Book Review – The Reluctant Gay Activist

This is the memoir of the late Terry Sanderson, familiar to me as a leading light in the National Secular Society (NSS), of which I’ve been a member for some years. I never spoke to Terry, but I remember him from NSS events as a very distinguished man, always well turned out in a smart, well-fitting suit; slim, with a sensible haircut and a neat, greying beard.

It wasn’t until more recent years that I discovered Terry had been a prominent campaigner for gay rights, but this made perfect sense. The NSS campaign for the removal of religious privilege from society; the separation of church and state – for freedom from religion (as well as, somewhat magnanimously, freedom of religion). The NSS was the driving force behind the repeal of that blight on freedom of expression, and protection of religion from reasonable criticism – the blasphemy law. While campaigning for gay rights, Terry says he increasingly came to realise that the most significant opposition to reform was coming from the church, and that if LGBT campaigners were to have any hope of achieving acceptance and equality, the control that religion exerted on society would need to be reined in.

The book is well written (Terry was an experienced journalist and author) but could have done with some proof reading – there are quite a few typos and errors. It’s a shame also that it’s published as an Amazon print-on-demand book, which means the quality isn’t great. I don’t understand why Terry did this, when he had already ‘properly’ published other books, had experience as a distributor, and would have been sure of selling at least a limited print run (and probably would have sold enough to justify having it professionally distributed).

Terry’s debonair appearances on the London conference scene gave no clue that he was a working-class lad from Rotherham, and the son of a miner. At the time his journey into adulthood was starting, homosexuality was still criminalised. You might imagine that a Northern mining community might not be the easiest environment in which a young gay person could find themselves coming of age. Terry does a good job of conveying the growing sense of isolation and loneliness that he felt at that time. As much as anything it was the lack of information that meant that Terry and others didn’t understand how it was they were different to other people – didn’t even know that they were in no way alone. This is highly relevant to today, when increasing numbers of kids are finding themselves in religious schools that refuse to teach them about sex and relationships in an open, honest and realistic way.

Terry writes with great humour about how he finally discovered there were such things as ‘homosexuals’ – in other words, that he was neither unique, nor alone. And he went on to write a very successful self-help book (called ‘How to be a Happy Homosexual’) that would help many gay men avoid this ignorance trap set for them by an intolerant and unrealistic society.

Terry’s life, and his time as a campaigner, was directly aligned with the rather amazing transformation of societal attitudes to homosexuality, as it moved from illegality to being (almost) universally accepted, and even celebrated. And despite the hatred and the vitriol Terry encountered on his journey, it’s encouraging to read just how much tolerance and understanding he and his fellow campaigners received from the wider community – it seems that most people, even back then, had little problem with the existence of homosexuality.

Terry spent the second half of his life in London, where he continued campaigning. This was at the time of the progressive Greater London Council, led by Ken Livingstone. The GLC provided copious funding and support to LGBT groups, for which they were denigrated on a daily basis by a steady stream of hateful articles in the right-wing press. The GLC undoubtedly spent a lot of taxpayers’ money, but they also helped drag British ethics kicking and screaming into the modern age. Living on the outskirts of London, I remember it as a time of tolerance, understanding, freedom and hope.

The book covers Terry’s time in the NSS, when he and his partner, Keith Porteous-Wood, transformed the organisation from an introverted, overtly atheist outfit, into a bold, outward-looking campaigning group, based on inclusive secularism, rather than atheism (i.e., not denigrating religion, but aiming to curb its privileges; giving everyone the chance to formulate their own world view).

In the last section of his memoir, Terry Sanderson tells us about his diagnosis of cancer, and the on-going treatment for it. The book paints a portrait of a man who, despite the seriousness of the campaigns he championed, was fun-loving and good natured. In his life, Terry came up against some of the worst examples of humankind – vile bigots whose life work was to destroy other peoples’ chance of enjoying a free and fulfilled life. And yet, in this book, there are few people Terry couldn’t find any kind words for.

For most of his career Terry worked as an occupational therapist (he somehow managed to fit all of that campaigning into his spare time!) and it sounds as if he was most happy when helping others. There is a profound sense of this man’s kindness that runs through the book, which is informative, witty, and at times very moving. Terry was an extraordinary man, who led an extraordinary, and very interesting life. Sadly, he passed away in June this year, aged 75. His last missive, via social media, was ‘Goodbye, and try to be kind to each other’.

text & image © graham wright 2022

About literarylad

Graham Wright is a freelance writer and author. His first novel, Single Point Perspective, is set in and around the city of Manchester, where he lived and worked for more than fifteen years. His second, Moojara, is set in and around the world, but mostly centres on Perth, Western Australia. Both are works of dramatic literary fiction - imaginative, serious and thoughtful, but with a sense of humour. Graham is currently living in north Shropshire, where he is busy working on novel number three.
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1 Response to Book Review – The Reluctant Gay Activist

  1. A lovely piece. I wasn’t aware of Terry and his work for NSS. I’m grateful to now know a little about his life. Thank you!

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