Today marks the anniversary of the death of Mark Ashton. A significant figure in the LGBT community and a committed political activist, Ashton was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS on 30th January, 1987 and passed away in hospital just twelve days later on 11th February.
Mark Ashton’s memory lives on today thanks to the excellent 2014 Pride which dramatised his admirable solidarity with the striking mineworkers in the Dulais valley during the 1984-’85 miners’ strike and in which Ashton was brilliantly portrayed by American actor Ben Schnetzer.
“The miners dig coal which creates fuel, which actually makes electricity, which allows gay people…to dance to Bananarama until 3 o’clock in the morning” ~~ Mark Ashton interviewed in 1985
Pride recounts Ashton’s achievements in setting up LGSM (Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners). It was Ashton’s belief that the striking miners were being stigmatised by Thatcher’s Conservative government and the right-wing media in exactly the same way that the gay community was. Reasoning that victimised minority groups were stronger if they stood together, Ashton set up the LGSM headquarters in Gay’s the Word, London’s independent LGBT bookshop and began collecting donations for the Welsh mining community in Dulais. As part of their fundraising efforts, LGSM staged a benefit concert headlined by Bronski Beat entitled ‘Pits and Perverts’, which united the miners with London’s LGBT community. An unbreakable bond developed; a unique and successful alliance between the mining and LGBT community that culminated in the Labour Party accepting full support of gay rights at the 1985 party conference, thanks to a block vote from the NUM (National Union of Mineworkers). The union then went on to assist the gay community in the fight against the Tory government’s despicable Section 28.
“It is illogical to actually say: ‘Well, I’m gay, I’m into defending the gay community, but I don’t care about anything else’” ~~ Mark Ashton interviewed in 1985
But what Pride doesn’t – could not – depict was the full extent of Mark Ashton’s political activism and extraordinary life. Born in Oldham in 1960, Ashton was subsequently raised in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, a conflict whose cultural and religious identity of ‘them and us’ must have surely impacted upon his desire to break down barriers and fight for greater equality. Moving to London in 1978 as an eighteen-year-old gay man, Ashton began volunteering with the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard, providing help and advice to the LGBT community. In 1983, Ashton helped to make and appeared in Framed Youth: The Revenge of the Teenage Perverts, an award-winning from the Lesbian and Gay Youth Video Project. A fascinating and experimental collage documentary, borne out of new technology like VHS and Betamax, Framed Youth also features Jimmy Somerville and Richard Coles long before they formed The Communards, and acclaimed filmmaker Constantine Giannaris.
After the miners’ strike came to an end in 1985, Ashton became General Secretary of the Young Communist League, a position he held until 1986. (It is alleged that Ashton’s communist sympathies were excised from Pride for fear of alienating American audiences; only one reference to his politics are made in the film when, taking the stage to launch LGSM in a gay club, he is briefly heckled as a “Commie”). He continued to actively raise awareness of the threat of HIV/AIDS and joined Red Wedge, an organisation whose aim was to politically engage Britain’s youth with cultural movements such as the protest music of Billy Bragg and the Style Council and the alternative comedy scene of Alexei Sayle and the Comic Strip in an effort to topple Thatcher’s government at a general election.
Sadly Mark Ashton’s life was cut cruelly short in 1987 at the age of just twenty-six. But his legacy and his achievements to bring about working class solidarity and greater acceptance live on and they should never be forgotten.
To hear more about Mark Ashton, visit this instalment in the working class history podcast.