“Will your wife be coming next week?” I was asked during my son Sam's and my third visit to our local toddler playgroup. I didn’t know the lady asking the question, beyond recognizing her face, and her three kids, from the previous weeks. She asked pleasantly enough, but it still gave me that oh god, here we go, feeling.
Sam and I live in a very rural part of England. Our town has a population of approximately 9,000 people, in a count of about 144 people per square kilometer. It is predominantly white (97%). Our nearest big city is 45-minutes away by car. Major industries here, such as they are, are tourism and agriculture, and the county remains one of the most disadvantaged places in the UK.
“No. I’m not married,” was my reply to the pleasant lady with the three kids. I left off the I’m gay. It wasn’t relevant yet, and this was in the aftermath of Brexit, when hate crimes against LGBTQ people (and Muslims, and black people and foreigners) rose 147% in three weeks. I’m out, but I think I can be forgiven for being circumspect.
She was confused. “Oh, I thought I saw you with your wife last week.”
I could see she was embarrassed. It was getting awkward. “Not married,” because I still didn’t want to announce to this twenty-something strong group of women (there was only one other guy there) that I was gay. I could hear the question she didn’t speak: “So, where’s Sam’s mum?” The conversation gave its last gasp, and drowned in the awkwardness. She went off to rescue one of her kids from the crash mats.
It’s not the only incident of its kind. I’ve encountered similar confusion from our health care providers:
“So, why is Sam living with you and not his mum?” said one health visitor. “I’ve invited Sam’s mum (surrogate) along to Sam’s 12-month check-up,” from another (yeah, don’t even get me started). “Oh, is mum working today, then?” when I took Sam for his first round of vaccines.
By far the weirdest was an altercation with a lady in the parking lot of the local grocery store, who took exception to a man using parking that she thought should be for mums only.
I’m not complaining, really. Britain’s come a long way. Equal marriage is the law of the land (except in Northern Ireland) and the law similarly protects us from discrimination in employment and services. But wider cultural awareness still lags in some archaic little corners of the realm, and where Sam and I live is one such place. We go to the playgroup up the street, run by the local Anglican Church (even though I’m an atheist) because it’s in walking distance, and because its much the same as any other playgroup in the area. There are no LGBTQ dedicated playgroups near us. The absence of awareness in the local national health service is a little more perplexing. It might say something about absent training, but likely says as much about absent experience. This is a town of 9,000 people after all, and---the usual suspects on certain gay dating apps aside---it can feel like gay people are invisible here.
It’s indicative of the situation in the county, and the region. The only LGBTQ parenting support group I’ve come across purports to cover the whole region. That feels ambitious: it’s a 3-hour car ride to travel from one side of the region to the other. And it meets only one day in the month, usually no-where near where I live. There are a few gay advocacy groups in the county, but they are largely targeted at youth. I’m closer to forty than the magic 25, and in any case, they seem more focused on arranging bungie-jump-athons, than discussing the complexities of diaper rashes or speech development. Those that aren’t for the tweens are mostly gay health groups, promoting educational stuff like Grindr best-practice, and why STIs are at crisis levels among Britain’s gay men.
What’s left, in terms of LGBTQ targeted services, are a sparse scattering of gay bars, restaurants, and coffee shops. There’s about five of them in the whole county.
Sam and I are pretty self-sufficient. I know my rights, and know how to advocate for myself. We’ve got excellent family support, and I have a good circle of friends, some excellent mums among them, whom I can go to in crisis moments. But my circumstances sometimes leave me feeling isolated from the gay community generally, and from gay parents specifically. For people who aren’t as lucky as me, though, the consequences of the absence of LGBTQ services, can be more than just isolation. Adoption and surrogacy (paid surrogacy is illegal in the UK, and so no surrogacy agreement is enforceable by law) have hurdles that gay men need to be aware of, which means having the services in place to help them.
More than that, though, gay people still experience challenges that straight people do not, and having a community of people with shared experiences, can make all the difference. Advocacy by and for LGBTQ people is more important than it has ever been. We can all benefit by engaging with local LGBTQ groups, and sharing our experiences and knowledge. Not merely because it makes sense to network with people with similar backgrounds, but because normalizing, and celebrating, gay relationships and gay families is an indispensable part of building a tolerant and accepting society, and we only do that by making ourselves visible.
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