When I was 12, our English teacher, Mrs Greenwood, asked us to write an extended composition. Our task was to tell a story in three parts — to go wherever our imagination took us and take her, the reader, with us.
While other boys wrote tales of adventure and ambition — on the playing field and elsewhere — I wrote about playing happy families. In my composition, I fell in love with a girl called Sally. We went to live by the seaside and started a family — and, of course, we lived happily ever after.
Looking back, my story was about wishing I could grow up in a happy family — ours often wasn’t. I craved the ordinariness of family life I saw around me but which eluded my siblings and me. What Mrs Greenwood made of my essay, I’ve no idea. My recollection is an eight out of ten for the first part followed by sevens. I must have run out of steam.
Nearly half a century later, I’m still trying to make sense of that yearning. But my story also speaks to another journey I’d scarcely begun to understand in Form 2G1. To another sort of family and a different kind of loving. One which involved, just a few years later, taking the road less travelled.
I didn’t marry a woman and I didn’t have children. But I did, eventually, marry a man and we do have a house by the sea. My story did have a happy ending. But the change which made that possible — changing normal — didn’t happen by accident.
We had to make it happen against the charge that our families were ‘pretended’ — that we didn’t have an ‘inalienable’ right to be who we choose to be. To be ourselves. And on the way, we had to persuade others — colleagues, friends, family — to embrace difference.
I’m all for embracing difference. How dull would the world be if we were all the same? Yet there was always a strange tension at the heart of our journey. In our struggle to get the world to accept difference we were also on a mission to get it to accept that we’re just the same too.
As a young gay activist through the 1980s — often angst-ridden, sometimes angry — one of the thoughts that gnawed away at me was an overwhelming desire to persuade those who feared progress — politicians and priests among them — just how ordinary our lives were.
Love wasn’t living in Sodom and Gomorrah — but doing the weekly shop at Safeway on a Saturday morning. Growing up I’d longed for one kind of ordinariness — now I yearned for another.
This morning, my husband handed me a Valentine’s Day gift bag — he never fails like that. It’s one of the reasons I love him. Inside was a pepper mill and a couple of scented candles. Yes, of course, I get the schmaltz of it all — and the falling prey to commercialisation I’d otherwise eschew.
Back in the day, I didn’t think I was marching for the right to buy His and His Valentine’s Day cards in Paperchase. But for all that, the sheer ordinariness of it all is such a delight. And in such a short space of time, it’s become so ordinary that people all too often wonder why some of us bang on about it at all.
But as Damian Barr tweeted yesterday, if you were looking for a Valentine’s Day gift for your loved one on Amazon, you might have come across ‘gay cure’ books too. There are still those on a mission to reverse the advances we’ve made. Not to change lives, but ruin them.
We HAVE changed normal — but for many of those who came before us, that change came too late. And it’s in their name that we must redouble our efforts to ensure those who come after us don’t have to give being who they want to be a second thought.
A world where ‘coming out’ is an anachronism. Where, whatever our differences, we can revel in ordinariness. Because, as Cressida Dick, Metropolitan Commissioner, said on Desert Island Discs this week, her sexuality is actually the least interesting thing about her.
I know what Cressida meant — and, of course, in one sense, she’s right. But I’m sure she knows that simple truth is not entirely true — just yet.
The love that dared not speak its name is talking now. My new pepper mill is a symbol of progress as much as domesticity. But, for now, we need to keep talking — even shouting occasionbally — until our sexuality is the least interesting thing about any of us.
Happy Valentine’s Day.