LONDON – It was a kiss that made British television history.

Though only a peck on the forehead, the first kiss between two men on a mainstream soap opera provoked tabloid outrage and propelled actor Michael Cashman into the public spotlight as a gay rights campaigner. 

More than 30 years later, the battle for LGBT+ equality has made giant strides in Britain. Still, the co-founder of the country’s leading LGBT+ rights group and a former European lawmaker has lost none of his campaigning zeal.

Speaking with the Thomson Reuters Foundation ahead of the publication of his autobiography “One of Them” on Thursday, the 69-year-old called on the Commonwealth to respect gay rights and for Britain to include them in post-Brexit trade deals.

“Politics is a bit like geology – with no pressure, there is no change,” Cashman said in an interview at his London riverside penthouse flat.

The actor’s groundbreaking portrayal of Colin Russell on the popular soap opera “EastEnders” brought the challenges faced by LGBT+ people in the 1980s – coming out, homophobia, an age of consent of 21 – into the living rooms of millions in Britain.

Along with vilification in the press, it also led to bricks thrown through his windows, and the outing of his partner, Paul Cottingham.

“The reportage was nasty … and so were the terms they used: ‘Yuppie poofters’ and ‘queer sex scenes,'” said Cashman, casually dressed in an open-necked blue shirt. 

“Eastbenders” ran one tabloid headline, while another newspaper published the address of Cashman and Cottingham – who married in 2006 – leading to attacks on their home.

“The bricks through the window happened more than once,” said Cashman, noting that the British public, 11 million of whom regularly watched the show in the 1980s, was mostly supportive.

“But in a strange way it doesn’t diminish you; it strengthens you as you think, ‘these people cannot win,'” said Cashman, who served as a member of the European Parliament (MEP) from 1999 to 2104, championing LGBT+ rights.

 

HUMAN RIGHTS

Although Cashman has stepped down as an MEP, he remains active in Britain’s House of Lords after being made a life peer in 2014, as Baron Cashman of Limehouse in east London, where he was born in 1950.

He is pushing for change in countries where LGBT+ people face jail and discrimination – as in 34 of the 53 Commonwealth member states, mostly former British territories, that outlaw gay sex.

“I want agreements and strategies put in place (by the Commonwealth) that recognize the fact that criminalization inhibits the fight against AIDS and HIV,” he said.

“There need to be protocols on non-discrimination on the grounds of difference. So that you can’t be evicted from your home (for being LGBT+), and you can’t be denied employment or access goods and services. 

“(These are) all of the things that we have and take for granted,” he said.

Seven out of the nine countries that decriminalized gay sex in the past five years are Commonwealth countries, said a spokesman for the organization’s secretariat, which carries out its day-to-day work.         

“There are positive developments in some other member states which we are monitoring in some cases, and in others, we are supporting the progression,” he said in emailed comments.

Cashman wants the British government to go further, and include human rights clauses in any new trade agreements post-Brexit. 

“This is what the European Union tends to do with its trade agreements,” he said, suggesting Britain should follow suit.

 

MEMORIES

As one of the first openly gay characters in a British soap, Cashman used his fame to campaign for equality.

His political awakening came with Section 28; a law passed in 1988 that banned local authorities from “promoting homosexuality.”

Cashman – who had always been out to friends and family -dashed from the set of “EastEnders” to attend marches and debate with politicians on television in protest at the law, which was eventually repealed in 2003.

The furor over Section 28 led to the founding in 1989 of Stonewall, now Britain’s leading LGBT+ rights organization, which was born on the balcony of Ian McKellen – Britain’s foremost Shakespearian actor and Cashman’s close friend.

Cashman now lives just 500 meters from the street where he grew up, when London’s East End was still a rough and often dangerous place. “One of Them” cites several occasions when Cashman, as a child, was sexually abused by strangers.

Now, fond memories crowd in, he said, recalling the night he picked up a hard copy of his autobiography, which stands as a love letter to his partner who died from a rare form of cancer in 2014. 

“It was raining, and I had (the book) under my jacket, and I got to where we used to live, and I sobbed, and I sobbed and sobbed,” he said, emotion welling up even now.

“Because I re-imagined the five-year-old me scampering down that street – and I looked at the street sign, and I looked at my book, and I thought I could have never imagined this. Never.”

—Reuters

By Hugo Greenhalgh