Working for LGBT rights in the 1970s and 1980s, we were fighting on multiple fronts for equality. However, the struggle to get partnerships recognised and acknowledged was more than an abstract fight for justice.
Many people in relationships found that they were shut out of their partners’ lives in devastating ways, because they were not ‘immediate family’. During the early days of the AIDS crisis, lovers could be prohibited from visiting their loved ones dying in hospital, while biological families who might have been estranged for years claimed the right to be there.
And to impose their views beyond death. We have all had the experience of going to a funeral where a sanctimonious vicar paints a soft-focus portrait of someone that we do not recognise as the friend/partner we knew.
Most crucially, families airbrush the queerness out of the picture, often in the misguided belief that this is doing the memory of the dead person favours, whereas it is usually sparing themselves embarrassment.
It happened in housing, where partners lost tenancies where one partner died. If there was no will, a shared house could be snatched from the survivor if it were not in both their names, even with a will, it could be contested by the family.
And in the case where a lesbian mother died with small children, they could be snatched away on ‘moral’ grounds from a single deviant.
Terry Baum’s play, Immediate Family, tackles this lack of recognition at its sharpest point. Virginia is a middle-aged bull-dyke, who has been with Rosie for 28 years.
Now Rosie is dying of cancer, and in a coma in hospital.
Virginia communes with Rosie, tells her the little secrets of her day, talks to her as if she can hear and contribute to the conversation.
She comes to the decision that the kindest thing to do would be to switch off the life support machine. That is what Rosie would want. That is what you would do to an animal in pain.
However, the decision to do that is not hers to make but that of the biological family. There is a heart-rending series of phone calls, pleas to end this suffering. And Virginia is suffering as much as Rosie.
Will she be allowed to do it? What will happen if she isn’t, will she take the law into her own hands?
I found this play in a volume called ‘Places, Please!’, an anthology of lesbian plays published in the mid-80s. I loved it for its affectionate portrait of someone who had no ‘political awareness’ in a conventional sense, beyond a basic decency and her love. And yet her whole uncompromising existence is political in itself.
She is a funny, flawed and completely rounded character. I always wanted to do this play and wrote to Ms Baum asking permission. I never got a reply. That was before the internet, of course. This time round, when I had an email address, I heard within 24 hours. We are very grateful for her permission.
Our other obstacle in the late 1980s was casting. As a gay company on the fringe, we suffered from a shortage of women performers, and those we had were much too young for the mature Virginia. So, it slipped out of our grasp. Now we can rectify that.
Peter Scott-Presland (April 2021)
Terry wrote the following ‘Afterword’ to the printed script:
IMMEDIATE FAMILY was inspired by two events. The first was a series of articles in the newspaper in 1980 about a nurse in a nursing home in Las Vegas who was accused of turning off the respirators of patients in order to win bets with other employees on when the patients were going to die.
Although the nurse was presented in the most lurid, unsympathetic light by the papers, it didn't take too much imagination to conceive of a person who would turn off a respirator out of love.
(The nurse was referred to as ‘Death's Angel’ by the papers, and that was the original title of the play.)
At about the same time, my beloved dog, Dotty, was dying of cancer. It was a very long, drawn-out process, as cancer deaths often are, and I experienced all the emotions that Virginia experiences in the play.
I think because Dotty was a dog and my relationship with her was very pure, as it is with animals that we love, I was able to observe myself at the same time as I was experiencing these intense feelings, rather than getting dragged down into them and confused by them, as I'm sure I would have if I were dealing with the death of a human being that I loved.
Ultimately, I had Dotty put to sleep by her vet. I suppose I should use the word euthanise, but it sounds so cold and clinical. Dotty's death was very peaceful and beautiful and I was happy that I could end her obvious suffering. It struck me as idiotic at the time that our society reserves a humane death only for the non-humans.
When I first wrote the play, I wrote it from the viewpoint of a nurse, whom I made a very strange character who only felt comfortable with people in comas. It all went fine until the end, when I had to come up with a powerful reason for her to turn off the respirator.
You see, although I believed that it could be right to tum off a respirator and allow a person to die, dramatically I felt it would be stronger to make this the first time and so the nurse needed some extra push to do what she had thought of doing so many times before.
I came up with the idea that the nurse decided to turn off the machine because the woman in a coma was a lesbian and those who had the legal power to disconnect it had disowned her long ago.
From there it was a very short step to realising that if the character were the lesbian lover of the comatose patient, rather than a nurse, her motivation would be very strong indeed.
I created the script partly through writing and partly through improvising by pretending to be Virginia in the hospital room.
The play is included in Baum's anthology One Dyke's Theatre, and that is available on US Amazon. It can also be ordered through Gay's the Word bookshop.