One of the first major Australian political figures to champion equal rights for gays and lesbians has passed away this morning, aged 98.
Gough Whitlam was leader of the Australian Labor Party from 1967 to 1977 and Australia’s prime minister from 1972 to 1975 – a period of incredible reform for Australia before his government was dismissed to end a constitutional crisis.
While laws criminalizing homosexuality were governed by Australia’s states, Whitlam called for the striking down for such laws, and the Australian Capital Territory which houses Australia’s capital Canberra decriminalized homosexuality within its borders in 1973 under his watch – becoming the first Australian jurisdiction to do so.
In the same year Whitlam raised the issue of employment discrimination against gays and lesbians with the then Public Service Board which then ended legal discrimination against them in Australian Government jobs except for the military.
Prior to that Australian public servants could be legally fired just for being gay.
Whitlam’s Minister for Social Security, Bill Hayden, also directed that a person’s homosexuality could no longer be used as a reason to deny them social security entitlements.
A year later under the Dunstan state Labor Government, South Australia became the first Australian state to decriminalize homosexuality following his urging.
Whitlam began championing the rights of gays and lesbians while still Opposition leader, calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality across Australia as early as 1970.
His support for the rights of gays and lesbians lead to speculation about his own sexuality by some critics despite his 70 year marriage to his wife Margaret, who he called ‘the love of my life.’
The couple had four children together and were inseparable until she passed away in 2012.
During his brief three years in power his government established Australia’s national health insurance scheme, abolished university fees, returned traditional lands in the Northern Territory to the Aboriginal Gurindji people, established diplomatic relations with China, withdrew Australian troops from Vietnam, reformed Australia’s divorce laws, passed a Racial Discrimination Act, introduced environmental protection legislation, and removed God Save the Queen as Australia’s national anthem.
Announcing his passing the Whitlam family released a statement earlier today.
‘Our father, Gough Whitlam, has died this morning at the age of 98,’ it reads, ‘A loving and generous father, he was a source of inspiration to us and our families and for millions of Australians.’
A public memorial service will be held for the former Prime Minister with the details soon to be announced.