Potential recruits who visit MI5’s website are reassured “We work with Stonewall and have an active Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) staff network, which supports staff and provides advice for colleagues.” The world has certainly changed since the days of the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike. Back then the spy agency was being used by the Thatcher government as an instrument of class war against the National Union of Mineworkers. Today it’s actively promoting its LGBT friendly credentials on its website and Stonewall spends a lot of time and energy trying to change British capitalism from within.
The history of the lesbian and gay liberation struggle hasn’t always been one of such widespread acceptance. Pride tells the story of one of the pivotal moments in Britain at a time when MI5 would have been mainly interested in using the sexuality of gays and lesbians as a means of blackmailing them. Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) was a conscious attempt, led by lesbian and gays, many of whom were political activists, to link the miners’ fight against Thatcher with their own against homophobia. It ducks some of the politics of the process and presents it a “hey kids, let’s put on the show right here” kind of way. Nevertheless it is frequently moving and funny in equal measure.
The writers may have assumed that Saturday night cinema audiences would not find the details of debates between the Socialist League, the Communist Party and the SWP the best accompaniment to their popcorn. Thus, we don’t find out from the film that Mark Ashton, the central figure, was General Secretary of the Young Communist League. It’s more of a feel good movie, despite being set against a generational defeat of the the British working class, the consequences of which we are still enduring.
The plot follows a conventional arc of good idea and excitement, heartbreak and disappointment and uplifting ending. Nevertheless, the broad sweep of the story is historically accurate.
The good idea was that, as an oppressed group, gays and lesbians should make common cause and offer solidarity to the striking mining communities. Ashton and Mike Jackson broke the ice by collecting for the miners at the 1984 Lesbian and Gay Pride March and carried on raising money and support throughout the strike. The heartbreak and disappointment were the hostility and resistance to that support from many within the NUM and the mining communities, particularly in Dulais which the activists chose to twin with, apparently at random. However people in struggle are forced to learn quickly and much of the comedy comes from the arrival of the exotic metropolitan gays and lesbians into a small mining community with a large homophobic macho streak. One report from the time describes the sudden change in attitudes as the LGSM members were “welcomed into the miners’ homes for the weekend, whole families apparently started discussing gay rights and human sexuality over the tea-table.”
For a mainstream piece of entertainment the film is quite hard politically. Police forces may be tripping over themselves to have the Stonewall logo on their letterheads today. Back then their prejudice against gays and lesbians was matched only by their hatred of the miners and there isn’t a nice cop character who sees the light. Considering how little support the miners got from the leadership of much of the British labour movement, it would have been unimaginable at the time that three decades later one of the boldest and most inspiring elements of the solidarity campaign would end up as a family entertainment with actors like Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy and old Etonian Dominic West.
For anyone who supports workers in struggle or LGBT rights and fancies a fun night out at the cinema, Pride is well worth seeing. You may even be tempted to applaud and cheer at the wonderfully upbeat ending and leave the auditorium singing “Solidarity Forever”.
(An interesting paper on the events covered in Pride “Solidarity and Sexuality: Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners 1984–5” can be found here.)