Gay couple -

Jeffrey Portman and Adriano Spinosa

Date of photography: 19 December 2016

Little more than 50 years ago, two men sharing a life together in a single household would have invited criminal prosecution;  it is now both legal and mostly socially acceptable.   Jeffrey and Adriano show us how gay Londoners’ lives have changed for the better in less than a generation.  It is nevertheless instructive to remind ourselves that the UK’s draconian, anti-homosexuality laws were but relatively recently dismantled and then only in stages.   The road to the Civil Partnership Act (2004) a statute that made it possible for same-sex couples to form officially-recognised unions, with broadly the same legal status as marriage, was a tortuous and turbulent progress indeed.   In the first year following the Act, over 9,000 gay and lesbian couples in England chose to register, and the statistics reveal that of the men entering Civil Partnerships, almost half were aged 50 or over - these were often couples in long-term relationships who had already lived together for many years.   Of course, even today there will be a considerable number of UK citizens who refuse to recognise the legitimate rights of LGBT people, and who object to any kinds of official gay partnership, simply because of their belief that these are incompatible with their religious, moral or cultural codes.

The full story:

Shortly before Christmas, I was invited into the home of a gay couple, Jeffrey Portman and Adriano Spinosa, who live in North East London.   Compact and beautifully designed, their flat also provides a workspace for Jeffrey, who graduated as a milliner at London’s Kensington and Chelsea College.   His partner, Adriano, a Canadian now living in London, has his own business too but also teaches Kundalini Yoga.   Jeffrey and Adriano have now lived together for over eight years but so far have chosen neither to enter into a Civil Partnership nor to get married, but in so doing they are not in any way exceptional:  many gay couples continue to share their lives without formalising their relationships.   In London generally and, indeed, in most major UK cities, the idea of same-sex couples living together has become more or less socially acceptable;  this is truly remarkable considering that, in the 1990’s British Social Attitudes Survey, half of all Britons thought same-sex relationships were wrong, with only 23% seeing them as acceptable.   Of course, even today there is a considerable number of UK citizens who refuse to recognise the legitimate rights of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender) people, and who reject all kinds of gay partnerships, simply because of the belief that both are incompatible with their religious, moral or cultural codes.

It might thus be helpful to remind ourselves of the arduous road travelled in the progress towards achieving this country’s recognition of gay rights.   Here in Britain, sexual intercourse between men was outlawed by the Bugger Act of 1533, and offenders were punished by death.   While there were modifications over the years, the prohibition of same-sex sexual congress remained in place until 1967.   From that year on, though discrimination still continued and certain homosexual acts remained illegal (in ‘public’, between more than two men, in the Armed Forces, etc etc) the lives of LGBT people began steadily to improve, as did the attitudes of the majority towards the indigenous gay population.  

Characteristically, it was Margaret Thatcher and her acolytes who, perhaps in response to the panic engendered by the AIDS epidemic, sought to stem the tide of liberalisation and introduced what was famously known as ‘Clause 28’;  once enacted in statute, this provision aimed to curtail what was perceived to be the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools.   It is both ironic and apt that this law provided a model for the almost identical legislation recently enacted by Putin’s autocratic government in Russia.  Clause 28 caused a great deal of misery to the LGBT community, rendered teachers impotent in resolving gay bullying and in offering support and guidance to young people ‘coming out’, and gave some bigots what they saw as the tacit endorsement of humiliating and ‘bashing’ gay men.  

Thankfully, things improved considerably during the Labour Government of 1997 - 2010 and, while prejudice lives on, the majority of citizens are now much more accepting of lesbians and gays.   Civil Partnership (2004) and subsequently same-sex marriage (2014) have helped greatly, giving legal recognition and respectability to long-term same-sex unions.   (In the first year following the Civil Partnership Act, over 9,000 gay couples in England chose to register, and the statistics reveal that of the men entering Civil Partnerships, almost half were aged 50 or over - these were often couples who had already lived together for many years.)

When, in 2014, ‘gay marriage’ became a possible option for same-sex partners, many couples took advantage of the provision for converting their Civil Partnerships into marriages and, unsurprisingly, Civil Partnership has declined by 85% since then.   It is interesting to note that despite a great deal of sometimes highly vocal opposition to same-sex marriage in 2013, over half of British citizens supported its introduction.   It is also worth noting that, by the end of 2015, fewer than seven in every hundred male partnerships ended in dissolution, compared to a divorce rate for heterosexual couples that now exceeds 40%.

On a less positive note, there remains, perhaps will always remain, an element in society that holds traditional or strongly-held religious views and retains what is almost a visceral hostility towards any form of ‘deviant’ sexuality.   There are also, sad to say, men who harbour such deep-seated insecurity about their own sexuality that they manifest this through their open detestation of homosexuals;  such men are dangerous and will attack gays without provocation, attacks that in some instances have proved murderous.

This progress along the tortuous road towards the full recognition of LGBT people’s rights has arguably been driven by a single, powerful idea:  that one can only be what one is.   A man who is born gay can only achieve contentment and happiness if he recognises his sexuality, sees it as something natural and unexceptional, and finds himself accepted and valued by others in just the same way as he would be if he were heterosexual.  

In contrast to the burgeoning of liberal regimes in the West, in almost 80 countries (mostly in Africa, the Middle East and large parts of Asia, including Pakistan, Bangladesh and the whole of Indonesia and Malaysia) draconian anti-gay laws still persist, with 10 jurisdictions where the law still provides the death penalty for same-sex intimacy.   While Russia and Lithuania do not have statutes proscribing male homosexual activity, gay men are mercilessly persecuted nonetheless and not infrequently murdered - hope is rapidly fading for any change in the predicament of gay people living under the appalling conditions imposed by these regimes.

From the early stages of their lives, Jeff and Adriano have been reconciled to the fact that they are gay and their respective families have accepted them fully for who they are.   When asked if they have ever encountered any hostility as a cohabiting gay couple, Jeffrey says, without any hesitation:  “Neither of us has experienced any hostility that we can think of;  our neighbours have always been kind and friendly and, while the neighbourhood might be seen as edgy - we live in an area where there are many practising Muslims, together with other, often conventional first-generation immigrants - we really enjoy living in our neighbourhood.”   Of course, what has become almost the norm in London and our other great cities is not necessarily what should be expected in the provinces - naturally enough, that has always been the main reason why so many gay men migrate towards the large conurbations.

Text edited:  1st January 2017

Text re-edited:  9th March 2019

Page modified: 6th April 2019