On Sunday, 60 minutes played a widely publicised interview with Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, in which he talks extensively about his relationship with his sister, who four years ago ended her marriage to enter into a relationship with a woman.
For as long as he has been in the public eye, Tony Abbott has rightfully drawn condemnation for his views on homosexuality. Abbott has been a roadblock on progressive queer policy many times, including his current opposition to same-sex marriage and adoption. Abbott has also said some pretty awful things about queer people. For example, as quoted in the interview, Abbott once described lesbians as:
“grim faced, overall clad, hardened, strident, often lustfully embracing counterfeit love.”
Then, in 2010, he said this about homosexuality on 60 Minutes:
“There is no doubt that challenges, if you like, orthodox notions of the right order of things…I probably feel a bit threatened (by homosexuality), as so many people do.”
Now, I’m not going to write here that after this interview all can be forgiven, Tony Abbott is someone we can trust on queer issues, and everything is now okay. I, just like everyone else, have no faith in Abbott’s personal positions, and given that his policies haven’t changed at all, from a public policy perspective this interview means nothing. He is definitely not someone fighting for queer liberation.
Yet, unfortunately, the reaction to Abbott’s interview has completely missed the point, and ignored its importance. For example, after the interview was played, Australian Marriage Equality sent out a media release stating that as long as Abbott didn’t support marriage equality, he couldn’t truly ‘accept’ his sister Christine. Rodney Croome from AME had this to say:
“You can’t draw lines around other people’s humanity by accepting who they are but rejecting their fundamental human rights”.
“Tony Abbott cannot say he truly accepts his lesbian sister, Christine, until he has also accepted Christine’s partner, Virginia, as her wife and his sister-in-law.”
First of all, I would have to say that it must be really insulting for someone like Christine Forster (Abbott’s sister) to have someone else tell her what acceptance by her brother means. If you look throughout the interview, and Christine’s other media comments, it seems pretty clear that she looks pretty comfortable in her family setting and accepted by her brother. For anyone else to step into their family and comment from afar is quite insulting (insulting as it is for Abbott to comment on queer relationships).
But more importantly than this, AME, and so many other activists, have once again missed the point when it comes to this interview. Because whilst Abbott hasn’t come out to support same-sex marriage, the interview, and his ‘transformation’ is important.
If you were to name the biggest issue I reckon most queer people face in their lives, it is the fear of coming out, and the threat that a family would reject them. Whilst many, like myself, are lucky that they live in progressive families and have no problems when they come out, others don’t have such luck.
People growing up in conservative families often face consequences when they come out; being kicked out of home, being ostracised, or being told continuously that they are going to go to hell. Yet, often when you hear about these sorts of stories, they can be followed up by a slow process of acceptance, one where a conservative family turns from hatred, back to love, for their queer family members. It may not be a full transformation to a point where they are marching in Mardi Gras (although for some it is), but the transformation is important anyway.
And in many ways this is a key aim of queer activism – to create societal change so that people no longer have to face the threat of being ostracised when they ‘come out’ as queer. And that means engaging with conservatives and taking them on a path away from hatred.
From this interview it seems to me that this is what Tony Abbott has done. He has moved from almost complete hatred of queer people, to one where he can accept his lesbian sister. Has he come far enough? I don’t think so. But for me, the movement is important. It’s particularly important because as a national leader he has shown conservatives around the country that they can, and should, support their queer family members as well.
And this is where marriage advocates have missed the point. In slamming Abbott for this interview they were blind to other important issues facing queer people; important issues that were directly addressed in this interview. Marriage advocates have determined only one form of ‘acceptance’ and seem to dismiss anything that doesn’t fit that mould.
Of course, this doesn’t make Tony Abbott my queer hero. His policies continue to raise serious questions for me, and as a queer man I could never vote for him because of this (amongst many other issues).
But maybe instead of having a go at his family life, and the treatment of his sister, we could recognise some movement. It’s not movement that’s far enough, but when it comes to the personal treatment of queer people by conservatives around the world, it is important.