I guess we’re never too old to learn! Today I was taken to the cinema by my kids to see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel which was delightful, funny and insightful. I say insightful because I learned a very much needed lesson today from watching Tom Wilkinson’s portrayal of an elderly homosexual judge returning to India to seek out his first love.
I really did think I had sorted out my feelings and thoughts about homosexual people and their rights to full equality before the law. Of course they deserve that, but somehow I couldn’t see the gay marriage issue as an integral part of it. Though I couldn’t be described as opposed to it, it has never seemed a priority to me given there are so many other urgent reforms for Labor to deal with. Besides, it’s difficult with many different opinions on this in the ALP both in caucus and the country at large. In fact, I get impatient when I’m told it is a first order question for Labor to sort out.
I thought that was because for me marriage as either a rite or an institution now seems an irrelevance, an anachronism, having become so devalued even when children are involved. Surely, I told myself, full equality for same sex couples before the law was enough? Their de-facto relationships had the same status as those of heterosexual couples. They were even able to parent children and they seemed to make as good a job of parenting as anyone else. Why add the constraints of conventional marriage which often seemed to be so harmful to the people bound by it, particularly the children born within it, with all the attendant potential problems of legal separations and divorce.
I’ve been re-thinking that attitude this afternoon. Not about marriage but about homosexual rights to it, and my failure to fully appreciate the urgency and passion of the need for this last barrier to full equality to be removed. This love story about two young men who loved each other many decades ago, were discovered together and shamed into lifelong separation, moved me deeply and took me back to my own adolescence when I had my first exposure to the idea of gay love. Well it wasn’t called ‘gay’ then. Nor was ‘love’ mentioned in connection with it. Homosexuals were criminals, I learned, but I couldn’t understand exactly what law they were breaking. Newspaper reports were written in terms of ‘gross indecency’ and ‘offences’ which it seemed were so appalling they could not be explained, even spoken of in polite society.
I went home after the film and immediately set about reading up on homosexual law reform or decriminalisation over the more than fifty years since my teens. Of course I had been aware of it all unfolding, but looking back I can see that for me it was as if it were in another world. I”ve just been reading an article in the Guardian which exactly describes my own teenage experience and probably of most of my peers. Not really an experience mind you, just an awareness as I started to read newspapers in the England of the fifties. This para, written just a few years ago, pretty well sums that up.
It’s hard to imagine now how repressive was the atmosphere surrounding homosexuality in the 1950s. ‘It was so little spoken about, you could be well into late adolescence before you even realised it was a crime,’ says Allan Horsfall, a campaigner for legal change in the north west, where he lived with his partner, a headmaster. ‘Some newspapers reported court cases but they talked of “gross indecency” because they couldn’t bring themselves to mention it, so young people were lucky if they could work out what was going on.’ www.guardian.co.uk/…/communities.gayrights.
In the fifty years since I grew up in that environment I have become a well informed, rational and I like to think a fair minded adult who believes in equal rights and opportunities for all regardless of gender, race, or sexual preferences. Watching the portrayal of that elderly judge, a stereotypical mature, ageing pillar of society, talking of his lifelong love for another man, I realized how little I knew about him and other people like him of my own generation. I had certainly not till then empathised with his situation. In the darkness of that cinema I was taken back to my own adolescence when I learned not to think about those uncomfortable things.
I had forgotten how uncomfortable they were, and as well how even more uncomfortable I had been made to feel about my own sexuality. I was in my early thirties before I thought I’d finally got that sorted out. Then it became easy to accept women friends who were living in lesbian relationships. I even began, I thought, to understand the theatre friends of my playwright, now ex-husband, who were openly gay. Yes, that word was being used by the early seventies even here in Australia where we had settled with our two children and where our marriage finally broke up. But I can’t say I was willing to spend a lot of time thinking about gays. There was too much else to worry about or later to enjoy, to read about and focus on.
Well today I do have the time. And that portrayal of an elderly judge in that delightful film has moved me to spend some of it reading about the appalling things we have done and are still doing to people growing up alongside us in our so called democratic egalitarian society. Already I’ve covered quite a lot of material, and I shall be reading a lot more. That article I’ve quoted above is particularly detailed, informative and lucid. It’s helped me see that just because I don’t value marriage, or want it for myself any more, it isn’t fair that I should deny it to other people for whom it is a much yearned for and too long denied right.