Australian politics I have always contended is an interesting mistress. She throws up perplexing situations that we could all imagine as unfathomable to be fictitious.
One such example is Christine Forster.
Christine is Tony Abbott’s sister. She is a Liberal Party politician in her own right, a Councillor for the City of Sydney. Boil it down to its essence, she is a minor LGBT celebrity for one reason, she is the lesbian sister of a man who is perceived to be anti-gay seeking to become the next Prime Minister.
Woroni was granted an interview with Christine after the author ran into her on Oxford Street at an ungodly hour. In this two part series Woroni looks at her coming out in her unique situation and her position within the Liberal Party.
“I had to leave my ex-husband”
Christine has found the woman she loves, Virginia Edwards. You can see the couple regularly at the Stonewall Hotel and around Sydney’s Taylor Square. They drink, they dance, they socialise with other Stonewall patrons. A few years ago this life Christine now experiences I doubt she could have imagined.
At one point she started to question her sexuality within her twenty year long marriage. She began the journey that lead her into the perverse position of being a sort of idol for gay Australia, a community that isn’t entirely sure what to feel about her.
It’s a schizophrenic relationship where the gay community supports of an out and proud gay political woman but is hesitant to embrace someone whose brother has a perceived history of preaching deeply offensive things about the gay community.
“Over an extended period of time” she questioned her sexuality within her marriage. “I don’t suppose I’m unique in that sense that … I gradually came to the realisation about myself that I was not able to remain married to my ex-husband because I was gay. It evolved. It wasn’t like a thunderbolt that suddenly hit me: Oh my god I’m gay! It did actually happen over a period of years. It was kind of a slow realisation.”
The realisation that she could no longer continue her marriage that produced four children brought difficulties.
Coming out, she described as, “A very difficult process when you have a husband and children involved. It’s a difficult process for anyone to come out in a public sense.” She went on to say “It’s much more difficult when, children and an ex-husband are involved following the breakdown of a marriage.” The greatest difficulty in coming out initially was “that is extremely difficult for children under any circumstances in which it happens.”
“I think it can be even more challenging in some ways for children when they have to get their heads around the idea of mum’s sexuality, on top of mum and dad no longer being together.”
“For the children it’s more I think about the breakup of the family … It was very difficult for all the members of my family and everyone is still … at their own pace, coming to terms with that. Everyone is coming along on a journey together. Some members of my family have adjusted to more quickly and others are still getting their heads around it. It is an ongoing process.”
Christine and Virginia, “Met because we both had children at a school in St. Ives on the North Shore of Sydney.” When their children were younger they became friends and, “Were friends for many years until that relationship started to develop into something more over an extended period.”
The two coming together involved the breaking down of two marriages: a messy joyless business. It was, “Traumatic for everybody. There is no easy way to end a marriage. It is always horrible. And it involves lots of pain and grief for everybody.”
First she was afraid, she was petrified.
If coming out once was not hard enough she had to do it twice.
When asked what additional burdens were present because of her brother being in public life with his unique profile. She did not agree: “It wasn’t an additional burden, but Tony was in public life and was perceived as having a certain position. I mean everyone knows what his stance on marriage equality is. So, people look at that and interpret that somehow he has a certain position about gay people. But that’s not correct. He doesn’t have a position.”
“Where it became an issue was because there was this incorrect perception of him somehow being anti-gay. I was aware that my story would become a matter of public interest because of that perception.”
“He was aware of that too, and was very mindful of protecting my privacy and protecting the privacy of my children. But that, through my process [of coming out], it was almost a ticking bomb in a lot of ways.”
“I did know at some point somebody would start asking questions. And also by that time Virginia and I had been living as an out gay couple for several years. Going to Stonewall and living like normal people do and in no way or shape trying to hide anything. It was simply a matter of time before somebody started to make a news story of it and that was purely as I say because of my relationship with Tony.”
Earlier this year Liz Hayes interviewed her brother regarding Christine coming out. She asked him to explain his now infamous, “A bit threatened by gays as so many people do it’s a fact of life,” comment. He said, “Certainly there were some tough times for our family hence the comment but the cohesion of the family was threatened at the time.”
This comment from Tony didn’t sit right with me, so I asked Christine: How was the cohesiveness of her family threatened and who was threatening the cohesiveness of her family?
She stalled: “Well, I don’t want to comment, or put words into Tony’s mouth” then continued:
“Certainly, you know my family was breaking down. And that came as a great shock to my siblings and my parents. Because my family had been perceived as being kind of rock solid. I had been married for twenty years. I was very much the very social centre of our family. I used to have my parents around for drinks of a Sunday afternoon and what have you. The marriage breakdown shook everybody up. For me I saw it coming but they didn’t see it coming.”
“It was a very big shock to them. I have no doubt for instance that my parents thought their whole world was falling apart because of the marriage breakdown and I imagine it was the same for my siblings.”
“They were all rocked to the core because it was for them was unexpected. They weren’t like me; they hadn’t gone through an internal process. They just got the bomb shell.”
“So yeah, it was very shocking for them. For some more than others, my parents are quite elderly and things for older people can be harder. I imagine, what [Tony] felt, I certainly felt rocked to the core by the necessity to leave my marriage. It was a difficult time for everybody. I imagine he was just expressing how he felt at the time.”
I don’t know if this explanation adequately explains “the cohesion of the family was threatened” comment from Tony. It is difficult to imagine the cohesion of the Abbotts being threatened through the dissolving of Christine’s marriage; it may have been a shock but a chance of family cohesive damage? Nor does it explain the “a bit threatened by gays as so many people do it’s a fact of life” comment I doubt Tony at any point could call his sister to be much of a threat.
My other sources tell me that Christine is a bit of a fitness junkie, like her brother. She runs the two kilometres from Surry Hills to Town Hall of a morning. In my own opinion, any middle aged mother of four who can party to 4am and can name Stonewall’s finest drag queens is a bit of a legend whatever their politics.
With gusto she spoke of her favourite drag queens – and if you’re a Sydney gay it is mandatory to have one – Miss Minnie Cooper, Miss Pollie Petrie and Miss Charisma Belle. If you know Minnie and Pollie you know they’ve got tongues that can cause whip lash. Christine too has a certain down to earth disposition; an “I don’t take any shit from anyone” vibe. I can’t help but imagine that Christmas lunch with the Abbotts would be an interesting affair with her passionate razor tongue.
She is keenly aware of the internal machinations of the Oxford street scene: having ignored Miss Tora Hymen after the interview she playfully fretted that Tora may find out she did not have ultimate reverence for her as the true queen of Stonewall. She has a great sense of humour and doesn’t take herself too seriously; something rare in contemporary politicians. However, drag queen-adoring folk in touch with the gay community are rare characters to grace the halls of the parliaments of Macquarie Street and in Capital Hill. That’s a shame.
Unfortunately for those who are in favour of the hot LGBT policy topic in federal politics I got the impression we will not be seeing a great deal of Christine in the election or after it in national media if her brother is sent to the Lodge.
When asked if she would use her Office more for LGBT causes she said: “I don’t know that I could possibly to any greater extent.”
“I never shirk the topic if I am asked about it. I’m always very up front about where I stand about it, as I have been with you. And you know I suppose, people often come and ask me to support this or support that and I do. I do my best to support the gay and lesbian community in whatever I can do if needed. I’m not a gay activist by profession, I’m a politician, I’m a Liberal politician, I’m a local councillor that’s my main role in public life. That is my role in public life. So that’s where my focus is.”
Christine is a woman I have a lot of respect and time for. On many issues I completely disagree with her and she would completely disagree with me. When I mentioned to a friend I was interviewing Christine I got the response “She’s a lesbian and in the Liberal Party: how’s that working out for her?” That is an obnoxious position to take. She is a woman who has been through a lot personally, and has a brother who has been the Liberal’s federal head-kicker for just over a decade, a Minister of the Crown and now Opposition Leader.
Between the torment of a marriage breaking down and knowing that she was a public interest story that could explode over the front pages of the nation’s newspapers like a powder keg at any moment. Her brother’s history ranging from his Honi Soit uni days commenting on the politics of lesbianism, something Christine described as, “A testosterone loaded 18 year old student politician you say all sorts of silly things,” to his modern repeated habit of stepping in it on LGBT issues could not have made it easy.
A week after I interviewed her I ran into her at Stonewall at 3:30am on a Saturday morning. I had developed a habit of running into her there in the small hours. I told her I was a Western Suburbs boy and I was waiting for the trains to start after a friend of mine had picked up. She offered me a bed in her guest room: I declined. I thought it would have been too weird and didn’t want to be an imposition. She insisted and got Virginia on side trying to convince me.
I can confirm at least one Abbott has a heart. I gave her and Virginia a cheeky peck to thank them, and saw the mothers of Oxford Street walk down to Bourke Street as I went off to Arq.