The climate of fear existing in the Fifties has, however, been replaced by a new openness and there has been renewed debate on lowering the age limit. Gays and lesbians are coming out almost as soon as they are sure of their sexuality, where 20 or 30 years ago it might have been a lifetime's secret. Nowadays there are role models such as openly gay actors like Sir Ian McKellen and Gorden Kaye, and writer Jeanette Winterson; lesbian singer k d lang appeared on the cover of this month's Vanity Fair, which is said to indicate that lesbianism has acquired a new chic in the American media.
But telling one's parents that one is gay is never easy. And for parents, hearing the news can be difficult. Self-help organisations are springing up to help them cope with their offspring's revelations.
Nine years ago, Gill and Gordon Green's son, then 20, told them that he had met a man he wanted to share his life with. Their own feelings of shock led them to set up Acceptance, a telephone counselling service for parents of gays and lesbians. 'My son was very unhappy until he came out,' Gill says. 'For most people the relationship with the parents after they've told them is 100 per cent better because they're not living a lie.'
Acceptance receives between 50 and 70 phone calls a month and most parents wonder if their son or daughter is 'just going through a phase'. Children who have spent many years at single-sex boarding schools may well experiment sexually with their friends in the absence of the opposite sex, but Gill tells parents to ask how long they have felt they were gay. 'There are a few cases where it might possibly be a phase, but nine times out of ten they say they've felt this way for years.' Many gays and lesbians have always asserted that they felt they were 'born this way'.
Film student Jo Smith, now 24, realised she was a lesbian when she was 12: 'It never occurred to me that I was anything else. I fell in love with a 22-year-old. We didn't have an affair but that helped me decide what was going on. I started going to a gay and lesbian youth group in Leicester which had a social every week. There was a lot of talk about role models. Knowing about gays and lesbians who were famous was important. But what we talked about most of all was how to tell your parents.'
Jo was fortunate that her parents were very liberal. Her father is an artist and her mother a speech therapist. 'I told them quite casually, when I was 13. They acted cool. I think my father thought I was scared of men. They weren't prejudiced but they were a little bit ignorant. My mother had some gay male friends who were pretty tragic figures.
'I have the feeling my parents felt my sexuality was taking me away from them and, in a way, that was true. It was a world they could never understand. They don't understand the need for the subculture. My mother feels excluded. They gave me a present for Gay Pride Day this year and they always make a point of telling me if there's a gay story on TV or in the paper. I was embarrassed because it was my own private world.'
Many teenagers, however, are not lucky and need to plan their revelation to protect themselves. John Cook, 19, a trainee in hotel management in Peterborough, made a conscious decision not to tell his father, 'a Sun-reading bigot'. It was only after his father died, and his mother asked him about arrangements for Christmas two years ago, that he decided to tell her.
'I'd planned it. I'd covered every angle. But having the guts to say those three little words - 'I am gay' - is hard. Your heart is pounding away nineteen to the dozen, every emotion is rushing through you at a thousand miles an hour but it's such a relief to get the burden off your back. I said that I couldn't come over because I was staying with friends and they were gay friends. She said, 'They're the best sort of friends you can have' and I said, 'No, Mum, it's not quite like that' and she said 'Oh.' I had written to an organisation of parents of gays and lesbians and got a booklet which I gave her. She wasn't exactly surprised.
'There's a bit of her that hopes I'll grow out of it but I don't think there's a part of her that thinks I will. She'll be happier when either my brother or sister get married. I'm in a relationship now and I asked her if she wanted to meet him. She was very non-committal. I couldn't just turn up with him. It would be like rubbing salt into the wound.'
But there are some gay teenagers who never quite manage to tell their parents directly. The result is a long period of growing and often painful awareness.
A year ago, Andrew, a student, now 18, bought a copy of Gay Times and went to a gay youth group in London. The weekend changed his life. 'I did all the stuff of walking up and down outside wondering if I should go in, deep breathing, sweating, but the people there were really friendly. I went on a gay pub crawl and to a Roman toga party.
'Before this I was always very quiet and shy and withdrawn. I stayed out all night for the first time and my parents were beside themselves. On the Tuesday my mother asked me, 'What's the matter? I want you to tell me.' I said I wasn't ready. The next day she came back and said, 'Do you thing you're gay?' I said, 'I don't think I'm gay. I am.' We cried and hugged each other for hours on end.
'She said I should go and see a psychiatrist, that it was only a phase. I said that I was glad I was gay and I'd had more fun in those last few days than I'd ever had in my life. It has taken her ages to come to terms with it.
'She wanted me to stay at home but I had found this new way of life and I wanted to break away completely. She wanted me to promise that I wouldn't have sex until I was 21. I said it was a bit late for that. Even now she says, 'You will be careful.' I'm more concerned with getting a good degree and getting into a good career and settling down. Unfortunately she's a victim of all the sensationalist reporting in the tabloid press and I see it as my job to educate her with the facts.'
In the end every gay child must find his or her own way to come
out. 'All I can say is, test the water first,' says Andrew. 'If you're convinced you want to do it, get some friends round you first to support you. What's the worst that can
happen to you? You could be disowned but at 18 you're about to leave home anyway.'
Typically, it is mothers who feel the strongest burden of guilt. Most calls the Greens receive on their helpline, are from people asking: 'Where did we go wrong?' It also seems typical that most gays speak first to their mothers. Andrew's sole conversation with his father was when he walked into his son's bedroom and said, 'Don't worry, everything's going to be all right.' He has not spoken a word about it since.
But if the heavy burden of coming out falls on the child, it is usually the parents who tell other members of the family. Typically, siblings tend to know or suspect before the parents themselves. 'My daughter told me that for a long time she had thought that her brother was different in some way but I wouldn't accept it,' says Gill Green.
'I always tell people who ring our helpline that it's not up to them to decide to tell members of the family. The gay person themselves must decide.
'Having said that, if they're OK about people knowing then there's the reaction of the people you tell. The majority just shrug and say, 'So what?' '
But even the most accepting parents will have to struggle with the fact that their gay child will probably never have children, depriving them of the right to be grandparents.
'There's not an awful lot we can say to that one,' says Gill Green. 'Being parents we are rather selfish about taking for granted what we think are our rights. We think that we know what's going to make our children happy and it's a jolt to find out we're wrong.'
A SON'S STORY
'I FIRST told a girl who fancied me and we talked it over for hours and hours. She said if they threw me out I could come and stay with her so I had a back-up.
'I didn't really think they would but there was a chance that they'd drive me out by being so upset. I was a dreadful coward. I wrote my mother a letter. It was a Sunday evening and I'd had it ready for two weeks. I said here, I've got this problem. Half and hour later she came up to my room and said, 'Can we be a real family now?'
'At first she didn't understand any of it. She asked questions like, does this mean you want to dress up as a woman? I asked her not to tell my father but she told him immediately and he gave me a huge lecture about not going to toilets but at least he knew what homosexuality was. The stereotype is that women are most sensitive, that you go to them with your problems. I used to be scared to talk to my father. I didn't want to fail in his eyes as a man.
'Then everything went quiet for six months. My parents said I shouldn't tell my younger sister, that it would put a huge burden on her but she had guessed long before anyone else.
'Now 50 per cent of my mother's life is spent writing letters to people like Elton John. She was never really negative, just worried and upset about what the neighbours would think. I had 20 years to come to terms with it. She only had two months.'
THE MOTHER'S STORY
'WHEN I read the letter I was devastated. Like many people I thought homosexuals were perverts and even child molesters. When I went upstairs to his bedroom he was shaking like a leaf and he started to cry and I cuddled him.
'There was no one I could turn to. I even rang the Samaritans but they didn't have a single organisation I could contact. It wasn't until a year later that I found Acceptance.
'At first I thought he'd change but of course he couldn't. Then I started asking, 'Where did I go wrong?' I've done my best, I didn't go out to work until my daughter was 13. I've always been there for him.
'My husband is a scout leader and he was very worried that when people found out they would draw the wrong conclusions. I work four days a week in a government office and sometimes people there start to scoff and make silly jokes about gays. It hurts and sometimes I have to go to the ladies and cry. You want to say, 'Shut up, you don't know what you're talking about.'
'Now I want to educate the world. I won't settle until I can see two men walk hand in hand in front of my window. My son says it will never happen.
'We're very proud of him. I just found out yesterday that he's got his BSc. And he's been living with someone for over a year. But you can tell so many lies. It's unbelievable how it affects your life. We've been on holiday with them and I feel so sorry for them because they can't show affection in front of other people. They can't kiss goodbye at the railway station. They have to watch themselves the whole time.'
WHERE TO GET ADVICE
Acceptance, 64 Holmside Avenue, Halfway House, Sheerness, Kent ME12 3EY, 0795 661463.
Parents' Friend, (Leeds), 0532 674627.
Gay Switchboard, 071-837 7324.
OutRage, 5 Peter Street, London W1V 3RR, 071-439 2381.
Stonewall, 2 Greycoat Place, London SW1P 1SB, 071-222 9007.
Terrence Higgins Trust, 071-831 0330.