It's about history... & votes & elephants

In which I reply to Andrew's post in reply to Phil's post about Grant Robertson... I wrote this at the start of the week but have discovered a glitch that mean it never published!

I think I'll start at the end. Andrew ended his recent post like this:

In which case, why are we talking about his sexuality at all? After all, is anyone asking John Key whether his being straight makes him a better Prime Minister, or more suitable to lead the country, or the like? What would we even make of a journalist who thought to ask such a thing? And if we can accept that John Key's sexuality is just an aspect of who he is, just as is the fact that Johnny English is his favourite movie and Adele his favourite band, then why can't we do the same for Grant Robertson?

Lots of good questions there and I'm writing this because I think there are some important answers. So why are we talking about Robertson's sexuality?

Well, we're not terribly much. There have been a few mentions in reports about it and even comments from the odd voter who say they wouldn't vote for him for just that reason. But true, it's certainly been part of the discussion about his candidacy, and for good reason.

People who want to be Prime Minister become representatives of the country at a certain time in history, and so are a lightning rod for social issues at the time. We all know Helen Clark married contrary to her preference (to simply live together) to avoid such questions, for example. We all know Barack Obama faced all sorts of questions and analysis over his quest to become the first black President of the US. Julia Gillard? Well she was truly mistreated as Australia's first woman Prime Minister and no-one's trying anything equivalent to the 'ditch the witch' campaign on Robertson.

'Firsts' are by definition new and news is, well, all about new things. That's why Key's sexuality is of little import, but Robertson's has an element of public interest about it. Remember Georgina Beyer's political rise and what it signified to many.

Political news in particular is, in part, about who might win elections and why. Like it or not, Robertson's sexuality is a factor in some people voting for him, especially in a party that has a strong base in conservative Pacific Island communities.

So Grant's efforts to become the first openly gay Prime Minister are of course worthy of questions and his getting the job would be seen by all New Zealanders (and the gay community in particular) as of historical note. Does it make him better or worse at running the country? I don't think so. But that doesn't mean it's an invalid discussion, for the reasons noted.

As a journalist who has, through a host, asked that question, I of course think it's a legitimate one. Suffice to say I'm sure such questions are asked carefully and given a decent amount of thought. But it matters to some voters and is potentially a moment in history; and to not discuss it would create an elephant in the room.

Just as it would have been bizarre to not talk about Obama's ethnicity and what it means for that country, so surely Robertson's sexuality becomes something of a public issue because it would be a breaking down of barriers and statement of social inclusion.

Then there's the "rugby and beer meme".

I'd note that while Andrew points to one particular interview, I can think of at least one other in which Robertson gave much the same reply to similar questions.

So it seems Robertson's considered decision is to reply to questions about his sexuality by mentioning rugby and beer. Insomuch as there is a meme around this, it's one that Robertson has created himself. And prior to this campaign, his answers about it in the past have been a bit defensive; it seems like he's been reluctant to talk about his sexuality in the past (not unreasonably) and has been trying to figure out how to talk it in public without compromising himself and his public appeal. That's politics.

Now it's not an unreasonable response and, as Andrew points out, is entirely authentic. Robertson is not pretending to like beer or rugby and is not being anything other than he is. He's doing nothing wrong. But he also seems to think that the best way to defuse the sexuality question in the minds of some who may doubt, is to mention two of New Zealand's favourite hobbies.

In doing so he's challenging lazy gay stereotypes, which is a good thing and may surprise some of the more conservative bent.

So Robertson is doing nothing wrong. But he is, just by standing and being who he is, confronting some old perspectives and trying to carve out a piece of history for himself. That's of note and worthy of some discussion.