There is, fairly or not, a perception in the LGBTI community that those who identify as part of that group and seek political office should join the Labor Party or the Greens.

Those who choose the Liberal Party are seen as strange, to put it politely, or traitors, to be blunter. The insistence of the Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to hold a public vote on same-sex marriage, when it was not legally necessary, also caused anger and dismay to many and reinforced the view that the Liberal Party was no friend to the LGBTI community.

Yet it was a Liberal politician who became the first openly LGBTI member of the House of Representatives.

Trent Moir Zimmerman is a tall man with an impressive bald head and a startling, extraordinarily deep voice. We meet in his North Sydney electorate office, a huge, bright office space with impressive views. There seem to be many more desks than staff members, a legacy of its former ministerial occupant, Joe Hockey.

Joe Hockey had been a major influence in Zimmerman’s life long before he was to inherit his seat. Trent worked as an advisor to Hockey for seven years and was heavily influenced by Hockey’s moderate views within the Liberal Party.

With Hockey’s resignation to become the Australian Ambassador to the United States, Zimmerman became not just the first openly LGBTI member of the parliamentary Liberal Party, but the first of any political party. He is modest as to how this happened.

“[It was an] accident of timing and the subsequent [general] election six months later delivered three additional LGBTI members of the House of Representatives, so it was a function of timing that I just happened to be the first,” he said.

That fortuitous timing arrived after a long period of proving his credentials in the Liberal Party, a party he had committed to at a young age.

Schooled at Newington College in Stanmore, where Zimmerman’s father was Master-in-Charge of the preparatory school Wyvern House, Zimmerman was not initially surrounded by political animals.

“Very few of my peers were interested in politics and looked on with some amusement the fact that I was.”

“Very few of my peers were interested in politics and looked on with some amusement the fact that I was,” he said. His political journey started in Year Ten when he chose to do his work experience in the office of the then Liberal leader of the opposition, Nick Greiner.

“That was an amazing experience and really gave me the political bug.” He had wanted to work for a Liberal politician because he was attracted to that side of politics.

“I had an innate sense that I regarded myself as a Liberal philosophically and a view about how society was ordered and the role of the individual in society, so it just seemed to be a natural fit for my values.”

Zimmerman joined the Liberal Party when he was seventeen and soon became influenced by two politicians who were leading moderate voices in the party, Senators Peter Baume and Chris Publick.

“I remember Peter Baume giving a speech on liberalism at a Young Liberal ‘Philosophy and Leadership’ training weekend and it was a bit of a ‘Eureka!’ moment for me because he presented a framework and I thought ‘that’s me – that’s what I believe’,” he said. “That was probably the first moment where I thought, ‘well there is without question a strand of the Liberal Party with which I felt very comfortable’.”

However, this feeling of comfort did not extent to his sexuality, which he felt he had no choice but to keep hidden.

However, this feeling of comfort did not extent to his sexuality, which he felt he had no choice but to keep hidden.

“We are obviously talking about the period of the late eighties and early nineties and like most people going through the coming-out process it can be a long one,” he said. “[It is] that world you live in and that dark shadow of fear about being discovered, of being exposed, rejected and so on. Particularly when I was in my late teens and early twenties, it was not something I was out about and something I went out of my way to disguise as best I could.”

There wasn’t an environment of overt homophobia but there were some with very strident views about homosexuality and whether the Sydney Lesbian and Gay Mardi Gras should be permitted.

“There was certainly obviously a very moralistic camp who were arguing that this was promoting sinful behaviour,” he said. “And then a liberal wing which tended to prevail in those days in the Young Liberals, which took a more accepting view.”

“I never really personalised it,” he said, about how he felt when he heard these views. “There weren’t meetings where I went away near to tears, worrying about what had been said. And I think that’s because I was a part of the Liberal Party – the moderate part – where my friendship circle really didn’t convey those type of views.”

By his mid-twenties, Zimmerman had gained a close circle of friends in the Young Liberals with whom he was able to be open about his sexuality. However, in public it was a different matter. When he first became interested in running for office, as a councillor for North Sydney Council in 2004, he didn’t feel the need to raise the issue of his personal life.

“I didn’t stand as an openly gay candidate, and frankly no one asked.”

“I didn’t stand as an openly gay candidate, and frankly no one asked”, he said. However, when LGBTI issues did arise he was able to speak frankly and vigorously fought the de-funding of the NorthAIDS program, an LGBTI health service, which he described as ‘unforgivable’. By that stage he was also involved in several LGBTI organisations, including as a director of a fledging LGBTI radio station, OutFM, which failed to gain a permanent community licence, and a two-year term as president of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Business Association.

By 2015, when the federal seat of North Sydney became available, Zimmerman ran openly as a gay man and with the intention of being a role model.

“I know that today in Australia there are still thousands upon thousands of gay and lesbian Australians who are having extraordinary difficulty coming out to their family or society and just having someone up there that had achieved that was very important.”

The debate about the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Australia had been going on for over a decade. By the time Zimmerman was elected, former Liberal Prime Minister Tony Abbott had negotiated a compromise with both factions of his party to have a plebiscite on the issue, rather than the usual vote in parliament.

“In a parliamentary democracy it is meant to be the parliament that considers and looks after the rights of all the citizens.”

“There was no constitutional requirement for a plebiscite,” said Zimmerman. “In a parliamentary democracy it is meant to be the parliament that considers and looks after the rights of all the citizens and for me it was a perfectly reasonable, rational issue for the parliament to make a decision on, and there’s never been any precedent for this. I suspect it will never happen again that we see a plebiscite on an issue like this.”

The policy was a “political fix” to unite a warring party, and was one that was kept by Malcolm Turnbull, Abbott’s successor. However, the legislation to establish the plebiscite was rejected by the Senate in November 2016. Subsequently the government decided to conduct a voluntary postal survey, to be run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. For many people, it was an unnecessary waste of time and money.

“It was a very expensive exercise,” said Zimmerman, “and for the same reasons that I opposed the full plebiscite I had considerable reservations about a postal survey. It was a high-risk proposition and if it had failed it would have sent an appalling message to young gay and lesbian Australians.”

The postal survey was subsequently held between 12 September and 7 November 2017, with the result announced on 15 November. ‘Yes’ won with 61.6 per cent of the vote.

“[The postal survey] did turn out to be quite a useful and worthwhile exercise,” said Zimmerman. “[It sent] a message that the Australian community was accepting of gay and lesbian Australians.” And the subsequent parliamentary vote that passed the legislation needed to legalise same-sex marriage was “strongly supportive of gay and lesbian relationships and has served to send a wonderfully embracing and loving message to the entire Australian community, particularly to young gay and lesbian Australians.”

There was a message for his party as well.

“I think there was a lesson to people that the Australian community is a lot more tolerant and accepting than some had thought.”

“There were lots of my colleagues who told me that they were quite sure that their electorates would vote ‘No’; in some cases they thought it would be overwhelming, and they actually delivered entirely the opposite result, a strong ‘Yes’ vote. I think there was a lesson to people that the Australian community is a lot more tolerant and accepting than some had thought.”

Zimmerman mentioned that he would be joining the Liberal Party float in the upcoming Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. The parade was widely expected to be a major celebration of same-sex marriage and was rumoured to have a float where couples would marry during the parade.

Were there going to be wedding bells in Zimmerman’s near future?

“Look, I will discuss that with my partner before I discuss it with the rest of the world,” he beamed.

With same-sex marriage now no longer a political issue, one can only hope that a politician will be judged on their actions and their policies, and not their personal life. Just don’t mention Barnaby Joyce.