Coming out of the cold: Is it still easier for gay men to meet someone to have sex with than to meet someone to spend the rest of their lives with? Cathy Aitchison reports

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When Paul saw Stu for the first time he knew immediately that here was the person he wanted to share his life. They met five years ago through a mutual friend, when Stu was 23 and Paul 19.

'The following day he went down on bended knee and professed his undying love for me,' Stu recalls. 'It nearly did my head in. I said: 'You're 19 years old, you've only just met me, do you know what you're doing?' I took the day off work, because it knocked me sideways.'

Both knew they wanted a long-term partner and were not particularly interested in casual relationships or one-night stands: 'We're both quite moral, really. I'd always wanted a partner to settle down with. Paul didn't like the idea of the gay scene, that to find the right partner you'd got to sleep around a lot - it goes against the grain.'

Inevitably it is much easier to meet someone and have sex than it is to meet someone to settle down with. Jeff, manager of a library in a London media company, had several medium-term and casual relationships before meeting his partner, Simon. 'I think for gay men it's slightly more acceptable on both sides - men have this huntsman's instinct, this ability to have sex on a purely physical level without any emotions. With both being the same sex, in some ways things are easier - there is an increased understanding of what the other person needs.'

He and Simon met nine years ago when both were late-night shopping on Oxford Street in London's West End. 'I literally saw Jeff standing in this doorway and we caught each other's eye,' explains Simon. 'As I walked past I thought he looked nice - perhaps I'd just walk back and see if he was still there. He was, so I hung around for a few minutes then went up and spoke to him.' They discovered they lived near each other in London and came from similar backgrounds.

'A lot of chance meetings tend to result in one-night stands, but this one didn't,' adds Jeff. 'We arranged to meet later that night, and I more or less moved in with Simon immediately.'

Simon feels that recently there has been a shift towards relationships, largely in response to the Aids crisis, but that there is still a pressure for gay men to be 'different': 'The message is that you're gay, you're free to do what you want, to sleep with who you want, and that you shouldn't conform to what some see as the heterosexual ideal of long-term relationships - like marriages.'

'Everyone just wants to have a good time, but they also want to find the right man and the two don't often fit together at the same time,' adds Glyn, who met his partner Wim in a gay disco 11 years ago. At the time, neither had any thought of settling down.

'I just liked the look of him, I wasn't really looking for a partner,' says Wim. 'If you're looking it will never happen. When I was younger I did that for about a year or so but it didn't work. If you're more relaxed it will just happen.'

'I think there's probably a higher proportion of gays than heterosexuals who don't ever find someone to settle down with,' comments Mark, who works for a financial services company in Newcastle. 'It's not as high as it used to be, as society is a lot more tolerant now, and you can live the way we do a lot more easily than you could 20 years ago.'

He met Tony in a gay nightclub in Newcastle when both were in their early twenties, and they have been together for eight years. He is discreet about his relationship: 'I've told one or two close friends at work, but not many. At this branch it probably wouldn't be a problem, but in higher management and at head office it might be.'

'I actually know quite a number of gay people through work,' says Peter, a musician. 'There are lots of places where I imagine it would be very difficult to meet other gay people - being in the arts world, perhaps it's more open and relaxed.' Peter works with his partner, Matthew, who is director of music in a central London church, and they worked together for over a year before their relationship began. 'At the time, I was having a rest after a couple of medium-term relationships, so I was not really looking. Working together on a weekly basis, we gradually got to know each other better.'

They have been together for just over three years, a fact which is known and accepted by the clergy and much of the church community: 'Our church has a very accepting tradition and a diverse congregation. We haven't made any statement about being together, but the majority of people are aware of the situation and are very supportive. We're just treated like a couple.'

Peter feels his relationship is more accepted in London than it would be in his native Scotland. Glyn and Wim, on the other hand, found no problems when they moved from west London to the north of Scotland: 'If anything, it's been easier than in London, and we've had no hassle.'

'You've got to make part of the effort yourself,' says Mark. 'Some people segregate themselves and don't want to mix with straight people. Everything they do is gay only and everyone they mix with is gay.'

Stu also believes that gay couples often have to work harder at their relationship. 'After five years, we both know each other's strengths and weaknesses,' he says. 'Sometimes we drive each other mad, but then we say, look, we need to sit and communicate here, let's clear the air. We just sort of say something to each other which makes us think, yes it is worth working at, isn't it?'