Last edited: February 14, 2005

"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 he’s 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 were illegal.

We met while working at the London Chest Hospital, when Roger was 25 and I was 27.

The times were such that one could go to prison. The police could go through people’s address books and put the frighteners on anybody in there.

It sounds terribly noble, but Roger and I always said we aren’t prepared to be second-class citizens.

We didn’t go around shouting it from the rooftops because that wouldn’t 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 didn’t need to do anything — your name could just appear in somebody’s 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 you’re straight or gay. When you’re 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

One’s been aware of limitations, inadequacies, and — it’s a heavy word — injustices throughout one’s life, but the pensions issue really hit home after we retired.

It came out in a casual conversation, when a friend said: ‘You won’t be able to pass on your pension because it’s 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.

Symbolic move

But there’s 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 we’re taking a test case under the Human Rights Act for the same pensions rights as married couples, backed by the human rights group Liberty.

We’d like to see the UK bring in civil registration of partnerships at the very least, because of the anomalies between married and unmarried couples.

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 partner’s death.

Our very modest dwelling in Croydon is worth 260,000. If we were married, it would just pass one to the other.

Legal clout

We’re certainly going to register our relationship when Ken Livingstone opens a civil register in September — not that it’s going to carry any legal clout.

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 marriage.

We pay the same taxes as everybody else, but we don’t get anywhere near the same treatment later in life.

You can be together 40 years, as we’ve been, and get nothing. Yet if a couple has been married for two weeks and one of them dies, they get everything.

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