Alexandra Mankowitz’s story

(From Times Online)

When I realised I was gay I wanted to die. I was 17, the sense of shame was unbearable and stretching out in front of me was a life of abject loneliness.

That year, the vote to reduce the homosexual age of consent from 21 to 18 took place. I still remember the debates which played out on the television and radio.

I learned then that there were many apparently respectable people who thought I was a filthy pervert to be avoided at all costs and who was probably doomed to burn in Hell. I hadn’t done anything apart from grow into the person I was born to be.

This played out against a constant deafening drip drip of social cues – the assumption of heterosexuality, the paucity of positive gay role models and the ubiquity of homophobic bullying in school (I’m ashamed to say I was often the ringleader) – which sent a very clear message; that being gay was categorically infra dig.

All of this was magnified by the silence of my isolation in the closet and led me to conclude that I was disgusting – possibly evil – and better off dead. I achieved that level of misery without the help of physical threats or direct personal bullying.

Homophobia is the only prejudice that victims suffer without the support of their family. I was born in central London to very liberal parents who had many gay friends. I was lucky enough to know that I could rely on my parents’ support but that didn’t save me from internalising the homophobia served up by the outside world.

I was not forced to listen to the homophobic ranting of a priest, rabbi or imam either. Tacit disapproval is pernicious enough.

Our disgraceful two-tier marriage system, which Peter Tatchell is right to call sexual apartheid, is one example of this. The new amendment to the Equality Bill, which will allow religious denominations to host civil partnerships in their premises, is a welcome step towards full equality for all citizens. In reality, however, it is a mere sop that will make very little difference to the great number of gay men and lesbians who live in despair. It won’t protect men like Ian Baynham, for instance, who was murdered in Trafalgar Square last year for being gay.

Only a brave minority of clergy will do as the amendment permits, just as only a tiny number currently offer blessings on same sex relationships. Many others who know in their hearts (and acknowledge in private) that gay men and lesbians need and deserve equal marriage rights will continue to remain silent because they are cowardly and fear splitting their congregations; further proof that organised religion has forsaken the primacy of its commitment to social justice. They should be ashamed.

My father likes to quote the Anglican priest, the Reverend Chad Varah, who said, “We should not prevent people expressing their love for one another in any way they have both agreed on.” Varah founded Samaritans and knew more than most that the consequences of curtailing love are dire. My experience as a teenager was far from unique. Young gay men and lesbians are twice as likely as their straight peers to attempt suicide according to the American Journal of Public Health.

Life is already a struggle without constructing barriers for love between human beings which, let’s face it, is the only thing that gets us through the night, apart from (for some) love of God. There are lesbians and gay men around the world, particularly in countries dominated by more fundamentalist religions, who are living lives so miserable that we ought all to mourn.

Even as I am now at peace with myself, it breaks my heart to see their suffering. I cannot not fully enjoy my own liberation until I can toast theirs. Britain should set an example, particularly to members of the Commonwealth.

Last month I wept when I read about a gay couple in Kenya who were arrested by police after they were attacked by dozens of Christian and Muslim youths baying for their blood. Why doesn’t Gordon Brown go to Kenya (where homosexuality is illegal) to decry this, as Harold MacMillan decried apartheid in 1960s Cape Town? Aren’t we worth it? Obviously not.

Liberal Judaism, Quakers in Britain and the Unitarians are the only religious denominations to have voiced support for the Equality Bill amendment but only the Quakers, in calling for full marriage equality, have done what is right. All religious faiths should follow their lead and ask the Government to finally introduce full equality.

It isn’t very complicated. We’re all human beings. Our needs are very simple: somewhere to live, something to eat, someone to love. There’s no gay conspiracy. In asking for full equality we are not asking for much. It’s beyond me how my joy in love can diminish anyone else’s, and even less how it can bring them pain. I wonder how many lives those who oppose equality imagine they have, that they are prepared to lose both sleep and integrity obsessing over who is loving whom and how.

Alexandra Mankowitz lives in London with her son and civil partner


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