Author of the highly influential "How to be a Happy Homosexual" and "The Reluctant Gay Activist" was 75 when he died at his home in London on June 12
I learned with great sadness today that Terry, whom I got to know well after meeting him for the first time back in the 1970s, had died.
His partner of 40 years, Keith Porteous Wood, President of the National Secular Society announced his death on Facebook today (Monday) saying:
He died peacefully and, as he wished, at the home we have shared so happily for forty years. He bore his illness with characteristic fortitude and dignity.
I last saw Terry, former President of the National Secular Society, in London in 2017 when the NSS presented me with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Prior to that I was photographed with Terry and Sir McKellen at an NSS event that followed the Mohammed teddy bear row that resulted in the jailing of a British teacher in Khartoum.
McKellen once said of Sanderson:
25 years ago when I was discovering the delights of coming out, Terry’s journalism and books were an eye-opener – always rational and indignant, effortlessly on the high moral ground. I hope he is proud of his influence on the legal and social changes which his reporting encouraged.
In a tribute published by the NSS, Keith wrote that Terry was born in Maltby, a poor working class mining village in South Yorkshire.
His loving family were entirely supportive of him as a gay man (which they first discovered from the local newspaper), and—later—of us as partners. His rich and varied life was devoted to serving others and fighting injustice. Almost his entire working life was spent helping adults with learning difficulties, or campaigning for gay rights and secularism, our dual passions.
Not long after homosexuality was decriminalised, he bravely set up a mail order book business, called Essentially Gay, from his tiny bedroom in “the very macho Maltby” to help those who were isolated and unable to obtain information and support. He even imported books from the US, which despite being entirely innocent, were frequently impounded by cruelly homophobic custom officials on both sides of the Atlantic.
His talents as an incisive and provocative writer and journalist were put to so many uses in the service of gay rights and secularism. Some of his books are shown here but over the decades he wrote many more, especially gay self-help books, which ran into numerous editions. Hardly a month went by without readers of these books thanking him movingly for having transformed their lives.
Terry wrote monthly Mediawatch columns for Gay Times to challenge the inhumane treatment of gay people in the media, which he continued uninterrupted for a quarter of a century. This was reinforced by his frequent complaints to, and fierce battles with, media regulators.
It all helped to create the hugely more compassionate coverage we enjoy in this country today. These hundreds of columns have become social history and are also the subject of a book.They are being curated by the Queer Britain museum and are searchable here.
Terry played a leading role for nearly 25 years in developing the National Secular Society, and was its President for 11 years. His skills as a journalist and writer were put to good use compiling articles, news releases and the popular weekly NSS Newsline, which he founded.
Terry declared at the end of April on Facebook that he was placing himself “in the hands of the angels, ie the Macmillan nurses.”
“Macmillan Cancer Support, Marie Curie and paramedics have indeed provided selfless care of the highest order, as have the palliative care specialist nurses associated with the Meadow House Hospice (which also provides care in the community) in Ealing, west London,” wrote Keith.
We cannot thank them enough. We are similarly grateful for the wonderful care and world-class treatment Terry received at the Charing Cross Hospital, Hammersmith, west London.
Terry updated his autobiography to include references to his experience with cancer. Disclosing his terminal illness provoked a flood of touching tributes. In October last year, we carried a review of The Reluctant Gay Activist written by Stephen Harvie, a Pink Triangle Trust trustee.
In an in-depth interview with Scott Douglas Jacobsen in 2017, Terry said:
I knew I was gay from a very early age, and became increasingly frustrated at the prospect of a life of loneliness and isolation, which is what many gay people of that period endured. I hated the contempt and cruelty that was shown to anyone ‘found out’ to be gay, and I became increasingly determined to do my bit to change things. It took a long time for me to realise that you don’t have to believe everything that you’re told, even when you’re told it by your teacher or your parent.
He told Jacobsen that he I wrote a series of self-help books for LGBT people, hoping that the next generation could learn from the mistakes of the previous one and perhaps lead a happier life.
My book How to be a Happy Homosexual went through five editions and sold tens of thousands of copies. Even now, older gay people still come up to me and tell me how that book helped them to make positive changes in the way they regarded themselves. It brought many people out of the closet and helped in the raising of gay people’s self-esteem.
It is one of my proudest achievements in that it gave the tools for people to think about themselves in a different, more constructive way and therefore progress in their lives. The present generation of gay youngsters take much of this for granted, but all the reforms were the result of hard, persistent work.
As gay rights flourished and progress was made in just about all the areas of law that we had struggled so long to reform, Terry came to realise that the main barrier to complete equality was religion.
In all the reforms that have occurred over the past fifty years, it was the Church that tried hardest to derail them. It was the churches (and other religious organisations and religiously motivated individuals) that continued to portray gay people as evil and undesirable. It was their aggressive and regressive attitudes that needed to be challenged. And so I changed my focus to secularism.
I reasoned that secularism was the only way to keep religion in its proper place — and that place is not in Parliament where laws are made (and unmade) for everyone.
Asked about his religious beliefs, Terry declared:
I’m an atheist. That’s all. I don’t think it needs any qualification. An atheist simply doesn’t believe in the existence of the supernatural in any form, and if you want to define it beyond that, it becomes something else … My own atheism is simply a reflection of what I can’t accept to be true. Supernatural claims just seem ridiculous. I laughed when the Catholic Church made ‘Mother Theresa’ a saint because she apparently cured someone of brain cancer from beyond the grave. It just seems so primitive.
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