Recently I came across an article that served as both an interview of late British actor John Inman, and a promotion of his then-new TV show Odd Man Out. Produced during a hiatus of Inman's hugely popular BBC program Are You Being Served?, this was a series that provided his first starring sitcom role, albeit it on the ITV network. Alas, it flopped, and was canceled after only seven episodes.
What is of note from the aforementioned article is how much it seems to focus on Inman's private life. It mentions the mews house he purchased in Little Venice (what he described as the first home he'd ever owned), and how he was still a "bachelor" at age 41. Inman died aged 71 in 2007. The article was from 1977. At the time of his death, the actor had been with his same-sex partner, Ron Lynch, for 35 years. I'll let you do the math.
Of course, hiding one's homosexuality is nothing new. Folks such as John Inman would have had to contend with a nosy media the best they could. Only ten years prior to the Odd Man Out interview was homosexuality decriminalized in parts of the UK. You can watch Basil Dearden's 1961 film Victim to get an idea of what gay men were going through to keep their lives secret at the time. And the awkwardness, fear and timidity extended well beyond the sixties and seventies.
I (briefly) bristle at the thought of John Inman hiding the fact that he's in a same-sex relationship in 1977, but then, before judging him too harshly, I remember myself and Ashley in the early 2000s. Our relationship was new, just finding its way. This was prior to Lawrence v. Texas, so there were still enforceable laws on the books regarding homosexual relations. We'd had a commitment ceremony, but it came only after much to and fro in our personal lives about just how out we wanted to be.
Upon moving-in together in 2001, Ashley asked me not to answer the phone, in case it was one of his grandparents. They did not know of his sexuality at the time. Later that year, I started a new job at a Fortune 500 company and, while Ashley & I were out to a few select fellow gay people who also worked for the corporation, we were not out to our direct co-workers. After our commitment ceremony, a ring appeared on my finger and tongues began to wag. Dear reader, I lied. I said I had a wife. Looking back now it seems imponderable to have done such a thing, but all I can say was, the comfort and safety level was not there.
Once, also in 2001, we were on a vacation to Wisconsin. We pulled-in at a convenience store in Wisconsin Dells. I wanted to get a soda. Ashley stayed in the car while I went in. Toward the back, over by the refrigerated section was a well-dressed woman standing behind a table. She was selling time-shares, and asked if my wife and I would be interested in one. Startled, I stammered, "My wife... ?" The woman pointed to the ring on my finger. Quickly, I asked her for a brochure, and said I'd talk it over with my 'wife' when we were back home. "Didn't you bring her with you? Are you here without your wife, sir?" The woman was relentless. I left the store.
Other instances have occurred where it's been a toss-up as to whether I want to go through the trouble of explaining to someone that I'm gay. Ashley isn't much for the social or bar scene. I can tolerate it and, at times, passably enjoy it, so sometimes I'll go out for a drink with friends without him. There have been several occasions where women -- strangers -- have pointed to my ring and asked where the wife is at. Sometimes I simply remark that "she's" at home. Other times, if I'm feeling more robust, I'll respond with the fact I have a husband, not a wife, and usually they'll try and save face by continuing the third degree using male instead of female pronouns.
We've come a long way. The early 2000s now seem like an eon ago, socially-speaking. The reason I became actively involved in politics is down to the anti-gay rhetoric of George W. Bush and Karl Rove. By the time the 2004 election rolled around, and they were using gay marriage as a wedge issue, talking about limitations instead of freedoms, casting a pall over the love of same-sex couples everywhere in the U.S. of A., I'd decided enough was enough. Since then, I haven't looked back.
Great Britain would eventually legalize same-sex civil partnerships and, in late 2005, John Inman finally entered into such a partnership with his long-time partner, publicly and legally declaring that he was no longer a bachelor. So, it takes time. People arrive at their own level of comfort at their own pace. For some, it's barely a split-second decision. For others, it can take decades (or never come at all). Yet I still cringe at that 1977 interview with Inman, talking so much, and yet so little, about his personal life. It's something none of us should take for granted.