I march to the bottom of the stairs. My call is not siren. "Oliver! Jack! Your ice cream is getting cold!" Giggles and groans from aloft. The first-floor shower room, probably.

I return to the table, survey the dishes, plates and crystal that will have to be dealt with before bedtime, heave a sigh, address the other guests: "They're coming." Ben is blunt: "Safe bet." Thomas laughs. I ask who wants the virtually-fat-free vanilla-flavoured dessert. "I would rather run my tongue through a mangle," Steven replies, helping himself to pecan pie. Mike is to my right. I hear his muttered "Easily arranged." Trouble in paradise.

Ben continues his coming-out story. He sat his mother and father down, told them how much he loved them, what a good job they'd done, how he felt they deserved honesty: "Mum and Dad, I'm gay, and it's all right, it isn't anything you've done wrong."

"And?" I prompt. "And my dad beat the shit out of me. My brothers haven't spoken a word to me from that day to this. That's nearly 10 years. My mum sends Christmas and birthday cards, and rings when she can. She isn't allowed to mention my name. My father tells people I'm dead."

I pour more wine. Noises off. Descending steps, muffled voices. Oliver and Jack. Oliver in black, Jack in smiles.

"Jack, that T-shirt is on back-to-front," I point out, seriously pissed that coffee and liqueurs have been kept waiting. Jack blushes. Forty-year- old Oliver looks at his twentysomething boyfriend and ... You perhaps know the look. You have cast it out yourself, or, if you've been real lucky, been on the receiving end.

"Love's middle-aged dream," I intone. Oliver wags a warning finger. "Bitch." I shrug: "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that sting." Jack tries to change the subject: "Have we missed anything?" "No," I answer, "have we?" Jack's face blazes beetroot. "Coming-out stories," Mike offers.

Mike was 30. His family knew and he knew his family knew. It wasn't talked about, even when he and Andy lived together. Then he and Andy broke up, and he wanted the comfort his parents had always given his siblings in times of pain, so he told them ... not exactly. They were having Sunday lunch and he broke down. Simply couldn't stop crying. And they rallied round, explained that they hadn't wanted to interfere until he gave permission, but how worried they'd been, wanting to know if he was happy.

"Are you happy?" I ask. Mike considers. "Yeah, I'm happy." He nudges Steven in the ribs. "I'm mad about this one, aren't I? Not that he deserves it." Steven puts the fork to Mike's mouth. "Try the pie. John made it from scratch." I translate: "Steven's telling you that he loves you too." Mike bites. "If he keeps telling me like this, I'm going to weigh a ton."

Steven came out to his sister first. He was 18. She was flabbergasted. Not her butch, football-playing brother, the guy her girlfriends swooned over. She thought it was a joke. So did he. Why was he telling her? Why was he telling anyone? It was such a wash-out, he hadn't bothered to bore anyone since. Not a relative, not a colleague at work, no one. What was the point?

My hands shoot to my neck. Steven stares: "What are you doing?" "Clutching the pearls." "Pardon?" I explain: "I'm expressing my shock in a ladylike manner. Do try and keep up." Steven is bemused: "What's so shocking?" I'm disgusted: "Go to the light, Carol Anne, go to the light!" Steven turns to Mike: "What's he on about?" I give up: "Thomas, you tell him. Tell him about coming out. Then explain sacrilege."

Thomas does the business. Visibility, truthfulness, effecting change not merely by marching but through people knowing you, being aware of who you are, being aware that you weren't ashamed, or a monster, or whatever they may have imagined a homosexual was, that you had a life like theirs; them realising that you were part of things, not apart from things. A basic commitment.

"Exhausting," Steven complains. "Part of the job description," I volley. Steven asks: "Are you saying every gay man should come out?" "Possibly." He's unconvinced: "What if you know your boss will fire you?" I improvise: "Get another job. Then come out." Thomas butts in: "Or come out and sue the bastard for wrongful dismissal." Steven nods at Ben: "And if it backfires and your family hates you?" Ben shakes his head: "You live with that so you can live with yourself. You hope that deep down they miss you as much as you miss them, and that one day..."

One day. Somewhere a place for us. Go west. Over the rainbow. The destination that eternally seems a fingertip's distance away but no matter how hard you stretch, no matter how hard you try, remains out of reach.

Steven doesn't say anything. But twentysomething Jack does: "You should do it for me, Steven, and people like me. Make it easier for us. My best friend at school couldn't cope. He committed..."

Steven turns ugly. It's a short trip. "Why should I do anything for you?" Mike soothes: "Steven, Steven..." Jack, to my surprise, stands his ground. "Then don't do anything for me. Do it for yourself."

The silence drifts.

"Well," I finally manage, "I'd like to thank you all for attending this rehearsal of The Boys in the Band..." Which gets a laugh while I make the Java and everyone exchanges small talk about how very far we've come really, and how one day...

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