In several recent interviews, as well as in general conversations, I am being asked about the basis of Toddie’s and Beezie’s – the Drug Grannies – relationship. In short, people want to know if they were gay or not.
And it’s not simply because June is Pride Month!
The short answer is: I don’t know.
And it’s complicated.
On ABC Radio National, Phillip Adams delicately stepped around the women’s status when he put it to me: “You and those who knew them talk about them being committed long-standing companions, usually wearing fairly masculine clothes, together for a good 20 years, but you don’t describe them as lesbians.”
I was unambiguous with my response.
“Phillip, I never asked them, and I don’t know to this day,” I said. “Now there are many who observe, and people I’ve spoken to who make that assumption, and it could well be the case, but from my perspective I didn’t know, I didn’t ask, and it didn’t make any difference for me.”
That’s how I felt then, and how I still feel 40 years later.
Phillip Adams concluded that aspect of our interview by saying whatever their orientation, it shouldn’t “make any difference to us today, but I thought it was important to at least ask”. Too right.
In 1983 when I accompanied the women in a U-Haul rental truck driving their goods in storage from Port Angeles back to La Pine, Oregon the 60 Minutes reporter Jana Wendt told the women what she was hearing from some townsfolk. She prefaced that by saying La Pine was “a very hick town; people come straight out and tell you what they think”.
“About 60 per cent of the town said they have paid their dues and should be allowed to live out their life where they want,” Wendt reported. “The rest say they are two lesbians who have been leading a scandalous life together for years.”
Wendt believed Toddie and Beezie had made it through jail because they’d had each other.
“Toddie and Beezie have lived together for 18 years,” Wendt reported. “But even that has worked against them, along with the rest of the story, their life together, has made good copy.”
One unnamed La Pine resident interviewed for 60 Minutes said: “I think everybody pretty well knows that they’re lesbians, and that if they choose to live that kind of a lifestyle, that nobody’s going to bother them about that.” Remember, this was 1983 and La Pine was a small lumberjack community, so that sort of tolerance and indifference is impressive.
When Jana Wendt asked the women about their sexual orientation, referencing an Australian tabloid newspaper story, Toddie was first to answer. Emphatically.
“Well, that’s good,” Toddie replied “they got proof? I’d like to have that newspaper (report) because I’d like to sue somebody.” Toddie was still hurting deeply, traumatised by the more than five years’ incarceration, gutted by the breakdown in her once close family love and cohesion, hurt beyond belief that the anonymity she craved was no longer possible, even in small town La Pine.
Beezie was more reasonable about the public airing of her and Toddie’s companionship.
“Most of your (Australian) prison system now…90% of your officers are (lesbians) in your prison system…and even normal women who go in there, they’re not necessarily lesbians. They’ll have lesbian relationships. They will turn to any type of affection, regardless of whether it’s a man or a woman…or a pet,” Beezie explained matter-of-factly. “They have to have some type of affection.”
I am not the least bit interested in assumptions about the women’s relationship because I don’t believe it had anything to do with Toddie and Beezie being betrayed by their nephew.
One insider who differs slightly in that view is former Federal Bureau of Narcotics agent Miche Khoury, the woman who wrote the introduction to my book.
“I think Vern Todd might have got Vera to do it (drive the campervan) knowing that Beezie would just follow…one in, all in and I think he played on that really loving couple,” Miche told me while recording an interview for my forthcoming two-part radio documentary about to air on ABC Radio National’s ‘The History Listen’ on June 14 (part 1) and June 21 (part 2). “They were a really loving couple,” Miche said “that’s what I remember about them.”
“To think that he allowed his aunt and her beloved partner to take the rap for it single handedly or double handedly, without any implication for him is an absolute disgrace.
“I hold nothing but contempt for him for the mere fact that he let his auntie and her partner virtually rot in jail,” she added.
As I write in Betrayed, the women’s relationship was attacked by an unnamed ‘prisoner’ in a tabloid newspaper story in which it was claimed the pair had “outraged inmates by openly flaunting their lesbian love”. I took little notice of it because from my perspective, these were two mature-aged women who had been companions for more than 20 years. I’d never seen them acting in any way other than mature, civilised mature-aged women when I visited them each week in jail.
I wouldn’t know if it had been a ‘romantic friendship’, a ‘Boston marriage’ or a longstanding companionship. Or a gay relationship.
The nature of their status was – and is – none of anyone’s business. They were accepting of the ups and downs, and the strengths and weaknesses they had.
La Pine neighbour Carol Brewer asked me in another interview for my documentary: “In your recollection, were these gay ladies?” I let her go on without answering her question. “The only reason I say that is because someone was in contact with them when they were in prison there, and one thing that this person said was they hated to wear a dress.” Oh, the joys of small-town assumptions!
Another La Pine neighbour and one-time owner of the local hardware store – Nancy Carter – whom I also recently interviewed, was unambiguous about Toddie and Beezie’s relationship: “I really liked the two gals. I knew they were gay, but they never stepped out of line or approached me or anybody else that I knew of.
“They didn’t flaunt it or carry on about it. I mean, I didn’t know they were (gay) even though Beezie worked for me.
“But my sister, she kind of caught on to all that kind of stuff pretty quick and she told me. I don’t think very many people thought anything about it. I know I didn’t, you know, I never gave it a thought.
“They were fine ladies,” Nancy added.
I’ll leave the final words to Beezie. She was sanguine, compassionate and a genuinely good person. She told Jana Wendt in that 60 Minutes interview: “We learned something.
“We learned about other people. There are beautiful people in prison, and I don’t care what anybody says.
“I’ve seen beautiful people in prison. Some of them I preferred to a lot of people on the outside who think that they’re so sanctimonious.
“We’ve seen beautiful women (in jail).
“No…I’m not sorry.
“I learned something,” Beezie declared.