The human race has a strange tendency to go back on itself. Our history is tarnished with periods of regression, when positive social progress is underdone for political expediency by leaders who have allowed or created a climate of fear and blame. Over the past month I watched the unraveling of the Tory leadership race with great concern.
The current political hotchpotch has thrown a spotlight on a strange mix of little-known politicians who all appear to have a somewhat chequered history when it comes to the rights of Gay people in the UK. Indeed some of the rhetoric they are reported to have used on the subject felt like a throwback to the 1980s, and for a period I did worry that a new Prime Minister might seize the opportunity to turn the clock back 30 years on gay rights.
There is a section of my book Exposé which reflects on the 1980s and a particularly shameful period of homophobic right-wing electioneering which resulted in the phrase “pretended family relationship” being made law. The Local Government Act 1988 ensured Gay couples across the UK lost any sense of being legally recognised. I was a closeted Gay teenager at the time and was left pondering the type of country I was living in, and would grow up in.
My husband and I are part of the generation of gay couples who span the change in social attitudes and legal recognition. We’ve been together for 20 years and for the first decade of that we were one of those ‘pretended’ families. As far as the law was concerned, we were simply two single men living together.
But in 2006 (on the 10th anniversary of our first date) we became civil partners and then, nine years after that, a married couple. It may seem a long time to wait but in historical terms it has been a whirlwind of progression and social change. For me, a former ’80s teenager, it is still a surprise that it has happened. It’s even more surprising that the political party which once called us a “pretended family relationship” is the same party which delivered equal marriage rights.
And I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that the pace of change in social attitudes towards gay people and couples ran faster than my own. Throughout our civil partnership I only ever used the word ‘husband’ at home, and always jokingly. In all other settings I would use the word ‘partner’ and in any fleeting exchanges with people I didn’t really know, such as shop assistants, my comments were always vague enough to suggest I was partnered with a woman. In retrospect, I used the word ‘they’ much more than ‘he’.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not in the closet or recently come out. I’ve been openly gay for almost 25 years. As an adult my sexuality isn’t something I’ve been secretive about. But years of social programming had taught me not to make others feel uncomfortable and for some reason, in my head, this translated as meaning that it simply wasn’t polite or necessary to keep referencing my sexual orientation.
And so using the word ‘husband’ always felt clunky, as though I had needlessly introduced a degree of awkwardness into an otherwise perfectly acceptable conversation. And this made me avoid using it. Even when we were married and the title of ‘husband’ was legally bestowed on both of us, I still struggled to use it. Other people did, of course. Friends, family and work colleagues all happily asked about my husband. I remained stuck on ‘partner’.
It was actually an equality training session that began to nudge my attitudes in the right direction. The woman running the course pointed out that straight people talk about their sexual orientation all the time. It’s done obliquely, of course, and as a society we’re so used it that we don’t even realise they are doing it. But she pointed out that within minutes of meeting a straight man or woman they are likely to talk about their wife or their husband, putting their sexuality out there for all to see. Only, in that scenario, it’s never a big deal. Why would it be?
And for more than 10 years. I remembered her well, the busy head of a loud and funny household filled with smiling kids. And she quickly caught me up on how all her children were doing – one was now a mum, one was in the army, one was trans, one was sitting his exams.
Wait, what? trans? Did she just say one of her kids is trans? Yes she had, and how wonderful that it was just dropped into the conversation as a casual aside, a routine part of modern life for a busy mum. I suddenly felt quite foolish.
It made me reflect on this extraordinary period of time that I have lived through, that my husband and I have been a part of. I thought about the history of the LGBT community and the people who had fought so hard for so many decades to get us to a place where Gay people can get married and children can safely talk to their parents about gender issues. And I realised how my social anxiety was actually disrespectful to everything that had been done to give me this right to have a husband.
And so I practised. I started using the word at work with colleagues I didn’t know very well. And then I started chatting about my husband to the people behind the till at my local shop. I used the word on social media (Facebook and Twitter) and even over the phone when I was sat on a train, knowing other passengers would hear me. I was never vague and I never allowed any room for misunderstandings, no matter who I was speaking with or in front of. And, of course, no one cared. The world has moved on and a man having a husband just isn’t a big deal anymore. And that really is progression.