GAY TIMES February 2000

Terry Sanderson’s autobiography “The Reluctant Gay Activist” is now available on Amazon

Once again the topic of gay parenting has been exercising the narrow minds of our newspapers. The complications surrounding the birth and ‘importation’ from America of the twins fathered by Barrie Drewitt and Tony Barlow has prompted the latest flurry of interest.

Depending on your opinion, Messrs Drewitt and Barlow might be using their new babies as “some sort of fashion accessory” (Simon Heffer, Daily Mail) or they may be “the best qualified parents I can think of” (Chris Bellamy, husband of Rosalind, who acted as surrogate for the gay couple). Either way, there is now a legal battle under way to gain British citizenship for Saffron and Aspen. Latest signs indicate that it will succeed.

The hysteria was ratcheted up a couple of notches by the announcement from Stephen Gateley of Boyzone that he too was anxious to be a dad. The 23-year-old star told The Sun that he and his boyfriend Eloy de Jong “long to settle down and bring up a baby together”. Stephen is quoted as saying: “If there was a way open to adopt, I’d do it. I’d love to give the kids an opportunity.”

Of course, there’s nothing to stop Stephen applying to adopt. The British Association for Adoption and Fostering say he could put in his bid tomorrow, although only one of a gay couple could be the legal parent.

Then came Michael Barrymore and his boyfriend Shaun Davis. They told OK! TV that they’d love to have children, too. “When the circumstances are right, then yes, I would adopt” Michael told the programme. “The child would be loved, it would be given all the opportunities it would not normally have.”

And as if to make sure everyone realised that he was serious about family life, Michael and Shaun went off to Hawaii and “secretly married”. According to the Daily Mail, the couple see “the private ceremony as a key step towards adopting a child”. It also said that the phenomenally popular entertainer had “talked about refugee children from Eastern Europe or the war in Chechnya”.

Mr Barrymore made his case more extensively in an interview with The Sunday People. There he told of a close relationship he had formed with a 9-year-old boy called Damon Laffere who had appeared on his television programme, but who had subsequently died while waiting for a heart and lung transplant. Barrymore said: “I do a lot of work with kids but this little boy was special and I got more involved than I have ever done… After he died, Shaun and I went to his funeral and I was terribly upset for his mum, Debs.”

Prompted by this experience, Barrymore than took 100 disabled children on a trip to Lapland, where they were pictured having a great time.

Although this could be interpreted as a cloyingly sentimental approach to children, there are times when sentiment and fun have a place. Whether Barrymore, with his rather unstable history, could ever be a suitable parent would be something for the experts to decide. And when I say experts, I mean social workers, not right-wing extremists like Norman Tebbit. Although he has no expertise whatsoever in this area, Tebbit felt qualified to write in The Mail on Sunday: “What a sick society we live in. Michael Barrymore, the entertainer with a history of alcoholism and drug dependence, wants to adopt a child. … A child in the Barrymore household would have less chance than a puppy given at Christmas might have of happiness.”

Mr Tebbit is not alone in his reservations, of course. There has been a lot of comment about the “selfishness” of gay people who want to raise families of their own. It’s unnatural, goes the argument, or cruel in that the children will be taunted mercilessly at school. Or they will be unsure of their sexuality because they won’t have a “normal” male and female role model.

But is this true, or is it just the frightened bleating of people unsettled by the undoubted changes that are occurring in our society? We know that Norman Tebbit is afraid of change – he wouldn’t be such a committed Conservative if he weren’t – but what about Harry Coen? Mr Coen was once a vice-chairman of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and describes himself as “a fully paid-up gay man”, yet he shares Norman Tebbit’s misgivings. He wrote in the Express about the Drewitt/Barlow case: “Parenthood is not a God-given right – nor a duty – for anyone. I have never understood the urge felt by many gay men to breed. Most of us feel ourselves lucky to have been saved this burden and are content, especially at Christmas, with the joys of unclehood.” He opines that the surrogates “do the gay cause no good” because they “play straight into the hands of the bigots”.

Sorry, Mr Coen, but if we allow the direction of our lives to be dictated by the demands of bigots, we’d still be living in the Dark Ages.

And while we’re on the subject of bigots, Richard Littlejohn in The Sun couldn’t resist this particular bandwagon. “No matter how much the noisy gay lobby insists there is no difference between homosexual relationships and what they like to call ‘straight’ relationships, nature proves otherwise. Men can’t have babies. Full stop.”

Mr Littlejohn says that there will be plenty of gay activists and proselytisers ready to “back up” Drewitt and Barlow’s demands for citizenship for their children. However, the fact remains that “when it comes to bearing children, heterosexuals and homosexuals can never be equal” because the “vital female role has been airbrushed from the record.”

He seems to have forgotten about those gay people who have had straight relationships that have borne children, but we’ll not get in the way of his propaganda by bothering him with facts.

I don’t think, either, that we’ll be seeing mention in Mr Littlejohn’s column of a piece of research conducted by Dr Gill Dunne at the London School of Economics. According to The Guardian: “She has produced a study based on interviews with 100 gay fathers and would-be fathers. It suggests not only that gay fathers are choosing to have children and to look after them, but also that their family relationships could be a model for the future.”

The fathers in the study had come by their children in a number of ways – some from straight relationships, some from surrogacy, some from adoption and some from IVF arrangements with lesbian friends. Although a number of the living arrangements were rather complicated, the consistent feature of these new-style families was that they were organised around the children. A quarter of Dunne’s sample was working less than 30 hours a week in order to devote more time to their children. The Guardian said that: “These gay dads contrast strongly with most British fathers, who work more hours and do less child care, and half of whom – if they get divorced – lose all contact with their children within two years.”

It was not all sweetness and light in this study. Many of the sample were lonely, finding it difficult to integrate into gay social circles because of having children in tow, and into toddler groups because most of the other members were women.

Nevertheless, Gill Dunne thinks, “young gay men in Britain increasingly feel fatherhood is within their reach, to the extent of anticipating a ‘gayby’ boom.”

Lots of people consider all this to be a dangerous social experiment, and that if it all goes horribly wrong the losers will be children. But Gill Dunne is optimistic. “Historically we have grown up in extended families…but now… these [gay fathers] offer us some very interesting models about how men can be parents. They are men who are proud of being men, who are in the forefront of change. We can learn from them.”

And maybe they can learn from lesbian parents, too, who have been at this “pretend family” lark for a whole lot longer than men. The story of one such female couple appeared in the Times magazine under the headline “The New Happy Families.”

Collette Whitefield and her partner Diane Butterfield have been together ten years. They have a seven-year old daughter, Emma, and two-year old son, Todd, both conceived by IVF at a fertility clinic. They live in Rainham, Essex. They confound all the stereotypes and undermine all the right-wing fears. “As well as having lesbian and gay friends, they enjoy good relationships with their heterosexual neighbours and close relationships with several of the parents of Emma’s friends. There have been a few awkward moments, but Collette and Diane are adamant that they have experienced little prejudice in a community not known for its tolerance of difference.”

They are both actively involved in their daughter’s school, in the PTA and as governors. Their (straight) next door neighbour is so fond of the family that she insisted on coming to the hospital with Collette when she was about to deliver Emma.

So, are there any thorns in this idyllic tale of family life in the heartland of Essex, traditional home of the British bigot?

Diane says: “We probably are a bit different. There are less strictly defined roles as to who does what and when. Things are more blurred on that front than they might be with a man and woman. We are probably also more aware of bigotry than a lot of heterosexual parents and the importance of teaching our children never to judge people by their gender, race or sexuality.”

Now we know why Norman Tebbit doesn’t approve. With a few more gay parents we might end up with a tolerant, compassionate and thoughtful country. And he wouldn’t like that at all.

But perhaps Keith Fleming in Granta (reprinted in The Guardian) described the most touching example of gay parenting. Keith was 16, when he was “rescued from a psychiatric ward by his uncle, the writer Edmund White.”

Edmund White, is of course, the author of many classic gay books including My Beautiful Room is Empty and The Joy of Gay Sex.

Keith Fleming’s account of life with his unconventional Uncle Ed in New York’s wild gay 70s is a love story in the truest sense of the word. Fortunately, although he is heterosexual, he was able to appreciate that luck had dealt him a winning hand when the relentlessly gay Edmund White pulled him out of the psycho ward. Now, according to this moving essay, Keith has developed under White’s tutelage into an admirably rounded man. Edmund White taught his eager charge how to appreciate art, literature and music, and better still, how to enjoy people.

What better start in life could any young man ask? And all courtesy of the dreaded gay parent.

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