The gay community counts the blessings of a historic week on the street where terror struck

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In Old Compton Street at the heart of London's "gay village" in trendy Soho, it's lunchtime on the day after a historic ruling in the House of Lords opened the way for established gay couples to claim a raft of previously denied "family" rights.

In Old Compton Street at the heart of London's "gay village" in trendy Soho, it's lunchtime on the day after a historic ruling in the House of Lords opened the way for established gay couples to claim a raft of previously denied "family" rights.

It's another step on the long road to gay liberation and equality. And, after a recent European court ruling in favour of gays in the British armed forces and the decision by a Californian court to allow a gay British couple to share parental rights on a surrogate child, it's another in a series of triumphs over the last four weeks.

Watching people pass outside the huge front windows of Balans restaurant in Old Compton Street yesterday, it is clear just how far the gay community, in London at least, has come in the past 15 years.

"When I moved down from the North to London there was just one gay pub in Compton Street , one in [nearby] St Martin's Lane and two or three in Earl's Court," recalls a publicist, Kevin Wilson, 38, breakfasting in Balans with his boyfriend, Craig Railton, 28.

Soho is heaving with gay and "gay-friendly" pubs, cafés and clothes shops. And whereas a decade ago gay two men or women kissing in the street would still have been considered outrageous - as well as quite dangerous, given the level of homophobia then - no one bats an eyelid today as passing men embrace.

Judgments such as Thursday's House of Lords' ruling allow homosexual men and women to walk a little taller, according to Angela Mason of the gay pressure group Stonewall. Mr Wilson agrees; he and Mr Railton are currently testing the continuing thaw in official attitudes to homosexuality. They are applying for British residency for Mr Railton, a New Zealander, on the basis that they have been a couple for more than two years.

Two years ago it would have been out of the question. Couples - heterosexual or homosexual - were required to know each other for four years before applying for residency. The rules discriminated against homosexuals. While heterosexuals could marry before a visa expired, that option was not open to gays; homosexual relationships in these circumstances were doomed.

"I don't think gay people necessarily want to live conventional married lives," Mr Wilson says. "But they want the right to have a partner and not to have to end a relationship because their partner comes from another country."

Mr Wilson says he, like most of the gay men he knows, has no interest in having children. But he still supports the right of other gays to parenthood including the two men from Essex who have won joint parental rights in the Californian courts. "I don't agree that gay men provide less of a wholesome environment than a heterosexual couple for children," Mr Wilson says.

With so many recent triumphs some people may be forgiven for becoming complacent about gay rights. But while Mr Wilson and Mr Railton are delighted with a decade of improvements, they also feel that a multitude of injustices are just too blatant to be ignored.

The Admiral Duncan pub, the target of a bomb attack earlier this year, is just down the road. Mr Wilson says that many gays were outraged to find out that while the bomb was targeted at the capital's "gay village", only heterosexual part- ners of victims were eligible for payments from the criminal compensation board. Homosexuals did not qualify regardless of how long or devoted their relationshipswere. "That was plain wrong," says Mr Wilson.

If the courts and politicians are helping out gays in their struggle for equal rights, many of the regulars in Balans prefer to credit the media - "apart from the Daily Mail with its nuclear family agenda" - with much of the progress.

Mr Wilson was the publicist for Queer as Folk, possibly the most sexually explicit gay drama to have been broadcast in Britain. "The first episode even shocked me," he admits. But he believes that the series would have broadened the heterosexual view of homosexuals for those who stuck with it. It is a long time, he points out, since homosexuals were stereotyped by the exaggerated Queen-like mannerisms of John Inman, a star of the Seventies television comedy Are You Being Served?.

Younger gays also see the media as a greater ally than politicians or the courts. "You see so many portrayals of gay life on TV now," says Jason Allen, 26, an actor from Los Angeles who was in Soho for a week's holiday. "You can say: 'that's my life. I identify with that'." He and his friend, Jake Bagwell, 24, say they are living in a much easier world than the previous homosexual generation. "I thank God I didn't have to come out twenty years ago."

Out since he was at high school - where the gay clique recognised his "impossible to hide" mannerisms and "saved" him from isolation - he has always had the support of a gay community. "We have it easier than the previous generation," says Mr Allen. "And sometimes you can feel their resentment. The generation gap is wider for gays than for heterosexuals."

For Mr Bagwell, however, discrimination has not entirely disappeared; he is still not comfortable in all social situations, and continuing prejudice means that even his generation is not completely at ease. "I've always struggled on the line between shame and pride," he says. "And I've usually stuck to gay areas with my own people."

Jason, originally from Indiana, did not benefit from the liberalism in a big city like Los Angeles while he was growing up. His parents are still not happy with his sexuality.

Outside the big cities of America and Europe, both say, it would still be foolhardy to be openly gay. Eventually, they want equality in everything. "I cannot imagine life without children," says Mr Allen. "But in the States it is still easier for a single man to adopt than a gay couple. Mind you, the hard part is finding another gay man who actually wants kids."

Lesbians have traditionally been less vocal than gay men, but many are fighting to ensure their voice is heard now. For while they suffer from discrimination like gay men, their priorities are often different. Parental rights tend to be higher up on their agenda.

At the nearby First Out bar, Frederique, 26, from Britanny and her girlfriend Kathrin, 23, from Australia, say that what matters most is simple acceptance. Frederique came to London two years ago because attitudes to lesbians are more liberal than in Paris. Her parents do not know she is gay. Kathrin feels unable to tell her father, and her family asks her constantly when she will settle down and have children.

"Ideally you would like to be able to introduce your partner without fear that it would offend anyone," says Frederique. Every legal victory, she says, increases the possibility of her being able to be honest with her parents. "The law changes the mentality," she says.

"I just long for it not to be an issue," says Kathrin. "It is just your sexuality after all. That is not everything." She finds London refreshingly liberal compared with Australia "where old men would still shout in the street that you should be shot if you showed affection to your girlfriend. But hanging out in London's gay village can breed a false sense of security. There is still hostility."

Still, they are glad to be out now and not twenty years ago, says Kathrin. "Back then we would have been spending a lot more time inside and attending a lot of Tupperware parties," Kathrin adds.

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