Tilda Swinton explains why she felt ‘queer’ in her 20s

Tilda Swinton

Tilda Swinton has described spending her 20s in a “queer environment”, and said that she identified as queer “like a queer fish”.

In 1986 Swinton worked with gay filmmaker Derek Jarman for the first time when she was cast in the film Caravaggio, and through him she found a film family in London’s 1980s queer scene.

She told the Irish Times that at the time she lived in a squat in World’s End, Chelsea, and became a committed activist, demonstrating against Section 28, or in support of miners, every weekend.

She said: “I lived through my 20s in a whole queer environment and it was just at the point when queer was being reclaimed because it had always been a term of abuse.

“It just so happened I’d also been a queer kid – not in terms of my sexual life, just odd. People said I was queer, like she’s a queer fish.” 

Tilda Swinton watched countless friends die during the AIDS crisis

But the time was also difficult, as the shadow of AIDS was cast over the LGBT+ community.

Jarman died from AIDS-related complications in 1994, and Tilda Swinton said: “That year I went to 43 funerals, all AIDS-related deaths.”

She continued: “The one person who really understood what I was going through was my grandmother, who lived through two world wars, and she said: ‘This is your generation’s war.’”

Swinton said that she strongly relates to the character of Jill in Russell T Davies’ series It’s a Sin: “I was that girl. That was very much my experience. That was the atmosphere of my late 20s and early 30s.

“What was so tragic was the breakdown of the blood family support. Lots of people couldn’t go home so they stayed with us and we looked after everyone as best we could.”

While her early years living in such a “queer environment” were joyful, she said her memories of the AIDS crisis have made London a difficult place to be.

“The collective way we lived broke down because of people getting ill and dying or going home or leaving the country,” she said.

“I came up here to the Highlands when my babies were born and never went back. I still find it difficult to go back to London. I can count on three hands the times I’ve spent longer than a night there.”