Pride & prejudice
Immortalised in the movie Pride, gay activist Mark Ashton is to get a permanent memorial
02 February, 2017 — By Dan Carrier
Mike Jackson and Dave Lewis
THEIR story has charmed the world, becoming an unlikely global cinema hit of 2015 – and now a permanent memorial to Mark Ashton, one of the founding members of the campaign group Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners, is set to be unveiled in King’s Cross.
Mark, who died in 1987, was one of the key characters in the smash hit movie Pride, starring Ben Schnetzer as Mark, backed by the likes of Dominic West, Imelda Staunton and George MacKay.
This spring, Ashton’s role in the fight for civil rights will be recognised as a plaque in his memory is unveiled in Marchmont Street, King’s Cross, above the Gay’s The Word bookshop where he was integral to a number of meetings that set up the group.
Friends Mike Jackson and Dave Lewis, who were part of a core of young men and women who set up the campaign, recall how they stood against the Thatcher government and found allies among the mining community to fight bigotry in a world where homophobia was mainstream. They hoped to raise funds online to pay for the memorial, and reached the target of £2,000 in just 16 hours. Now excess funds raised will go to a charity set up in his name to help people with HIV and Aids.
Mike recalled how Mark became politically active.
“Mark was from Northern Ireland and when he first moved to London, he got a job serving at the bar at the Camden Conservative Club in Cromer Street, King’s Cross. He went dressed in drag for six months and nobody noticed. He posed as a woman as a political act.”
Mark became genuinely politically active, joining the Communist Party after a visit to Bangladesh with his father, who was in a textile engineer.
“He saw real poverty and he had an epiphany,” said Mike.
Mike met Mark through the helpline Lesbian and Gay Switchboard.
“I come from a working-class background in Accrington, Lancashire,” he says. “I struggled with my sexuality and I absorbed all the homophobic nonsense thrown at me as a young man.”
A keen gardener, Mike had moved to London to study at Kew. One day, he called the switchboard.
“Through them I met a group of volunteers and from being mad, sad and bad I became joyous and angry. I thought to myself: I’ll join this, he’s all right,” he said. “I soon realised we shared the same ideals of gay activism and socialism.
A scene from the movie Pride
“Mark was just 23. He was passionate, very charismatic, funny, bitchy and really annoying at times, full of contradictions. He knew all of this and laughed at himself all the time, and he would take the whole world with him in what ever direction he was going. Mark was very charismatic – people do eulogise him but the simple fact is he worked to get the group off the ground.”
Dave recalls how as a teenager he watched Margaret Thatcher’s election victory in 1979.
“I remember thinking: well, I’ll need to do something,” he says. “It brought me towards left-wing politics.”
When the miners went out on strike, he collected donations on Saturdays.
“I then read an advert in the Capital Gay newspaper that said there was going to be a meeting for LGSM, so I went to see what it was all about.”
Dave recalls heading to South Wales with the funds they collected, and remembers the tear-jerking moment they walked into a hall of around 300 miners, unsure quite what to expect, only to be met with applause and thanks. They also remember other little acts that showed they were welcome.
“It was October 1984 when we first travelled there,” says Dave. “We’d borrowed two minibuses that were well-maintained, but we needed another, so we got a mate’s VW camper van. It was knackered – it didn’t have a pad on the accelerator, the wipers didn’t work and the handbrake was bust. “We were about 10 miles out of the village on our way home when a police car pulled us over. We all thought: oh shit, we’re in trouble here.
On the march in 1985
“The policeman asked for insurance and a licence and then sat in the driver’s seat, noting how unroadworthy the vehicle was. He then asked us where we had come from and what we were doing. We were scared to say where we’d been and why, so we said we’d been visiting ‘friends’.”
But the officer knew exactly what the trip was about, so he wrote them a “producer” document stating they had been stopped and questioned by the police.
“He said ‘show this bit of paper if any other coppers stop you on your way home’,” said Dave. “It was a Get Out Of Jail Free card, essentially. The policeman then, as he walked back to his car, told us he was the son of a miner and gave us a smile.”
Mike and Dave are proud to be an inspiration for a new generation of gay and lesbian people fighting for civil rights – and say despite advances, there are battles still being fought. While they note homophobia may have decreased in places like London, this is not true uniformly true across the country.
“Step outside the main cities and the picture looks different,” says Mike. “And remember, things can always go backwards as well as forwards.”
Recalling how they found common ground with South Wales miners reminds them both of the universality of human rights and the fight for justice is a fight for all.
“Above all, this is about the power of unity and of solidarity,” says Mike. “We raised money for miners, and they responded. The NUM gave funds to the trust in Mark’s name and they spoke out against Section 28. One of the major instigators of fighting for gay rights were mining communities. They were fighting for their jobs, for their families, for their communities, and they embraced us. It shows the power of standing together.”