What do you do if you long for a normal avuncular relationship with your 13-year-old nephew, but are hindered by strong non-verbal messages of disapproval from your brother, who feels threatened by the fact that you are gay? This was Chris's problem. He wanted to ask the boy to London for a few days, with or without a friend, to show him the sights and get to know him better. But he wasn't hopeful his invitation would be welcome, since his family had always avoided coming to stay, and only occasionally did the brother call in, with his son, when he was passing.

As Stewart Fleming of Glasgow pointed out, the days when bachelor uncles and spinster aunts were accepted and trusted by their large extended families are over. 'I still bless their gentle kindness and influence,' he wrote. 'But in these enlightened and coming-out times, those innocent relationships might be questioned and put under dirty clouds.'

Chris's situation struck a chord with James of Clapham: 'Over the years it's been a real sadness I haven't seen my nephew more. When I do see him we get on terribly well, sharing a great love of art. He is an excellent draughtsman, and as an art historian there is nothing I'd like more than to take him round the London galleries, but it seems it's impossible. I've been in a permanent relationship for 10 years, and I was very hurt when my brother once took me aside, after refusing an invitation to stay, saying, 'I think it's preferable if you come to stay here'. It's clear they have a horror of the sight of our double bed. And they won't explain our relationship to my nephew, though he's now 14. It's all 'pas devant les enfants'. Despite the fact that the chances of a homosexual man making sexual advances to a child are far lower than the chances of a heterosexual man doing the same, gay people have been victims of the blurring between child abuse and homosexuality. I just keep in contact and hope we'll become greater friends when he's older.'

Richard, of Islington, felt the loss of an avuncular role particularly keenly. His sister has died, and his brother-in- law disapproves of his sexuality. 'The only contact I have is the occasional letter and phone call. But I make a big point of birthdays and Christmas and send money for school trips and so on. What irritates me is that I'm not preoccupied with being gay at all; it's the way people perceive me that's the problem.'

'If you're gay, you really have to be Caesar's wife to avoid suspicion when it comes to children,' wrote Colin, of Manchester. 'I am not asked to stay by my sister, nor will she allow her family to stay with me, so my ploy is to be glamorous, starry and special. I send very expensive presents to my nieces and nephews, and behave like an Edwardian mother who just wafts in for a glorious hour in the evening before going out, so that on the rare times I do appear, my visits are seen by the children as a pretty good thing.'

What disturbed me was how very harsh and suspicious most heterosexual readers were about Chris's situation. 'What is all this buddy-buddy uncle stuff?' wrote one anonymous reader. 'Are you proselytising? Anyway, perhaps your nephew has not the slightest desire to stay with you. Perhaps he finds your friends embarrassing. Perhaps he doesn't want you to be more of an uncle. Just leave him be]'

And Mrs B Atkins Smart, of Bristol, wrote: 'Most parents would not like to leave a 13-year-old to stay unchaperoned with an adult of the opposite sex far from home . . . The parents are bound to worry: 'What if the unthinkable happened?' '

Too many people shared her view. They seemed unable to trust most close relatives not to turn into menacing sexual beings the moment they were left on their own with a child of the opposite sex. To worry about the 'unthinkable' - which really would be unthinkable if the boy took a friend - at the price of forgoing what could be a really rich and affectionate relationship is not 'realistic'; it is cruel, indeed phobic. It is like refusing the offer of a delicious meal in case it might result in food poisoning.

'When my partner and I recently visited Africa, which has a much more friendly society than ours, we were frequently left with whole families of children on our own and had a great time, with fun and games and ordinary physical contact of the kind I'd be afraid to indulge in in England,' wrote James. 'It struck me how horribly regimented are the lives of English middle-class children, shepherded in cars from one structured activity to the next in fear of gays and bogeymen.'

Chris, however, does not live in Africa. He has to come to terms with our own suspicious and untrusting society. And I'm afraid I can see no way out for him except to buy tickets for the whole family to go to a show on his nephew's next birthday, something that everyone, including his brother, would enjoy. There is, of course, no reason why, when he next rings, he shouldn't let his nephew at least know that the invitation's been offered. That way the pressure to accept invitations may start, eventually, to come from the boy himself, making them a great deal more difficult for his blinkered and dirty-minded family to resist.

Dear Virginia,

I'm a working mother and school holidays are a difficult time. Recently a good friend with three children offered to look after my son, Paul, who is five. He enjoyed it at first, but last week he came home in tears, saying one of the bigger boys had locked him in a cupboard for half an hour when his mother was out. Today when I picked him up he burst into tears and said my friend had smacked him. She is an emotional woman, but they seem a happy, rumbustious family. We are loving but more formal; I would never smack Paul. My friend always hugs Paul, and says she'd love to have him after school because he is 'so gorgeous'. It would save child-minding fees, but what should I do? Their home has a happy feel, and Paul's dad says he should learn to cope in a big family, but I hate it when he's unhappy. I'd also find it hard to explain to my friend why I was not taking up her offer.

Yours, Ursula

Please send comments to: Features Department, the Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB (fax 071-956 1739) by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas, let me know. I will report back next Thursday.

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