ST Review: The Gay Debate, Present by denied (Nov 1)

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Nov 1, 2007
Present but denied
By John Gee

AFTER the parliamentary debate over Section 377A ended in the retention of the clause, one pro-change activist was quoted as saying: 'What makes this so divisive is that so many of those who are against gays do not have gay friends and do not understand them.'

The sad reality is that many probably do have gay friends, but they just don't know it.

As a teenager in Britain, I remember hearing programmes on the radio in which gay characters featured, and knowing about certain gay people in public life and history books, but I didn't know any fellow students or teachers who were definitely gay.

Among people of my acquaintance, I was aware of no gay men and knew just one woman who was fairly certainly a lesbian, although the word was never used. She was a great-aunt of mine, who would come to family occasions with a woman who was always known as her 'friend', and whom she lived with for half of her life until she died at a ripe old age, loved and respected by all who knew her.

It was only when I went to university that I met men and women who were very open about being gay or lesbian, but that was something of a special environment, more tolerant of differences than most, even though male homosexuality had been decriminalised in 1967 (lesbianism was never recognised in British law).

Even there, I realised that there were gay men who quite deliberately kept their distance from those who were 'out'. They made a decision not to draw attention to their sexuality. I don't think it could have been as easy as it would at first seem; it meant forgoing the casual intimate exchanges in which heterosexuals often engage without a second thought - a touch, an embrace, an intense, close-up conversation.

As chance would have it, I came to know more lesbians than gay men, and two became close friends. Things they said gave me new insights into why it is that many homosexuals are wary of revealing their sexual identity.

One woman came from a Muslim family and had lived quite happily until her father decided that it was time she got married. Arranged marriages were the rule in her community, but she decided that she could not marry someone she could never love, and left home. Her mother and brothers were quite sympathetic, but the rift between
father and daughter was lasting.

When I first met her, I thought that she was very puritanical as whenever any reference to sexual matters arose, she seemed uncomfortable and would steer the conversation to another topic. It was only after a couple of years that a mutual friend told me, in a very matter-of-fact way, that she was a lesbian. Eventually, after a big upheaval in her life, she suddenly became very willing to pour out
her woes to me, and it was then that I heard the whole story.

Another woman I knew had several boyfriends, but the relationships never lasted long. It was only after a few years that she told me one day that she had a girlfriend.

She said she would have mentioned this to me before, but I had told a story about a gay man I knew that she saw as derogatory of him, and that frightened her into keeping quiet about her own sexuality. I knew her parents, whom she loved very much. Both were devout Catholics.

Her father died without her being able to tell him honestly about her sexual identity, but she did eventually manage to talk about it with her mother. There are old school friends she still sees occasionally, but she does not dare to risk them turning away from her if she reveals her sexuality.

Odd incidents served to remind me what gay people could face, simply because they were gay. A man I knew was beaten up one night just outside his own home after a group of particularly unpleasant and hefty young bigots living in the neighbourhood discovered that he was gay.

This was a far from isolated incident, but it hadn't happened to anyone I knew before.

A writer I knew and respected shared a home with his male partner for most of his life. They were very happy together and, had they been man and woman, most people would have seen theirs as a model relationship.

The writer died, and his lifelong partner was status-less. Arrangements for the funeral fell to the deceased's nearest blood-relatives and the grieving partner had to request their permission for him to attend, which, to their credit, they gave
willingly. I attended the memorial service and could not help thinking that this relationship had never been more explicitly acknowledged by the author's friends and family than at that moment.

I knew a trade union official who took on the case of a woman who claimed that she had been unfairly dismissed from her workplace. He soon found that his union superiors were reluctant to support her. One eventually spoke to him 'off the record' and said: 'You know she's a lesbian, don't you?' - an issue that had not figured explicitly in her dismissal. The official, an Irishman of distinctly nationalist
outlook, stood his ground: 'Lesbian? I'd defend her even if she was a Protestant!'

Homosexuals belong to many different communities and backgrounds, which is why talk of a 'gay community' can be misleading; sexuality is not the be-all and end-all of anyone's existence.

One consequence of this is that some gay people share most of the values of people who display strong hostility towards them. They may be strongly Christian or Muslim, or socially conservative; it must be wounding when they hear words of condemnation or mockery, but they persist in these antagonistic surroundings because they feel they have so many shared ideals.

And so I look back on my schooldays with a mind informed by experience and I realise that I almost certainly did know gay people then. I also remember the jokes told about homosexuals and how they were so often figures of fun, malice and fear.

I felt uncomfortable about the hostility this expressed, and soon stopped laughing at the jokes, but I didn't speak up to object, and I don't remember anyone else doing so: After all, people might have said that you were one of them, and who wanted that? How would young gay people have dared to reveal their true sexual feelings in those
circumstances? So they lived out a pretence, unable to be true to themselves.

It still happens, all around the world. If, in most societies, homosexuals largely seem to belong to a middle class or intellectual environment, it is because that is where they tend to be most readily accepted as the individuals that they are. Homosexuals who are poor and live in more socially conservative environments just become used to adopting a heterosexual facade, even entering into loveless
marriages that must often leave both partners unsatisfied and children disturbed at the sense of something missing in their parents' relationship.

I have no view one way or the other about homosexuality being right or wrong: It exists and it doesn't matter to me what consenting adults do in their private lives, providing it causes no harm to others. That is what reason says, regardless of religiously based prohibitions. I do have a definite view on lives being blighted and human happiness denied by the enforcement of codes of behaviour and values that force
many of those they target into living a lie: That is wrong - morally wrong, I believe.

I can only be sceptical of perspectives that, at no cost to those who embrace them, force upon others lives of self-denial and often loneliness, as well as varying degrees of estrangement from family, co-religionists and segments of their communities. While that happens, many people will go on knowing gay men and lesbian women, but not knowing that they do.

John Gee is a freelance writer based in Singapore.