Kerryn Phelps and Jackie Stricker have been lesbian role models since they came out nearly five years ago. Marcus O�Donnell talks to the couple about their new biography.
Everybody knows now � well, anybody who�s been paying attention � that when Kerryn Phelps and Jackie Stricker first kissed there was thunder and lightning. In fact, extraordinary displays of nature have accompanied three major turning points in their journey together according to Susan Mitchell�s new biography of the high-profile lesbian couple.
Jackie�s rabbi was not fussed when told of nature�s confirmation of their union. �When there�s a big focus of energy in one place, who knows what can happen?� he mused.
A counsellor they consulted early in the relationship concurred: �The energy that�s between you two and what you will create is going to be very significant. Don�t be frightened of it. Work with it.�
The Phelps-Strickers have been big news ever since Mardi Gras 1998 when it was announced by The Sunday Telegraph that Channel Nine�s celebrity doctor had married her lesbian lover in a New York Jewish ceremony.
At first it was shock, titillation and spectacle that seemed to fuel the publicity juggernaut, but strangely the couple have now become part of the Australian media and political landscape. They seem to flip effortlessly between the Sydney social scene and Canberra�s corridors of power where the AMA president and her executive assistant are well known faces.
In the current round of media interviews to coincide with the launch of Kerryn And Jackie: The Shared Life Of Kerryn Phelps And Jackie Stricker, they have been reported as the ideal couple. They never argue and they are �absolutely� certain they will be together forever. And they finish each other�s sentences �
Stricker thought the verbatim transcript of part of their Herald interview where they were shown uncannily finishing each other�s sentences was a bit of a send-up. �Which two people who live together don�t finish each other�s sentences?� she retorted.
It�s this dynamic between the ordinary and the extraordinary that marks the narrative of their relationship. Phelps says that the new round of publicity has been �surreal� � suddenly it�s all out there in the open again.
But there�s a new element in the mix this time.
�I think one of the things we�ve found is that the taboo about talking about family problems is almost bigger than talking about your sexuality,� Stricker tells me.
She�s talking about the passages in the book that deal with the estrangement between Phelps and her daughter Jaime. Phelps has had no contact with either her daughter or her parents for two years.
Phelps calls this the �second taboo�.
�We knew we broke the rules five years ago talking about a happy same-sex relationship in a very frank and open way. Five years down the track we have broken the rules again by talking about unhappy family relationships and daring to say that, just because you are biologically related, you�re not all going to get on, or like each other, or do the right thing by each other,� Phelps says.
When they came out as a couple they were inundated with letters from young lesbians. Many of these letters said the same thing: just knowing such a successful couple existed made a difference.
They have been surprised that even in the brief time since the book�s release, the new story has also garnered similar responses.
�It�s interesting the number of people that have come up to us in the last week and said to us, �I�ve had the same problems with my own family and the book made me feel a bit better about the decisions I�ve had to make,�� Phelps reveals.
The two clearly believe that they have some kind of obligation to make a difference. Stricker frames it in terms of �visibility�.
�I think the gay community needs to think more about visibility � it�s an incredibly important factor,� she says.
In a sense they are reluctant role models.
They had been considering a coming-out story but had made no decision � the timing didn�t seem quite right. Then it began to happen around them when one weekend they were warned that The Sunday Telegraph was sending a reporter and photographer to their house. The story would be run regardless.
Phelps�s agent advised them to �lock the doors and windows and pretend you�re not home and they�ll go away�.
�I got really angry when I heard that because I�m not somebody who wants to hide away. And I told Kerryn that was really bad advice and you don�t lock the doors and windows and hide like a rabbit, and I�m not going to do it. Kerryn was scared because she feared the ramifications. I was not scared because I was so na�ve about the potential consequences,� Stricker relates in the book.
In the end they invited the reporter in and did the interview.
�We had a choice then to harness it or be a victim to it and we chose to harness it for the benefit that it could be for other people and we don�t regret the action that we took,� Phelps says.
The book and the publicity have focused on their �shared life� but the basis of a strong shared life is two strong individuals.
�Neither of us can be pushed around,� Phelps explains. �But the good thing is we have shared objectives and we have shared values and if there is something that we disagree on in principle then we sit down and talk it through and come to a consensus.�
�Neither of us makes decisions for the other,� Stricker interjects.
�Yes, we don�t impose our will on the other,� Phelps continues. �I think we have too much respect for each other to do that. One thing that the media hasn�t really picked up on is that we are fiercely individual.�
There are differences, some of them quite striking.
�I�m a much more emotive person,� Stricker says. �I react really emotionally, really quickly, and I tend to put my foot in my mouth before I think, although I�m getting a lot better at that. Kerryn�s the total opposite. She thinks before she acts, she works out 45 different plans, whereas I�m out there being pulled back trying to race out the gate.�
�But I�m a little more adventurous,� Phelps adds, referring to her penchant for holidays that involve thrills like shooting the rapids.
�Yeh and I�m a scaredy cat,� Stricker laughs.
�Kerryn makes me feel more brave,� she adds on a more serious note.
�I think with any relationship where you have absolute faith and confidence in your partner, it does make you more brave. With the whole coming out episode, if we hadn�t had each other being there consistently for each other, then it would have been so much more difficult than it was,� Phelps reflects.
Stricker says at one point that Phelps is actually a �bit of a larrikin� and that this is an aspect of her partner the world doesn�t often see because of the pervasive professional doctor image. But she admits that she too is a provocateur.
�It�s really important for me to provoke debate with this book. What I wanted is to provoke debate, to educate people. I�m an educator, I�ve always been an educator and I don�t want to stop being an educator,� Stricker says very passionately.
The couple are beguiling in their openness and passion. This alone is certain to continue to provoke debate � neither Jackie Stricker nor her larrikin mate is likely to be disappointed on that score.
Kerryn And Jackie: The Shared Life Of Kerryn Phelps And Jackie Stricker by Susan Mitchell is published by Allen and Unwin (2002, RRP $39.95).