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Rights, & doing the right thing

October 19, 2009

Ten years ago, driving back from a marvellous weekend at the Edinburgh Festival with my dearest, “tell it like it is” friend I had a horrible realisation. Something so gut-wrenchingly scary that I couldn’t contemplate it. It was something I had feared for almost all my life.

I was gay.

I was 34 and only just finding this out now! I had two children, a recently ex-wife, various ex-girlfriends from before the marriage and, what I now would call an ex-boyfriend. He was a fling from 1984. Very much a sex, sex, sex crime.

All the signs were there. The bullies at school recognised my gay-ness. I was into fashion, music and interior design. I even have what some might describe a dominant mother. My dad used to call me “Kitty-Fan” when I behaved in a way that didn’t fit his idea of a way a man should behave. I behaved like I didn’t care. But as many teenagers do, I used to lie awake wrestling with why I fancied Gary Numan, John Taylor from Duran Duran, or my male Latin teacher. I convinced myself it was just a phase.

So I buried my feelings. Worked hard on not being fey. Worked hard on hanging out with the lads. I didn’t know who the hell I was. I wasn’t gay though. I was constantly acting to suit whomever I was with. I could beat Madonna at reinvention; I was doing it every day with every person I met.

Moving to London would allow ME to be ME, I thought. But by that point, I didn’t know who this ME was. There was no ME. So it carried on. I started at Art School and I was thrown together with others from around the country. And then I had to contend with being bloody Welsh, and being bloody short. It was a fire sale – everything must go. The accent became more London. There wasn’t much I could do about the height. I toyed with an idea I got from Ruth (played by Julie T Wallace) in BBC’s adaptation of Fay Weldon’s Life and Loves of a She-Devil when she had her legs surgically extended, I didn’t ponder too long on that idea. Like Ruth, all my efforts went into being something I wasn’t. And I was exhausted.

I got my degree, and the following ten years I went to work, got married, had two kids, divorced, and admitted to myself, and (eventually) the rest of the world that I was gay. In all that time, the best I could do was keep it together. Some people might say I did OK. I say, meh.

All my life I’ve been trying to do the right thing. I was trying to do right by my parents without really thinking I had a right to anything. There was a strong feeling of duty to my parents, but I never thought I had a right to be who I wanted to be.

When I read Jan Moir’s article last Friday on Stephen Gately’s death, I was appalled. But after I got over the initial outrage, I began to think perhaps Jan Moir was maybe trying to do the right thing. I also think Geert Wilders might be trying to do the right thing. Nick Griffin, ditto.

We all want to assert our rights. Gay rights, female rights, a right to bear arms, a right to work, and a right to die. But with those rights come duties. When Jan Moir wrote that article, I wonder if she gave a second thought to her duties. She had a duty to the Daily Mail readership, she had a duty to gay people, but most importantly she had a duty to Gately’s family.

She has the right to free speech and a right to air her opinions, but she also has a duty to explain how she arrives at them. She has a duty to consider the consequences of her writing.

Duty, by itself is commendable; we all might recognise a Susan Boyle type. Boyle, who still lives in the family home, cared for her mother until she died in 2007. But, who knows what she might have achieved earlier in her life if she had not felt the need to stay at home to look after her parents?

So there appears to be a sliding scale, with Duty at one end and Rights at the other. Put more emphasis on Duty and the individual is denied aspiration; put too much value in asserting Rights and you risk offending people’s feelings and beliefs. To achieve social equity, we need to find a degree of balance somewhere between those Rights we defend, and those Duties we seem to shy away from.

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