Rose Robertson, who died in 2011 aged 94, led the sort of life which is begging for a Technicolor biopic (and would have Kate Winslet and Emily Blunt clawing over the lead part). As a teenager, she ran away from home with travelling troupes of actors, then during WWII she was parachuted into Nazi-occupied France to spy on German troops and act as a courier between the French resistance and the British allies (I hope she got to say “listen very carefully, I shall say this only once” …) She used to hide her Special Operations Executive pistol in her hair to avoid it being spotted.
Not gay herself, she accidentally interrupted two French resistance chaps in a compromising position, and rather than screaming, she very matter-of-factly viewed it as an opportunity to learn more and was affected by their stories of familial rejection.
Years later, in the 1960s, as a landlady to a young gay couple, she was inspired to set up Parents Enquiry, the first British helpline to support parents of lesbian, gay and bisexual children. She was soon receiving referrals from the police and social workers – and helped thousands of parents to accept their children. She put up with a lot over the years – attacked verbally and physically by parents, arson attacks on her home, abusive phone calls and hate mail, and even excrement through her letterbox. She never gave up, and her work was financed from her own salary.
I never met Rose, but she had an enormous impact on my own life. I came out to my parents aged 17 in 1989, the year after the notorious Clause 28 had been passed in the UK, and during a decade where social attitude surveys showed over half the population viewing homosexuality as ‘always wrong’. My mother, understandably for the time, was unable to accept it, terrified the neighbours would find out, and adamant that I stop wearing a 1950s charity-shop old man jacket because it would mark me out as an obvious homosexual (I don’t think it did, but that’s another column).
Somehow, she got hold of Rose’s number and telephoned it. I don’t know what Rose said to her, but after a long conversation, suddenly, everything was OK. My mother actually became a mini gay-rights campaigner herself for a while, writing letters to MPs, and to the TV Times asking for more gay people to be shown in her favourite soaps. Rose, you were the ‘mother-whisperer’. In your patient, sensible, caring way, you showed my mother, and countless other parents, how to accept us – making all of our lives so much easier in the process. And I can’t thank you enough for that.