Saturday, 7 April 2012

Abbott and Homosexuality

A fascinating report in the Australian today reveals that one of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's sisters, Ms. Christine Forster, declared her homosexuality four years ago.

In 1992, Forster returned with her husband to Australia where they raised four children a stone's throw from her elderly parents on Sydney's north shore.  Her home served as a meeting place for gatherings of the extended family.  To outsiders it seemed a comfortable, conventional suburban existence, but in 2008 Forster made the agonising decision to come out as a gay woman.  She'd met Virginia Edwards when they were parents with sons the same age at the local parish school.  They forged a friendship then fell in love.

Mr. Abbott is of course a strident defender of traditional marriage, and he is a favourite target for ridicule over the issue of homosexuality.  His Q&A appearance during the last election campaign highlighted the awkwardness of this debate for Mr. Abbott in the public arena:

The questioner in this video openly accuses the Opposition Leader of harbouring fear and ignorance of homosexuals, and of denying them proper dignity and respect.  Host Tony Jones rather smugly suggests that if only Mr. Abbott 'got to know' some gay men, he could change his opinion.

We now know that the issue of homosexuality was much closer to home for this man than anyone realised at the time.  Questioned by the Australian's Kate Legge, Mr. Abbott recounts his own personal reaction to his sister's decision:

Abbott says he was "absolutely flabbergasted" by the end of Forster's longstanding marriage because he'd always thought it was "a fantastic partnership".  But his sister felt he understood the turbulent and distressing crisis she was going through.  He listened sympathetically.  He offered counsel when it was sought and he didn't make judgements.
"These things happen," Abbott tells me.  "The marriage ended.  For Chris it was replaced by something else that is marvellous.  She has regrets but she did something brave, authentic, something she felt had to be done.  I can respect that even if I can't in every sense understand it... I've come to the view over the years that the only side you can take is that which tries to maintain relationships.  Getting judgemental in ways which damage relationships does no one any good.

It is impossible to entirely comprehend the ordeal that Ms. Forster would have undergone as a result of her decision to come out, particularly within the context of an intensely Catholic family and community.  Mr. Abbott, his wife Margie and their three daughters were the first members of Christine's extended family to welcome her and her partner as a couple into their home.

The Opposition Leader has also worked hard for four years to keep his sister out of the public spotlight, despite the fact that his relationship with her could have helped to soften his image as an outdated social conservative.

In 2010 he persuaded a newspaper editor to drop a story about Forster's sexuality out of concern for his sister and her family.  Their welfare has dictated his response above any vanity for his own image.  Suffering insinuations that he remains quarantined from the breadth of humanity was a small price to shoulder.

This episode serves to highlight the deeper character of a man who is too broadly caricatured in the arena of public discourse.  It is reminiscent of an earlier controversy in 2005, which has largely been forgotten since Mr. Abbott assumed his party's leadership.

Abbott's girlfriend from university days had got pregnant in 1976 and they'd both assumed he was responsible.  They'd remained friends, stayed in touch and often wondered what would happen if the son they'd put up for adoption ever made contact. When he did, the then Liberal minister did not flinch.  He supported his former lover and welcomed the 'son' into his family.  Abbott's wife Margie was magnificent during the drama.  And when DNA tests later revealed Abbott was not in fact the father, he responded with sensitivity to this twist of fate.

Mr. Abbott to this very day suffers, at least among a significant portion of the public, from a lingering impression that he is a harsh man, lacking in those most basic human values of compassion and tolerance.  He is often caricatured as an unyielding right-wing dogmatist, and is frequently labelled (among other things) xenophobic, racist and homophobic.

Yet an objective appraisal of the evidence leads one to conclude that Tony Abbott is in fact a man of immense character.  Whatever one may think of his policies, or of his rhetorical style, Mr. Abbott is universally acclaimed by those who have known him as a fundamentally decent person.

All of this is not to say that he would necessarily make a good Prime Minister.  Policy, as much as character, would be the determining factor in that regard.  I personally disagree with Mr. Abbott on the issue of gay marriage, and I find it hard to even comprehend the reasoning behind his position on the matter.

But it becomes much more difficult to demonise the man when we are granted such insights into the realm of his personal life.

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