Linda Colling: Stereotypes are big, fat and unfair

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I DIDN’T have to cross their palms with silver to get the gipsy women to talk.

They were rightly incensed and hurt at what they claim was an outrage at the MetroCentre by security staff who scuppered their birthday night out.

Dressed up to the nines, the 16-strong party aged from 16 to 60, say they were told they were banned because they were travellers.

The MetroCentre has denied such a policy exists and told me they are not racist.

When I called at the Drum Lane Travellers Site in Chester-le-Street, the women were still smarting.

A 53-year-old mother of two told me: “It’s bad what happened. We walked in the doors and a guard came to us and said ‘no gipsies are allowed.’ I said ‘What do you mean?’ and that we had come for for the girls’ birthday, and he said ‘If you don’t leave we will get the police.’

“We went upstairs to Frankie and Benny’s and while we were waiting for a table, four police officers turned up and spoke to the manager who said ‘Their money is as good as anybody’s and they aren’t causing any trouble.’ So they just went away.

“We might be gipsies but we aren’t dirty gipsies. We wash ourselves and we ain’t ashamed to be gipsies. Nothing like this has ever happened before in my life.”

Since My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, the biggest show Channel 4 has had for years with audiences of more than eight million, the gipsies I spoke with have come in for some stick.

In petrol stations or shops they’ve been asked if they have £140,000 wedding extravaganzas and do their men fight? This series has done these gipsies no favours. People’s perception of them is based on what the TV portrayed, and in some quarters has fuelled all that’s negative.

These are Romanys, not Irish travellers as shown in the series, who have a separate culture.

Here at Chester-le-Street their lifestyle is a million miles away from those who starred in the runaway hit show.

Jule Lee, 32, a mother of three, lives there and was on the outing to the MetroCentre.

She reckons the show has a lot to answer for, and so too does grandad Jim Lee, their spokesman.

He told me straight: “I’ve been living with my wife for 50 years since I was 16 and I am still not married. We don’t have big fat gipsy weddings. I’m well-liked. It’s just people who don’t know me asking me stupid stuff.”

It’s depressed him being bombarded like never before since gipsy men were shown bare-knuckle fighting.

Jim says: “I can’t fight and never could fight and won’t ever fight. I am a friendly person. I live in a horse-drawn caravan. I just want to be friends with everybody. I don’t want people to condemn me.”

It’s such a shame that he and the women here feel there has been a shift in some people’s attitude towards them since this show went out.

Their lives bear no resemblance to what captivated and had us transfixed in disbelief.

The fascination lay in looking at a people who live alongside us with a lifestyle alien to ours.

They may live in our midst, their children go to our schools and whether or not they have cash on the nail to splash, the gipsies remain very much a race apart.

I RECKON those gold lame tights were the parish priest’s undoing.

The Rev Martin Wray, from South Shields, has quit after turning up at a ‘Vicars and Tarts’ party dressed as a prostitute and swapping his dog collar for a little black dress, pink high heels, a pink necklace and a long black wig.

It’s one thing the 59-year-old marrying his gay partner Lee Lovely, 34, a divorced father of one in a civil partnership last May, and quite another to dress up like a tart. Why didn’t he just go as a vicar?

Perhaps he is a victim of a “homophobic” hate campaign as his family claim, but this just isn’t what you expect of a vicar and brought the church into disrepute.

Posing perched on the bar in The Steamboat pub in Mill Dam, South Shields, at the charity bash last August, for a fella he makes some canny looking dame.

However private the party, his big mistake was having his picture taken and playing straight into the hands of certain members of his flock at St Lawrence the Martyr Church in Horsley Hill.

Openly gay he may be, but it is just not on flaunting your sexuality in this get-up when you are a parish priest.

Three years after the death of his wife, Carole, after a prolonged illness, the vicar revealed he was homosexual when he announced he was entering a civil partnership.

Now after being on sick leave for several months he has resigned and retired and is looking forward to “a long and happy retirement.”

He said: “ I have taken early retirement following advice from my doctor. I have apologised to people in the church, but people can say one thing to you and think something different.”

He added: “Perhaps the problem was of my own making. Perhaps I should have been wiser and not taken part in the event. But that’s what life is about. Sometimes it takes you down a different route.

“I regret dressing up like that for the party. My intention was to raise money, not bring the church into disrepute. But you never know what people are going to think.”

The Venerable Stuart Bain, Archdeacon of Sunderland, who oversees the work of clergy in the area, told me Rev Wray had not brought his parish into disrepute and both he and the Bishop of Jarrow, the Rt Rev Mark Bryant, had offered him pastoral support and advice.

There certainly is nowt as queer as folk ... or churches for that matter.