The bride? No doubt he looked radiant

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STAYING WITH friends in New York last week, I noticed an invitation magnetically stuck to the front of their fridge. This particular one - printed on heavy card in elaborate italic script - said 'Please join us in a ceremony to honor our love and commitment'. The time was 3.30pm, the place the garden of Alexander's mother's house. Alexander and his intended are gay.

There is a gender panic abroad, and nowhere is it more evident than in the United States. The family is in ferment - torment, even. The fragility of marriage and parenthood and the publicity accorded to aberrations such as child abuse mean people have lost all the old anchors - belief in the lifelong nature of commitment in marriage (with the divorce rate approaching 1:2) is perceived as naive, while happy couples are regarded with foreboding.

People protect themselves against the chaos of broken relationships and divided households by clinging to the spar of political correctness.

My hosts, Adrian and Joan, had received three such 'commitment' invitations this summer. I imagined this new inclination for homosexual monogamy must have been prompted by Aids, but apparently not. It is more likely that gay couples want to have their relationships validated and consolidated by friends and family; and, perhaps, to acquire presents with which to furnish the new household, like people getting married.

My friends felt ambivalent about these occasions. Adrian explained: 'It seems as though these couples are insisting upon not just recognition but endorsement of their partnership, and that can cause elderly relatives a lot of anguish. They do not necessarily disapprove of gay relationships, but they may well think these pseudo-marriages are a betrayal of the Christian, heterosexual basis of marriage. This confronts them with the invidious choice of standing by their convictions or their grandson, godson, nephew or whatever.'

Adrian added that homosexual couples can now legally adopt children, to whom they become Daddy-Bob and Daddy-Peter. Now this does stretch my tolerance, not because I think any child brought up by two men (or women) is likely to grow up gay, nor that it would matter if they did; but because only an ostrich would deny that the male-female partnership is biologically the only, and socially the best, basis for rearing children.

Small children are blank slates. What they grow up with is what seems normal to them. I am wary of legalising a childhood in which homosexual set-ups are more 'real' than heterosexual ones. I am, I think, without prejudice about homosexuals, until they start playing Mummies and Daddies. Yes, any home is better than none to an abandoned child. But there is no shortage of heterosexual couples as would-be adopters.

I was very conscious, while in America, of a contradiction whereby gender is both unimportant yet more important than ever before. On the one hand, political correctness insists that men and women are people, humankind, and should not be corralled under gender-specific labels. On the other hand, a newspaper has just been launched called HER NEW YORK a paper specifically for women. But if men and women are genderless, why does the female half need its own paper?

HER NEW YORK has the usual news sections, sport, crime, opinion and advice (for example, 'strategies for handbag protection'), yet it is an odd mixture of paranoia and a touching belief in an ideologically perfect (that is, feminist) world.

Young American women keep the paradox alive. They have gone a long way, in the famous phrase, towards achieving equality, yet they seem more stressed than American men. Job equality has not yet been attained: women's pay lags on average 75 per cent behind that of men. They battle with every weapon at their disposal for the coveted rewards at the top. The first of those weapons is still their appearance: honed, groomed, exercised.

Nowadays models, film stars and, yes, magazine editors head the social pyramid, rather than the pampered upper-crust debutantes who used to lodge their wedding lists at Barney's or Bloomingdale's. One thing has changed. Nowadays, the 'bride' whose list you anxiously scan in search of a gift costing less than dollars 300 may be a man.