Something to be proud of
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.)
I agree with most of what you’ve said, Liam. In the context of a mainstream and largely ‘feel good’ film, it’s unapologetic in its politics. I thought it captured a lot of what it felt like to be young, gay and involved in activism at the time. I appreciated that the film-makers had got to know many of the surviving members of the group. They became more rounded characters as a result and were allowed to be a committed activists and horny and a little camp too. A good reminder that there were (and are) alternatives to the politics espoused by Stonewall and their kind [armed police in rainbow laces, really?] – one that takes solidarity seriously; celebrates the camp and the frivolous as a part of serious politics; and has a class politics other than those of a Barnsbury dinner party. I was left wondering what else Mark Ashton might have gone on to do, if AIDS hadn’t taken him at 26.
I went to see the film in a packed cinema in West London last night. Its a truly strange experience to see people you know well on the big screen even when you know its going to happen. Some of the characters in the film are very like themselves, others have very different stories from those told here – which would have made a less compelling move – and some like Joe are pure invention.
I considered myself a member of LGSM – I shook buckets and went to at least one meeting but I was very preoccupied because I was on strike for 13 weeks during the strike in a polar opposite position – we were a group of nursery workers – and therefore largely women – in Islington. One of the proudest moments of my life was speaking at a packed rally at Islington Town Hall called by the print union SOGAT as a strike leader alongside Arthur Scargill. But this meant for example I never went to Dulais…
I like Liams review and Gavins comments above – but on AIDS it was not just that Mark and so many others with huge potential died so young which was indeed a tragedy but that combined with the defeat of the miners strike it was seen by many as an individual battle against the vvirus rather than a collective struggle. Maybe thats why Actup (currently being revived in London) was less strong here than in other parts of the world…
Terry, I think you make some very interesting observations about the individualization of HIV in the UK. Although I wasn’t quite old enough to be involved in LGSM, I was involved in ACT-UP (London) at the end of the 1980s. I think there are a lot of reasons why ACT-UP never took off in the UK in the way it did in North America – a functioning welfare state and socialised healthcare in the form of the NHS (for all its faults) being two of them. ACT-UP did many actions during the year or so that it flourished in London – a couple around benefits for people with AIDS, one about condoms in prisons, and some about prejudicial immigration laws vs PWAs in Australia and elsewhere. But, to be honest, I think ACT-UP (London) struggled to find ways of framing the politics of HIV that could mobilize the support of more than a relatively small group of angry young gays and lesbians. Interestingly, of course, unless my memory is completely failing me, with the exception of the RCG and one guy from the DAM, the Left made little attempt to engage in ACT-UP (London). That’s a shame, but not entirely surprising.
It was a very odd experience having been a participant in the events shown. I should say that I didn’t get involved until sometime in the autumn of 1984 when I moved to London. I went to some of the meetings and can remember impassioned debates with Mark Ashton (there was far more debate within LGSM than was shown in the film), I can remember collecting money (by the time I was there, LGSM collectors were well established, although I tended not to go in for the later night collections at clubs because I was working and living with my parents). I also went on two drips to Dulais, once in a van and once as part of a sponsored cycle, with Mike Jackson and others. … but this is far too much of my experiences and not enough of the movie. …
For a change, the movie did convey much of the atmosphere – the remote valley and the increasingly desperate miners, the thrill and perception of danger of collecting money late at night in dark streets outside pubs, long journeys in a rusty van… the passion, all of that was true.
I am not sure how many of the events took place exactly as in the film; some certainly did, but I can’t remember Joe (actually I think he was an invented character) or in fact many of the individual miners. But I do remember Mike, Mark and Gethin (whom I already knew). Mark Ashton didn’t look much like the actor that played him, but what was well shown is his incredible passion. I was often on the opposite side of debates with him (I came from Trotskyism and the Fourth International and he was in the CP). But he had a severely practical attitude in with the passion. He made things happen (I could never do that), he got people to do stuff and that was the main thing.
There were things that could have been shown (the broken throttle cable on one of the van journeys and how fragile it was (actually I don’t think it was as luridly painted as shown)). I can remember it being driven by Tobie Glenny (I think he’s in the Green Party in Colchester these days). Jonathan I can’t remember (why should I have forgotten such a key character, why?; same with the miners and especially the women).
Some things were almost certainly fiction (the mines in that part of Wales were so scab-free that they remained un-picketed to the extent that we were actually shown round a mine by a striker), although the episodes were clearly based on the very real role of the police against the strikers, and some of it may have happened before I was involved, some of the relationships between the LGSM members were also I believe invented.
But the important thing was that I was there and I can tell you that most of what was shown was true. The welcome given by the miners, the generous response to the collections (I must say that I had forgotten just how much was raised), the van bought for the miners from the collection (looked just right to me), the miners’ band on the 2005 LG pride march; all of that was well shown.
The legacy of LGSM still echoes over the years. In particular the change to the Labour Party constitution and the founding of the Labour Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Rights, all the major unions have LG sections, all the significant left now support LGBTQ issues. Without that link between the LGBTQ community and the unions that grew out that, I am sure that today there would not be civil partnerships and the (limited) legal protection that we have now. And I have a feeling that the ripples in the pond have spread to have international effect. Would there be Gay marriage in Canada and various states of the union, and other countries without it? I wonder.
The first showing in the Duke of Yorks in Brighton was depressingly poorly attended, but at the end there was applause- those that were there were clearly hooked. Do go and see this film. It’s essential viewing. Meanwhile, it’s great that some of us have re-met up in Left Unity and on Facebook. Here’s to Mike, Ray, Gethin, Reggie, the women both in LGSM and in the valleys, all the others who were involved, and particularly to Mark Ashton,without whom none of it would have happened.