Glad to be gay, but still unequal

November 20, 1998

Andrew Pakes is "out" but understands why many academics and students don't want to be

It has been a gay few weeks in the media with the revelation that some cabinet ministers are really homosexual. The press has been quite happy to exploit the fact - literally a "gay" time had by all.

It was film-maker Derek Jarman who coined the phrase "heterosexuality isn't normal, it's just common". But the current vogue is for being gay.

Fortunately the recent outbreak of outing politicians - Peter Mandelson, Nick Brown, Ron Davies - has not spread into the massed ranks of vice-chancellors, professors, teaching staff and students. Nonetheless, homophobia and prejudice are just as rife in the liberal corridors of the university establishment as elsewhere in society. So it will be interesting to see whether the debacle makes any difference to attitudes towards homosexuals in the world of education.

"Outing" has never been an issue for me. I was open about my sexuality from day one at university (okay, from evening one when my flatmates all went to the union bar for the first long get-to-know- you conversation) and it has not adversely affected either my academic or political career. Indeed my sexuality, and profile as a gay rights campaigner, have been positively embraced as part of my wider vision of an education system and society free from discrimination.

If I were to compile a scorecard of positives and negatives to being "out" and gay, the result would be clear-cut. My character, and so my politics, are defined by my experiences, all witnessed through the eyes of a homosexual.

Being openly gay has allowed me to develop a specific outlook on life. It would have been impossible to put that across in my politics if my sexuality were kept hidden in a box at the end of the bed.

The first student position I held was as lesbian, gay and bisexual officer for my student union. I supported many students who could not be open about their sexuality.

The pressures of making new friends, living in halls of residence with peers whose views are at best random and fear of rejection by parents or teaching staff, all keep many people in hiding. I can understand why Nick Brown, Ron Davies and countless others wished to stay discreet.

The idealism of my early days as a young gay activist has given way to the long haul towards equality. Being out and proud does not come without a price. There are people in the National Union of Students who will never vote for me because I am gay. The insidious homophobia of the tabloid press represents the tip of an iceberg of prejudice that every lesbian, gay or bisexual person has to navigate around.

Luckily this iceberg is beginning to thaw. Three days after its front page demanding to know whether Britain was being run by a "gay Mafia" and in the face of public distaste, The Sun made an astonishing U-turn. It declared that the sexuality of politicians was a matter for the individual.

But this is the advocacy of tolerance, not of equality. And I am a campaigner for equality. The media, in its new spirit of goodwill, now trusts gays to hold the highest offices in the land and make decisions that affect everyone's lives. But there is still no acceptance that gays can be trusted in more basic human roles.

The age of consent is unequal, the pain of isolation endured by young gay children cannot be challenged through positive teaching about homosexuality in schools, our relationships are not legally recognised and if we have children, they can be taken away from us. The Sun may be shining on Nick Brown this week, but equality is still a long way away.

Andrew Pakes is president of the National Union of Students. An earlier NUS president, Stephen Twigg, is one of a handful of openly gay Labour MPs.

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