"When We Met, We Were Illegal"
BBC Online News, July 26, 2001
As a major charity pushes for equal rights for elderly gays, former nurse
Ron Strank reflects on how times have changed in the 41 years hes been with
his partner, Roger Fisher, in our Thursday Real Time series.
Life for gay people has come 180 degrees. When Roger and I got together, we
We met while working at the London Chest Hospital, when Roger was 25 and I
The times were such that one could go to prison. The police could go
through peoples address books and put the frighteners on anybody in there.
It sounds terribly noble, but Roger and I always said we arent prepared
to be second-class citizens.
We didnt go around shouting it from the rooftops because that wouldnt
have been common sense we could have been locked up. But many of our
colleagues and friends knew.
One had to be discreet. We never wrote things like love letters because
that could have been taken as evidence against us. And in phone calls, we had
to edit what we said. I know it sounds paranoid, but it was called survival.
Happily, we never had any trouble with the law, perhaps because we led very
sober, quiet, professional lives.
Gay is for life
But at that time, you didnt need to do anything your name could just
appear in somebodys address book for there to be a knock at the door.
I think elderly gays and lesbians are more visible than they were, but ours
is a youth culture whether youre straight or gay. When youre in your
salad days, that attracts all the coverage.
Some elderly people who lived through the very restrictive years have been
conditioned by that, and are still apprehensive about coming out.
Equal taxes, unequal pensions
Ones been aware of limitations, inadequacies, and its a heavy
word injustices throughout ones life, but the pensions issue really hit
home after we retired.
It came out in a casual conversation, when a friend said: You wont be
able to pass on your pension because its a state pension.
If it had trustees, like private pension schemes do, we could put our
situation to them and they could consider changing the rules.
But theres no villain in this piece. When the NHS was set up, life was
simple, life was black and white. The pensions regulations permitted for a
married man and woman and nothing else.
So were taking a test case under the Human Rights Act for the same
pensions rights as married couples, backed by the human rights group Liberty.
Wed like to see the UK bring in civil registration of partnerships at
the very least, because of the anomalies between married and unmarried
The inheritance laws, for instance, mean that if you have an estate that
exceeds £240,000 easy if you own a house in the south-east you get
taxed 40% on one partners death.
Our very modest dwelling in Croydon is worth £260,000. If we were married,
it would just pass one to the other.
Were certainly going to register our relationship when Ken Livingstone
opens a civil register in September not that its going to carry any
But if sufficient people register, then it might have moral force when the
legislation changes in the fullness of time.
We hope that civil registration and equal rights for pensions
benefits not just gay people, but straight people in relationships outside
We pay the same taxes as everybody else, but we dont get anywhere near
the same treatment later in life.
You can be together 40 years, as weve been, and get nothing. Yet if a
couple has been married for two weeks and one of them dies, they get