GT takes a look back on the extraordinary career of actor, politician and gay rights activist, Michael Cashman
The year is 1988, and Margaret Thatcher has just introduced Section 28. The promotion of homosexuality is banned in schools, libraries and all other facilities run by local authorities. Britain is in the midst of anti-gay hysteria, whipped up by an aggressive and paranoid tabloid press.
At the same time, EastEnders is planning its most explosive storyline to date. Michael Cashman, who had been a child star in the West End, has accepted the role of Colin Russell, Walford’s first gay resident. The introduction of a gay man to mainstream, pre-watershed BBC television is hugely controversial: questions are asked in parliament, tabloids nickname the show EastBenders, and the move gets routinely linked to the spread of HIV.
“I knew what we were going to do, the media would attack, I knew they would go for me,” Michael tells GT. “But I knew that the attack on me, it would go beyond me, it would affect my family, it would affect my nieces, nephews, it would affect [my boyfriend] Paul.”
The gay plot was to be the most controversial storyline in soap history. Michael didn’t accept the part until checking with his friends, family and his boyfriend that they too could tolerate the media backlash. But when asking the BBC for advice on dealing with the media, they told him only to “ask Leslie Grantham”, who had just entered EastEnders after serving ten years for murder.
When the storyline did air, Michael’s real-life boyfriend found his world turned upside down. On the centre pages of the News of the World read the headline “secret gay love of AIDS scare east ender” – outing Michael’s partner to his friends and family. “They printed our address – all but the door number – and that afternoon a brick came through the window. And that angered me, but it didn’t deter me.
“Then very shortly after that, I read incredulously, in the Christmas edition of Capital Gay, that the government were bringing in a clause to a bill to ban the promotion of homosexuality, and there was going to be a march. And that was it, I was up. I was on my political path, and it was that, that led me to founding Stonewall.”
Stonewall this year celebrates its 25th anniversary. Founded in the wake of Section 28, the idea of seeing the introduction of same-sex marriages felt a million miles away. Many in the public eye didn’t want to be publicly associated with a gay rights organisation – still Michael, Sir Ian McKellen and Stonewall’s other founders fought on. “It felt pretty lonely, because now people will jump over barriers and obstacles to get Stonewall on their CV and to be on the board of Stonewall. Then, ‘au contraire my dear,’ as they say on the continent.
“Ian and I sat down and started planning. We then met with Douglas Slater, who worked in the Conservative chief whip’s office in the Lords, and we began over a series of Sunday afternoons, mainly at Ian’s house in Docklands, and my house in Mile End, to bring like-minded people together. And it took about 18 months before we launched Stonewall.”
Though marriage equality is now law, the battle that brought Stonewall into existence remains pertinent in many other parts of the world – places that remain inspired by Section 28’s aims. “Isn’t it interesting, Shakespeare, absolutely right, said: ‘the evil that men and women do lives on, the good is oft interred with their bones.’ The law that we see being rolled out in Russia, the law that we see being rolled out in parts of Africa, banning the promotion, the propaganda, where did it come from? It came from Section 28.”
Though it was Section 28 that led Michael Cashman to found Stonewall, it was events many years earlier that politicised him. In 1967, the year homosexuality was decriminalised, he moved in with a man eight years his senior. “I was 16 and he was 24, and I hunted him down. This myth that older men are predatory, if only they had been!” His partner, Lee, insisted they pretend to be cousins during their 11-year relationship, for fear of repercussions.
It was that fear of repercussions – of the vast legal inequality – that was to become all too apparent sooner than they feared. Walking through the east end of London one night – a place Michael knew as home – an older, married father-of-two attempted to brutally rape him. The year was 1969, and Michael was just a teenager.
“A guy I knew, a guy I fancied, but he was straight, attempted to rape me. And knocked me out. He demanded sex and I said no. I said, ‘you’re married and I’m not interested’, and he started to get rough and I said, ‘no I’m not interested’. Then he dragged me by the hair, and I tried to talk him out of it, and he knocked me unconscious.”
Eventually, through fear and desperation, he managed to meet a compromise and talk his attacker out of penetrative sex. But his face was left covered in bruises and gashes from the attack. Still in terror, he explained to his boyfriend what had happened, and how they must report the crime to the police. “I told Lee, and he said, ‘well, we can’t go to the police’, because there was an age of consent in private of 21. And he said: ‘look, you’re 18, I’m 26. The case would be against us’, he said, ‘and ask yourself: who will they believe? Two queers, or a straight guy?’”
The rape was an epiphany. The brutal injustice of that night in 1969 remained with him through a long career, both in acting and charity work, and eventually his election to the European Parliament in 1999. “I always thought, because I hadn’t had a proper education, that it was always other people that went into politics. Growing up in the east end, and during the 50s and 60s, you suffer with low self-esteem, especially when you find out that you’re gay and you have to hide it.”
Overcoming the challenges he faced in his early days, Michael went on to serve as an MEP from 1999 until this year. He became president of the European Parliament’s group looking at lesbian and gay issues, and has even been credited with single-handedly convincing the parliament’s president to introduce a directive banning discrimination based on sexual orientation across Europe.
But it isn’t the grand achievements of office, the many titles, or his CBE for public service that he counts as his proudest moment. As Michael, now 63, recounts the moment that justified decades of challenges, his eyes glisten over. “I think it would have to be, being part of – and this always gets me a bit emotional – being a part of stopping a young Iranian, a 17-year-old Iranian, being sent back to Iran. By being out and proud in this country, and seeking asylum, he would’ve been hung by the neck until he was dead if he’d been sent back.
“If in your life you can say you have turned over a grain of sand in the desert, you changed the world in which you arrived. And I like to think that’s my grain of sand that I’ve turned over.”
From the West End stage as a child star, to the world stage as a gay rights activist and politician, Michael Cashman has been a part of many great stories. Now, as he steps down from public service, it’s hard not to feel that it is his own life that has been the most extraordinary story of them all. A working class lad from the docks, whose only qualification was hope, who went on to change, if not the world, then certainly a continent.
Words Benjamin Butterworth