New Internationalist

An Open Door

Issue 256

new internationalist
issue 256 - June 1994

An open door
Private lives can be shattered by media prejudice – or suffocated by fear of it.
Dinyar Godrej meets a couple who have tackled the threat head on.

The house lies on the fringes of the small town, in a narrow lane by the churchyard. It’s easy to miss: there’s a door in a high, windowless wall and the door is the same colour as the wall.

Behind the door and the wall the house opens its several folds: a sunlit court, a well-used kitchen, a cool, shaded dining room with its heavy, authoritative table. And a view through the glass-fronted colourful porch of the garden’s sprawl, it’s edge jewelled with the glint and shine of water. A perfect house for private lives. The ups and downs of family living – messy and wonderful – can carry on unobserved behind the featureless wall.

This family, however, has opened the door in the wall not only to friends and relatives, but also to journalists and photographers – and they are braver than most for doing so. For theirs is the sort of story people aren’t quite used to yet and could provoke prejudice.

This house is home to Don Smart and Shen Elderton – and their foster son Danny Smith. The small town is Wallingford in Oxfordshire. And no, none of these details has been changed to protect anyone’s identity.

Seventeen years ago Don and Shen began their efforts to foster or adopt a child, without any success. ‘Social Services wouldn’t accept our application as a couple. We couldn’t get a social worker to walk across our threshold and look at our house and assess us,’ recalls Shen. It mattered little that they were both professionals with a steady income and a loving commitment to each other. Nor did their love for children matter. As a gay couple they stood no chance. Until chance helped them.

Alison, Danny’s mother, wanted to move to Oxford but was worried about uprooting him from his special school – Danny has Down’s Syndrome. Her sister, a social worker, knew of Don and Shen’s predicament and arranged a meeting. Danny and Alison came to visit, bringing – for the first time – two social workers with them. They got on well with each other and Danny said he’d stay with them during the week and visit his mother over weekends. The social workers okayed it, but unofficially. In effect this became a private arrangement with no legal requirements or benefits or provision for Danny’s disability.

At this juncture their lives could have shrunk dramatically if they’d chosen to be secretive about their sexuality. Instead right from the start Don and Shen decided they would live their lives as they had always done – openly, concealing neither their gayness nor their role as foster parents.

Don liaised extensively with Danny’s school and they received the family warmly. Important parenting decisions had to be made. ‘I remember when we decided to let Danny walk home alone from school,’ says Don. ‘People said: “Don’t do that. He’ll get run over by a car.” But it was important for Danny to be responsible for himself. And yes, one day he was in an accident. But no-one was hurt.’

Sometimes people’s curiosity would get the better of them and they’d want to know what effect Don and Shen’s parenting would have on Danny’s sexuality – as though parents can predict the course of a child’s sexuality. Their reply was that Danny was treated as an equal in the household and his responsibility extended to his sexuality.

‘I feel quite strongly about the idea that society has about parents and their rights,’ says Don. ‘Parents feel that because the child is theirs it is divine parentage. They’re much more arrogant than I could ever have been about parenting. I learnt my parenting through Parent Effectiveness Training. Now people say: “Oh what a splendid parent you’ve been!” as though they expected otherwise. It wasn’t easy. There were tears, disappointments, upsets: in fact normal family life.’

As they gained confidence that they had succeeded as a family they started thinking of adding more children to it. With Danny’s permission they attempted to foster another child, but found themselves facing a psychiatrist who had his own preconceptions about gay lifestyles.

‘He wanted to know who was mummy and who was daddy. Who was the active one and who was the passive one,’ says Shen. They suffered this patiently, but in the end the psychiatrist’s ‘professional’ assessment went against them. The child was made a ward of court.

Don and Shen remained in touch with other lesbian and gay couples who were attempting to foster children. They knew of women who had managed to foster but had kept their sexuality secret. Don and Shen decided to go public – so that others would know of the struggle, to forestall scandal-mongers and to shatter some myths about gays and children. Their story broke in a positive manner and there was no media orgy of hatred. Shen, a therapist and trainer, lost one client.

They told their story because it needed to be heard. There are numerous other stories about gay people, positive stories, that don’t get heard. People who are proud and confident in their gay identity are still vulnerable to the homophobia of the press, the law and society in general. In ‘tolerant’ countries where homosexuality isn’t illegal, being outed publicly can still mean losing one’s job, the goodwill of neighbours and harassment by strangers. Elsewhere the punishments can be more drastic – imprisonment and even death. As long as sexual nonconformity is demonized, the stories won’t even begin to be told.

For Don and Shen the situation has moved on. Danny is now an adult. His foster parents are still there for him but he has also found independence as an actor with the Kaleidoscope Theatre in Walsall. Recently at a post-performance party at Stratford-upon-Avon Danny was besieged by admiring friends. Don stood at the edge of the group wondering whether he should join it, when Danny caught his eye and gave him the thumbs-up sign. It meant a lot.

Other things do not change. Social Services in Oxfordshire still don’t consider lesbian and gay couples for fostering. From time to time the tabloids ‘discover’ a child adopted or fostered by gay parents and turn on their special brand of hatred posing as morality, ruining lives in the process.

Don and Shen will have to keep that door of theirs open.

Dinyar Godrej is a freelance writer and poet.

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