The past few years have seen much headway made in changing public attitudes towards homosexuality in this country. Is there a soap on television without a gay character in its story-line? These changes in attitude are to be encouraged and welcomed, but we must not become complacent, as prejudice against gay people often has deep psychological roots.
Prejudice towards people with a homosexual orientation can manifest itself in many ways. An area that can cause particular pain is the failure on the part of healthcare workers to recognise a same-sex partner as the next of kin. A recent illustration of this was in the film Philadelphia. The actor who plays the partner of Tom Hanks questions the doctor concerning the medical treatments and investigations that are being offered him. The response from the doctor is short and to the point: "You are not a relative and I can have you thrown out of this hospital."
I should like to think that such a response would never be made in a hospital in this country, but I am sure incidents do occur. I trust that anyone suffering this kind of unjustified discrimination will use our new procedures to help people complain to make sure that local management are aware of this issue and tackle it properly.
For many people adolescence is a difficult period: particularly as they come to terms with their sexuality. For the gay, lesbian or bisexual teenager, these difficulties are magnified by the lack of information available and the fear of negative response from those around them: family, society and the statutory services. These difficulties are compounded by the conflicts that can arise in families when children and teenagers "come out" to parents. In some cases this results in young people leaving home to live on the streets - with all the social, psychological and economic problems that brings. The Government has already realised that child and adolescent mental health services are in need of development and has begun a programme of action to raise the profile of such services in health, local and education authorities.
It would be nice to believe that healthcare professionals are exempt from the prejudices and biases of the rest of society, and that because they work in a caring environment they will be able to show compassion and concern for people whose sexual orientation is different from their own. Regrettably this is not always the case, but the statutory bodies that have responsibility for healthcare professionals are unanimous in condemning discrimination against gay people and have shown a willingness to deal with it appropriately.
The Patient's Charter is the flagship of our efforts to improve services. The media naturally concentrate on hard-edged issues like waiting lists. Of course they are important but it is also important not to forget that the key theme of the charter is respect for individuals - giving them information, enabling them to make choices, respecting privacy and dignity, and responding when things goes wrong. Respecting and understanding a person's sexual orientation is part and parcel of that.
The attitude of the public is changing as more and more people recognise the richness that lesbian and gay people add to society. The struggle for equality that many of you will be celebrating this week has led to a society where more and more gay people are prepared to be open about their sexual orientation and make known their requirements for appropriate health and social services. In the future we will see a more openly ageing gay population who will require services as elderly people, geared to their specific needs. Those with responsibility for planning, purchasing and providing services should take note and be prepared.
Sexual orientation itself is not, should not and never again will be a mental health issue. As with all members of our society gay men, lesbians and bisexual people should be treated with respect and equality. I wish all of you a happy Gay Pride day.
The writer is Minister of Health. This article is taken from a speech he gave on Wednesday to a conference organised by Mind and gay groups.Reuse content