people means that they don’t feel that it’s something that they can be out about. Being visible is a big thing that I can do. 

SG: It absolutely is needed. It’s harder for bi+ people to be out. In the past, sadly, bi+ people haven’t always had the support of cisgender gay and lesbian people. Mardi Gras in Sydney (their Pride celebration) had a policy up until 2000 of calling bi people before a panel and saying, “Are you going to sabotage our organization?” and then, still–even after a logical case was made by the bi+ person–denying them membership. It’s something they still have not apologized for. It’s something that doesn’t seem to be well known. I suppose my question from all of that is how do you feel about Mardi Gras and—this year—World Pride, when it still seems like LGBTQ+ organizations are gay men with a bit of lesbian and some letters added on? And, what can Rainbow communities do to start doing better internally?

JR: Probably because of my standing and status and the respect that people have for me, I feel included–and probably also because I hang out a lot with bi+ and trans people, including at Mardi Gras. At this last Mardi Gras, which I went to, I joined Dykes on Bikes for the first time, which was so exciting. And lots of trans women were there as part of Dykes on Bikes. There was that sense of solidarity. Other times, I have marched with the bi+ float. I’ve sought out the parts of the Mardi Gras celebrations that I feel supported and included in. I hadn’t realized that history of Mardi Gras, which is just awful. I think things have shifted and are shifting, in terms of breaking down those binaries, trying to make people fit in this box or that box. There is greater acceptance of our fluidity—that gender and sexuality are on a spectrum. 

SG: There is obviously still a distance to travel. Even as we’re having this chat, it’s only been hours since World Athletics excluded trans and intersex women, and there have been anti-trans protests here in Australia. And of course, we’re seeing anti-trans, anti-drag-queen types of laws pile up in various states in the U.S., in differing degrees in parts of the United Kingdom, and extremism in places like Poland, Hungary, and Uganda. How do we push forward?  

JR: We’ve got to keep calling it out. We need better vilification [hate speech] laws as well so that when the transphobic protests across Australia in the last week—which have been completely outnumbered and drowned out by pro-trans rallies—the vitriolic and hate-filled vilification that has been allowed through those rallies cannot be allowed to continue because it really pollutes the public discourse and does such damage. This isn’t free speech; this is vilification. And we need to continue to be outspoken and to campaign, and for our allies to step up as well. Trans and gender diverse people are under attack now and, as an ally, I feel a strong responsibility to speak out every time I possibly can, speaking up for trans and gender diverse people, and to recognize the huge impact that this transphobic hate speech is having. 

SG: Thank you for your allyship. Another way cisgender people can support transgender people is to talk to more cisgender people and say, “Look, this is what’s going on, some of the stuff you’re hearing is just lies.” And you can write to your local legislators. 

JR: These are small things but big things. I’m now in a new relationship with a wonderful woman in Canberra and she was telling me about seeing all the stuff in Canberra this week. She works for the ACT Department of Health, and she just made sure she picked up the phone and spoke to one of the directors there and said, we need to have something that goes out from the Department expressing support for trans and gender diverse people. So, their weekly newsletter that went out recognized the impact of the horrible anti-trans stuff that’s going on and said, “We support you.”  

SG: Janet, I want to say that after the very difficult scenario of Penny’s death in 2019, I’m glad you’ve found a new happiness. Is there anything else, while you’ve got the “microphone,” you’d like to add? 

JR: The main thing is I just really want to say that my love goes out to all bi+ people around the world. Just know that I’m there in the Australian Parliament. I really want you to know that you’ve got me in your corner, and I will keep on fighting for you. I’ve learned from my activism over the last 45 years that it is so important to be looking after yourself, pulling back when necessary to recharge your own batteries, and to have a sense of being connected with good people across the world who are doing stuff. It’s not all about what I can do—it’s what we, as a movement can do. I know at some point I’ll be passing the baton on to somebody else. Knowing that your work is just part of a movement of people working together gives you strength and the ability to realize if you need to step back for your own well-being, that’s okay. 

Sally Goldner is an LGBTQ+ diversity educator, speaker, life coach, and consultant. Her 20-plus year involvement in Victoria’s LGBTQ+ communities include being a founding member of Transgender Victoria, co-facilitating Transfamily, presenting three CR Community Radio’s “Out of the Pan” shows, and Bisexual Alliance Victoria Treasurer.

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