A few days ago, I attended a drinks party at the Common Room of the school where I taught for 30 years. I hardly knew anybody there and many wouldn’t have had a clue who I was. No problem. Teachers are by nature a friendly bunch and I did not feel out of place. One thing struck me powerfully, though I guess I was probably the only one present who noticed it. There were two or three openly gay men there, as well as a lesbian couple. Now what on earth is noteworthy about that, you may well ask? Precisely. That is my point. The very fact of its insignificance makes it significant, at least in my eyes and probably those of my age group.
It is as well to remember how far we have come as a society in its attitude to homosexuality, and in a remarkably short space of time too. There are many things of which I am not terribly proud in the way the world has changed but this isn’t one of them. I think we deserve a little pat on the back.
Ah, but who exactly deserves the pat on the back? What have I done to influence this sea change in perspective? How did it all come about? What drove this cultural development? Let me go back to my childhood. In the 1950s, when I was growing up, homosexual congress was illegal. I was too busy playing cricket in the garden with my brother to consider the justness or otherwise of this law but obviously as I grew older and more worldly-wise, the subject started to crop up (as the actress said to the bishop – and therein lay the problem; the whole business was usually discussed with undertones of Carry On humour). Fortunately, I came from a non-judgemental family, very religious, mind you, but not piously sanctimonious. Sex between couples of the same sex was a sin, but they preferred to condemn the sin, not the sinner. If that sounds patronising, you must remember what the world was like for my parents and those of their generation. “I know what you chaps get up to,” cried my aged aunt when two gay men engaged her in smutty conversation on the train, “but I’d prefer it if you kept it to yourselves.” Fair enough. I imagine that was how many people of her age dealt with it.
The Sixties changed all that, as it did so much of our lives. It was if the laces of a straitjacket morality and post-war austerity were being loosened one by one so that by the decade’s end it had fallen off completely, leaving us with….well, what? Nobody was quite sure. The old rules no longer applied. A new code of behaviour was required and it took time for one to mould itself. In the meantime, hedonism reigned. What fun, we all exclaimed and ate greedily of the lotus. We all know now, if we didn’t suspect it at the time, that a price had to be paid – drugs, AIDS, single-parent families, terrible fashion, to name but a few – but hey, it wasn’t all bad. One significant part of the social revolution was that homosexuals started to feel less threatened and more and more of them came out of the closet. ‘To come out of the closet.’ What is the origin of that phrase? It certainly wasn’t in common usage before the Sixties. Explanations have been put forward that it took its impetus from ‘coming out’, in the sense that debutantes entered society when coming of age, and ‘closet’, in the sense of a secure place where skeletons were kept hidden.
However only the bravest – one might even say the most brazen – came out openly. The law criminalising homosexuality was repealed in 1967 but we still had a long way to go before it was accepted in society. In the 1970s I played county cricket for Hampshire. There were no gay men on our staff. The Dell, home of Southampton FC, was barely one big six from Gordon Greenidge down the road and there was a certain amount of social mixing between players from both clubs when the seasons overlapped. They confirmed there was none at their club either. We all agreed that the cupboard was bare throughout both our sports. Clearly football and cricket did not attract men of that persuasion. This was arrant nonsense of course. Statistics demand that there must have been a number of homosexuals in our ranks but they could never have felt comfortable about announcing the fact. I would love to claim that cricket blazed a heroic trail in gay rights but the sad truth is that, along with other professional sports, it did not.
Surprisingly, because it is such a macho sort of game, rugby has led the way for gay acceptance, if I can call it that, in the ranks of professional sport. Nigel Owens, greatly respected as one of the leading referees in the game, came out publicly in 2007. Gareth Thomas, Welsh international, came out in 2009. It was not until 2011 that the first cricketer announced he was gay. Steve Davies, of Worcestershire, Surrey and currently Somerset, is his name and we in the Murtagh family were thunderstruck at the news. Not that he was gay but that such a gentle, meek, essentially shy young man had been the first to stick his head above the parapet. You see, we knew Steve. He and my younger son had been in the same Worcestershire junior sides as they made their way up through the age groups. We could all see he was destined for a successful career in county cricket but he was so small (not helped by the fact that he was playing in an age group one year in advance of his own), so quiet, so modest, so passive. He had a squeak of an appeal because his voice had not yet broken. His talent was undeniable but a future social pioneer? No, we never suspected that. Clearly, as he grew and developed into a young man, he wrestled with mental and sexual issues and he has reached a comfortable place in his life. He is to be admired and congratulated for that. What a role model for others in the same position, we thought.
Once he opened the gates, we expected, if not a flood, then at least a stream of similar announcements. Sadly it has proved to be no more than a mere trickle. In the world of football, the silence has been deafening. There is not a single gay footballer in any of the English leagues. Apparently. This snail’s pace of progress takes my mind back to that drinks party. There would have been guests at similar gatherings who were gay, back in the 1980s, but the subject was never discussed. Don’t ask, don’t tell, was the unwritten rule, echoing that of the official policy of the US armed forces. That has clearly changed and hooray for that. I like to think the world is a kinder place nowadays, at least in attitudes to sexual orientation. But when, oh when, will the world of sport follow suit?