Obituary: Jackie Forster

Carole Woddis
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:29

IF POWER is about making a difference, affecting people's lives, then Jackie Forster was a powerful woman. Thanks to her many hundreds, if not thousands, of women have been able to lead more dignified, less isolated lives.

"If she had served any cause other than lesbian rights, she'd have been festooned with honours; she would have been Dame Jackie Forster," said the writer and academic Gill Hanscombe towards the end of what turned out to be a sadly prescient resume of Forster's life, From High Heels to Sensible Shoes, screened last year in the BBC's The Day That Changed My Life series.

As it is, though, Forster did achieve sainthood before her death - canonised in 1994 by the gay rights activists the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence as "Saint Jackie of the Eternal Mission to Lay Sisters". However it is a mark of society's continuing unease that Jackie Forster received little other official public recognition despite a personality and talent that in the 1950s made her the darling of BBC producers and the public alike.

Under her maiden name, Jackie Mackenzie, she became one of television's liveliest sparks, on programmes like Highlight, Newsnight and Late Night Extra. Mackenzie was sharp, funny - a walking mimic machine with a mercurial quickness and a face that could suddenly take on the bizarre mannerisms of telephones, chrysanthemums and, hysterically, a television lens zooming in on its victim. She pioneered a completely fresh form of reportage, live to camera, that made television history. Her account of the wedding of Prince Rainier and Princess Grace in Monaco in 1956 won her the Prix d'Italia.

She was, in her own words, a thoroughly conventional "very proper woman", born in 1926 to Scottish parents - her father was an army doctor who served in India. She was educated at Wycombe Abbey, and St Leonard's in Fife. Early theatrical experience saw her touring the country with the Wilson Barrett Company, and in the late 1940s she joined the Arts Theatre Club in London.

The event that did indeed change the course of her life occurred whilst on a lecture tour in Savannah, Georgia, in 1957, where she had her first lesbian affair, although it would be another 12 years, and a marriage and divorce later, before she came out, in 1969, announcing to the world at Speaker's Corner: "You are looking at a roaring dyke." It had taken all that time for her "to get rid of the feeling there is really something rather nasty and nobody else should know about it", she said. Suddenly she thought, "How dare they?" As she came down the steps at Speaker's Corner, the photographer Jenny Potter, holding one of the CHE (Committee for Homosexual Equality) banners nearby, noticed Forster shaking like a leaf. "Now that, I thought," recalls Potter, "is real courage."

Characteristically, once she had decided to do away with the pretence, she went at it with all guns blazing. From the time of her "conversion" to her death, she never stopped working to make sure other women did not go through what she had been through. She never had much money. Materialism did not loom large in her scheme of things. People were her passion. However, she "put her money where her mouth is", although in her case, the "money" was her energy and dedication, and also her luscious sense of joie de vivre. To be a political activist in her shoes was not gloomily to adopt a note of self- righteousness. She could be hectoring; when in her cups - there were many such occasions - she could be intimidating, even downright rude.

The magazine Sappho, which she co-founded in 1972, may well come to be seen as Jackie Forster's lasting monument. There were also monthly meetings and Sappho offered a place - geographically and emotionally - where, at a time when lesbians were invisible not only to the world but to each other, they could "unfurl" without fear, as Forster put it.

She moved on to become, in the words of Peter Tatchell, "a trailblazer". Always supportive of the controversial gay rights group Outrage, she revelled in the excitement of its policy of direct action. "I must do more of these," she told Tatchell, "to stop me growing into a respectable old lady." There was nothing Forster enjoyed more, one suspects, than to epater les bourgeois.

But the desire to shock also stemmed from a deep sense of conviction, as with her campaign to help lesbians become mothers through AID - artificial insemination by donor. "What was all the fuss about?" she enquired. "Women are blessed with two entirely separate systems; one is there for their sexuality and beautiful sex; the other for reproduction. There's no need to get them mixed up." Gill Hanscombe, with whom she co-wrote Rocking the Cradle in 1981, about lesbian mothers, describes Forster as "that rare individual. She has noble instincts and the noblest of them is to fight for injustice of any kind, not just for lesbians."

The film and television historian Stephen Bourne, who dedicated an evening to her at the National Film Theatre in 1996, recalls how in his research he kept coming across her (from the mid-1970s, she became the veritable "rent-a-dyke", ready and able to supply words on demand, and she was a founder member of the Women's Broadcasting and Film Lobby).

"Until the 1970s," notes Bourne, "lesbians would not appear on television in actuality. They did not want to be identified. Jackie was one of the first who really came out as a lesbian on TV and raised their profile in public." London Weekend Television's 1974 access programme Speak for Yourself, the first ever made by lesbians and gays themselves, was just the start of a swathe of programmes in which Forster spoke her mind and helped others to find theirs. "There was more to her than just a lesbian icon," says Bourne. "If gay men had opened themselves up and listened to her, they could have learnt a thing or two."

"She had a fund of stories," recalls Stephen Leslie, the producer of The Day That Changed My Life. "I think sometimes she liked to make a scene; I think she enjoyed being the centre of attention. But she was also the fount of a hell of a lot of knowledge and wisdom."

Jackie Forster could not be kept down. Five years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She recovered, not only to live to fight another day but to agitate on behalf of breast cancer awareness.

After half a lifetime of political agitation, sitting on this committee, pioneering that magazine (she never gave up being a journalist), and always being at the other end of a phone to give a word of comfort or support to others in the gay and lesbian community, and when she was approaching her three score years and ten, she created Daytime Dykes - a purely social gathering that visited historical buildings and museums. In the week before her death, she was still working as a volunteer with talking papers for the blind.

Jacqueline Moir Mackenzie, broadcaster, editor and gay rights activist: born London 6 November 1926; married 1958 Peter Forster (marriage dissolved 1962); died London 10 October 1998.

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