A proud Brisbane mother is helping other parents understand, accept and support the gay sons and daughters living in the community.
In 1995, Shelley Argent was an “ordinary, stay-at-home mother” when her son James’ announced: “Mum, Dad… I’m gay.”
Her desire to understand the complexities and confusion of her son created the opportunity for Shelley to step up, and thus her involvement with the self-funded support group, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), began.
“To him it wasn’t such a big deal because he knew that we would be fine about it,” Shelley says.
“But I was immediately fearful – he’s still at high school, he’ll probably get beaten up and be discriminated against. And of course I had my concerns about AIDS which was still rampant at the time,” Shelley says.
Commonly for a young gay person, negative reactions from the family can lead to self-loathing, depression, suicidal tendencies and homelessness. For James, however, the declaration of his sexual orientation to his parents was inconsequential.
Now, as the national spokesperson for PFLAG, Shelley has proven herself a dynamic leader who works tirelessly to protect and enhance the human rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
“Acceptance has kept the family close. I realise I enjoy something very beautiful and a gift many other lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people can’t even imagine,” James said in the foreword to Shelley’s book, Opening the Door, which tells of her first ten years supporting families, educating the public and lobbying for equality.
“My work with PFLAG and as a human rights activist has always been about my gay son,” she says. “I wanted to learn what his life would be like, to understand it.”
In 1997 Shelley completed a Social Sciences degree and the following year became an education volunteer with the Queensland Aids Council [now known as the Queensland Association for Healthy Communities].
“I went there to learn exactly what was going on in that community so that I could talk to James on an informed basis. I did all the HIV and emotional support courses, the Outreach program and the sexual health hotline.”
Not afraid to go to the top, Shelley campaigned against Peter Beattie for de facto rights in early 2000; Anna Bligh for her slow-to-move behaviour on same sex parenting; Julia Gillard for her stance on marriage; Rudd and Howard regarding economic discrimination; Tony Abbott for his stance on marriage equality; and Campbell Newman hasn’t escaped for repealing civil partnership. It has been an expensive exercise, with Shelley and PFLAG funding the advertising awareness campaigns.
As PFLAG representative Shelley also lobbied for changes to the anti-discrimination legislation and in 2006 was invited to speak at the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. She participated in Kevin Rudd’s 2020 Summit and then organized the Brisbane Gay Community Forum.
In 2005 Shelley was awarded an OAM for her efforts in urging an understanding and acceptance of those living in the gay community. Her 2007 election as PFLAG’s national spokesperson provided a strong voice to speak out against the discrimination, injustice and homophobia that still exists in society today.
“The spokesperson role empowered me, enabling me to engage with other support groups and to do some lobbying in Canberra. I wanted to become the public face; a normal everyday mother standing up for and defending her son because we need for our children to be recognized as worthy citizens.”
The actuality of marriage equality for same-sex couples in Australia is looming with Federal Parliament likely to be facing a conscience vote on the issue later this year.
“Marriage is about inclusion, respect, building a life together and future planning, and it is not just about children,” says Shelley.
“People in the gay community all pay taxes, they all contribute, but when it comes to marriage they are treated as second-class citizens.”
Shelley Argent is a bmag Brisbane Person of the Year candidate. The winner will be announced by Lord Mayor Graham Quirk at a special ceremony on Monday 27 October.