Interview: Lord Cashman on Thatcher’s hair, returning to EastEnders and equalising the age of consent

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Michael Cashman has had an extensive career, from appearing in EastEnders to becoming an MEP, but has an ambitious road ahead continuing the fight for equality.

PinkNews’ Anastasia Kyriacou caught up with the newly appointed Labour peer and global LGBTI envoy, to talk about performing the first gay kiss in British soap history, how he veered from EastEnders into politics and his direct impact on Tony Blair’s decision to address the ban on homosexuals in the army.

What was it like performing the first gay kiss in a British soap?

“I came out to myself when I was eleven and then I came out to my family in my teens – my first love affair when I was 16 and it was illegal as the age of consent wasn’t decriminalised until 1967.

“The kiss, was a peck on the cheek. There wasn’t any fuss, so when the eruption of hypocrisy and the stench of discrimination and misrepresentation occurred in the media and here in Parliament where questions were asked, I was genuinely surprised.

“They outed my partner Paul [Cottingham] to his family in the News of the World in the centre pages. They printed our address without putting the number and that day bricks came through the window. There was hate mail which was evidently so bad the BBC wouldn’t let me have access to.

“It was a very difficult and dangerous time for LGBT people because of the way the depiction of the media that we were seen as a threat to children that we were equated to paedophiles that we were perverts and AIDS was depicted as the personification that we were evil and that we were a contamination.

You spoke of Paul, who sadly passed away two weeks ago. What difference did it make from being in an unregistered civil partnership to being in a civil partnership?

“It was extremely important because you had no rights. In law you had gifts that were given to you. You could be discriminated against by the law. With Paul having died only a few days ago, I have immediate effect of rights that I now enjoy that I would never have done. For instance I am now his direct successor, I have the right to say whether he’s cremated or buried, I had rights about his treatment while he was in hospital.

“All of these things were never there and so when you enter into a civil partnership, you get these rights. That’s why I say I cannot forget the people who opposed us when there were generations of LGBT people suffering.”

Michael says he joined the Labour Party in 1975, but it was Section 28 that really pushed him full-throttle into active politics, and most importantly the encouragement and support of Paul who he “couldn’t have done it without.”

Michael and Paul celebrating Michael's CBE Michael and Paul celebrating Michael’s CBE

He spent his weekends forming Stonewall and reminisced about the 1980s when we was working alongside Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley on LGBT issues before even getting into government. He said:

“Me as the Chair of Stonewall along with Ian McKellen were having meetings with Tony Blair and others and even Tony when he was shadow Home Secretary, and Lord Leicester, has always been there in fighting for equality.”

Michael continued: “But you see, we introduced the changes – the equal age of consent, the right to bring your partner here from another country, housing succession rights, the right of same sex couples to be considered as adoptive parents, civil partnerships.”

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If Labour win the election what can you see yourself achieving as global LGBTI envoy?

“My one goal is an international consensus on non-discrimination. I’ve been working for some time within the UN on that very issue from my role within the European Parliament, working on development, HIV and AIDS.

“To engage with the Commonwealth on this issue is crucial. To engage with faith organisations and non-faith organisations because in some of these countries, the role of the Church can be extremely important in either encouraging prejudice or dissuading it.

“In a lot of instances it was British, Spanish and Portuguese colonialism that have created these problems in the first place and they always say ‘but you brought these laws’ and I say ‘Yes, and I’ve come to your country to take them back, to take them away’.

“I remember Tony [Blair] saying Michael there is only one thing that matters in this and that is the right of the child to the best adoptive parents, regardless of same-sex or heterosexual. And he saw it through.

“On attempts to allow gay people to serve openly in the military, he said: “I remember the Sunday afternoon I was told the Government was merely going to note the ban and would review it the next time the Armed Forces Act came up. It was the start of Labour Party conference. When the Prime Minister came in and I went straight up to him and I said ‘Prime Minister, I need 5 minutes of your time’ and he said ‘Michael if you’re calling me Prime Minister it’s going to be at least 10, what’s wrong?’.

“After telling Mr Blair that they couldn’t accept the ban would remain, and that they must take action, he got a call at 5 o’clock, that the Government’s position had changed.”

Equalities Ministers Jo Swinson and Nicky Morgan have pledged to give a two million pound fund towards projects addressing homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying in schools. What do you think about Stonewall applying for that fund considering when it was founded, it was agreed that it would not request government funding?

“When we set up Stonewall it was in the wake of Section 28 and the excuse for Section 28 was they’re using tax payers money to promote homosexuality. Now of course LGBT people are taxpayers. So when we set up we said right, we won’t conform to their prejudice, their stereotype. We would do it. I think Stonewall like any other NGO should use the funds that are there which are accessible to all who can conform to the rigid parameters for gaining access to funding. But the few million that they’ve suggested, quite frankly isn’t enough.”

Do you have a begrudging respect for David Cameron given that same-sex marriage passed under his leadership?

“No. I have no respect for David Cameron because I can honestly say I don’t believe he has any principles – that’s why he keeps moving on things. I remember David Cameron voting to retain Section 28. He recognised that the Conservatives had to change their approach to LGBTI issues in particular in order to shed the image of a nasty party.

“He said to a group of Conservative association leaders that he wished if he’d known the political cost then he wouldn’t have gone along with equal marriage. The bill came about, yes, I welcome that. The coalition bill. But it only became law with Labour votes.

Do you think Thatcher is a gay rights icon, considering she supported decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967?

“Arguably without Thatcher gay rights wouldn’t have come as swiftly in this country because she brought about Section 28 which came in as a private members bill from David Wilshire and Dame Jill Knight, two Conservatives into a local government bill late at night. It was accepted but he government, became law and Thatcher thereby created the surge of the modern gay movement in the UK.

“Icon? No. She never wore the right clothes. She never had the right handbags. The shoes were certainly not right the hair was certainly far from right.”

Any plans to return to EastEnders, now that the character Nasty Nick, and veteran actress Barbara Windsor have returned?

“June Brown recently said to me ‘Oh Mike dear you look so lovely, you look regal and I’m still working on you coming back.’ So I’ll have to find out what June actually meant, but it won’t be with the ermine.

“Really I don’t think it’s realistic because it’s difficult enough getting people to take you seriously in life. In politics it’s almost impossible. I’ve got a big job that Ed Miliband’s given me and it’s best that I get on and do it.”

After his ascension to the House of Lords, Michael has said he is living a “stone’s throw away” from the council estate where he grew up.

He won the Lifetime of Achievement award at the PinkNews Awards last week, and accepted a posthumous award for his partner Paul Cottingham for A Lifetime of Achievement.

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Michael Cashman

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