The silly season is over, thank God. We are back to regular programming on the ABC. When you’re a single and 50, that’s no small thing. First cab off the rank for my 2018 viewing was a new season of Australian Story. I am a fan of this show. The relentlessly upbeat attitude of some farmer who has had their arms chopped off in a threshing machine may irritate, but there is still something compelling about real people telling real stories.
And let’s face it, I am a political tragic. Last week’s episode about Christine Forster was, naturally, a no-brainer. Forster is a Liberal Councillor for the City of Sydney, but she is more famous for being the sister of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
And for those who have been living under a rock for the last few years, Forster was also a vocal campaigner for same-sex marriage. Earlier this year, she was on stage at the Sydney celebration of the Postal Vote, where I was a face in the crowd.
Forster is what some of us tactfully call a “late bloomer”. That is, she was married with kids (four!) before she became a lesbian. Apparently she met her partner Virginia Flitcroft at a day care centre, while dropping off their respective children.
“We had an affair,” Forster confesses in Australian Story. “I’m certainly not proud of that. I wish that we hadn’t, but that’s what happened.”
Forster’s confession came in the same week as revelations of Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce’s affair with a staffer. Joyce’s behaviour has attracted much condemnation, particularly from the left. ‘Barnaby Joyce doesn’t know the meaning of marriage!’ screams one link on my Facebook feed. Au contraire, I think; I am sure he understands it very well indeed. The reaction to Joyce’s indiscretion makes me uncomfortable, not least because I have been on both sides of the moral Passchendaele of infidelity. Those episodes left me with nothing but an appreciation of my capacity to behave badly and more usefully, a reluctance to judge.
Yet Forster’s revelation attracted not a murmur. Despite being a Liberal Forster is, it seems, a different case. She is one of us, at least to the extent that she is a lesbian. And Forster’s affair was set in the context of a journey to an authentic sexuality, which makes it ok. Her former husband, whose feelings of disappointment and betrayal were likely equal to those of Mrs Joyce, is invisible. He was dumb enough to marry a lesbian, after all.
But it is the story of Forster’s lesbianism, and her joyous marriage, that really interested me. I’m not so naïve as to think that Australian Story is more than just that, a story – constructed, with the fingerprints of its makers fully visible. But what does it tell us about what it means to be a lesbian now, in this modern, equality-loving Australia?
The story begins on a joyous note: the happy couple are choosing their outfits. But this is a different sort of wedding, and the story is quick to make the point. “I’m very retro 1950s,” says a Flitcroft, “Big skirt, big dress. Christine’s going for a sort of morning suit, but more feminine.” It’s hard to see how the couple’s outfits are relevant to anything except as code: Forster, it seems, is to be coded as masculine. Flitcroft confirms this, adding, “I couldn’t ask her to wear a dress.”
And very quickly, we cut away from the present for a guided tour of Abbott family history. Despite the Abbotts being a “loving, caring” family, it seems that the young Christine was always different. “I was riding billy carts ad bikes and making bows and arrows. I had a Ken doll … I was what was termed in those days a tomboy.”
Australian Story can’t resist a peek at brother Tony as well. The former Prime Minister was, according to Forster, “the apple of Dad’s eye, there’s no doubt about that”. Yet this favouritism brought with it a prescriptive attitude to gender, as Forster observes, “My father was an only child and he was pretty much, from a young age, living only with his mother because his father was in the merchant marine so he was away a lot. He would describe himself as being a real sook as a child. So I think there was a deliberate plan from Dad, to make sure that Tony was a man’s man.”
The gender dynamics of the Abbott family would, it seems, provide fertile ground for psychoanalysis. Yet Christine rebelled, even if unconsciously. “Chris was very sporty, very studious,” a friend observes. “As we got older, through high school, we started to get a bit more into make-up and things like that. She didn’t tend to do that.” Forster’s rebellion was, though, only partial. As she proceeded to university, we are assured that she was “normal”. So normal, in fact, that she married the unfortunate Mr Forster not long after graduating.
Yet viewers, already aware of how the story ends, await the truth. It comes some years later. “It probably wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I started to realise that I had a physical, sexual attraction to women.” Then comes the famous meeting with Flitcroft at the child care centre which, Forster confesses, “hit me like a ton of bricks”.
Curiously, Flitcroft’s background is not subject to scrutiny. She is not related to any Prime Ministers and her childhood toys were therefore uninteresting, I suppose. But this lack of questioning is itself a code: Flitcroft is a “normal” woman. Her story begins with such a confirmation: “I was in a very happy, settled married life,” she recalls. “With a beautiful 2 year old son and a gorgeous 5 year old daughter. Externally it was Happy 101.”
What, then, are we to make of these codes? Some feminists may be unhappy about the coding of Forster and Flitcroft as butch and femme. In the 1970s, many feminists derided butch-femme as replicating patriarchal heterosexual relationships. Later queer theorists have celebrated these same relationships, reading them more as a parody than imitation. A woman in men’s clothing, they point out, is not the same as a man.
Yet whatever your take on the butch-femme dynamic, it’s revealing that Australian Story can represent it to a wider audience without explanation. Clearly, this style of relationships has penetrated mainstream understandings of what it means to be a lesbian. If that was the case fifty years ago, it’s still the case today.
There is no indication of what or whether the Abbott and Flitcroft families think about butch-femme relationships, but understandably the relationship upset both. Here again we segue to Tony Abbott, now head of the Abbott clan after the recent death of patriarch Dick. Abbott is by all accounts a decent chap when he’s away from politics, and it turns out that he and his wife Margie were “very supportive behind the scenes”. The exception was his very public remarks that “children do better with a Mum and a Dad,” which mother Flitcroft found “hurtful, deeply hurtful”.
Meanwhile the butch Forster – herself a mother of four – maintains a stiff upper lip and fights the good fight in the public domain. Forster’s teenage sons continue the seal of male approval, with a friend reassuring us that, “Chris’s boys are very proud for their Mum. She has put herself out there. They are comfortable with her being gay.”
Well, that’s a relief. Who knows what her daughters think, as there is no mention of them. Perhaps they were just too smart to put their faces on television. But Forster herself is no dummy, which begs the obvious question of why she consented to this project. We can, methinks, expect to see her face in a future political campaign, and for an office higher than that of Sydney City Councillor.
Yet I can’t help wondering if the males of the Abbott clan would be as supportive if Ms Forster were to become one of them. That is, if she was transgender instead of a lesbian. We will never know, because the word “gender” is never mentioned in this story.
This might seem a glaring omission, as much of Forster’s story is about gender roles and gender variance. Gender variance is at the heart of lesbian identity - so much so that the coded signals of the tomboy and the butch require no explanation. Everyone knows these codes, just as they know the codes about sissy boys and effeminate men. Yet to speak gender variance per se is something quite different, and usually avoided through sublimation and disavowal.
“You have a choice,” says the marriage celebrant preparing for the pair’s nuptials. “Of being called a groom, a bride, or a partner.”
“Neither of us are grooms, obviously!” Forster responds defensively.
So it’s agreed: here come the brides. And rather paradoxically, what a relief it is.