Not all heroes wear capes. Some wear smart suits – like the one Michael Cashman is wearing as he proudly gives us a tour around the House of Lords in Westminster.
Michael knows the history of every inch of the building. It’s enshrined to his memory, as if he himself can’t quite believe that a working class gay man and son of a docker from East London could hold such a title as Baron of Limehouse.
Anyone who’s ever met Michael will know that he’s humble, but his résumé of activism as part of the gay rights movement is as long and storied as, well, the movement itself.
In 1988, when Thatcher had just introduced Section 28 – the anti-gay law which prohibited schools and councils from “intentional promotion of homosexuality” – Michael was starring as Colin Russell in EastEnders, the first gay resident of Albert Square, best known for having the first gay kiss in British soap history. It sent shockwaves through the UK; The Sun at the time ran the abhorrent headline “East Benders”.
A year later, in 1989, Michael cofounded the LGBT+ charity Stonewall with Sir Ian McKellen, Lisa Power and others. He would go on to serve as Labour MP for the West Midlands for 15 years, work in the European Parliament so he could help secure the rights of others, act as the Labour Party’s special envoy for LGBT+ issues worldwide, bringing us up to his appointment to the Lords in 2014.
When we met with Michael on a rainy day in London, we intended to recognise all of this work and celebrate his life story. Every gay person reading this owes a great debt of gratitude to the man who’s spent his life tirelessly campaigning for the rights and freedoms we enjoy today.
But you can read about all that stuff on his Wikipedia page, as many journalists have documented his accomplishments before. What’s more important to recognise is that, at 66 years of age, Michael is still very much the role model he always has been, but for reasons he might not even know himself.
The love of Michael’s life was Paul Cottingham – an actor, campaigner and activist, like himself. They met in 1983 and were together for 31 years, during which time they became civil partners, until Paul sadly lost his battle with a rare cancer called angiosarcoma.
That was in 2014 and since then Michael has been struggling – but his honesty and candour when it comes to talking about his problems with us is part of what makes him a hero to so many people.
“Since Paul died, it’s been shit,” Michael tells us halfway through our interview. “I’ve got everything I want in my life, but not the one person I want to share it with. I’ve battled with huge, huge depression and I realise that’s because I’ve spent most of my life not liking myself; not wanting to fight for me.
Paul somehow gave me security that allowed me to feel OK with myself. But when he died, it was all down to me. It’s why I’ve found it easier fighting for others, because I’ve always looked in the mirror and never thought I was worth fighting for. I’ve just come through two years of denying that there was a huge hole in my life because of Paul dying. People with addictive personalities, like me, we try and fill our lives with anything but ourselves, because we don’t think we’re worth anything.
“I’ve spent my life, if I’m absolutely honest, waiting for somebody to find me out; to say, ‘No, no, no. It’s not you. You’re not the Michael Cashman we want. You can’t legislate. You can’t be on EastEnders. You can’t be in the House of Lords…’”
Does any of this sound familiar? Chances are, it might. One in four people in the UK will experience at least one diagnosable mental health problem in their lifetime. And research has proved that those of us from the LGBT+ community are at a much higher risk of experiencing issues. However, if there’s one thing we don’t do as people, as a community, or as a society, it’s talk about the problems we’re facing so that people in similar circumstances know that they’re not alone. And that’s what Michael wants people to know: that they’re not alone.
“It’s important to be honest, because so many people go through this self-loathing and have low self-esteem,” he asserts. “Unless we have this conversation, it won’t be better for somebody else and it won’t get better for yourself. I said to a good friend the other day, ‘I’m not well.’ And she said, ‘Well, what’s wrong?’ I told her I had depression and I have addiction issues – not to drugs or alcohol, but to being loved. And in order to be loved I’ll do almost anything.’ She laughed. I said, ‘You don’t understand. Recovering and getting better means you have to state in the first place that you recognise that you’re ill.’
“What Paul gave me was a sense of belonging, and that’s gone now, so I find it in other ways – I find it in my work, I find it through my brilliant friends like Ian [McKellen]. Before Paul died, he went to Ian and a few others and said, ‘You will look after Michael, won’t you?’ I didn’t know this at the time. And therefore being honest about what I’m going through is crucial to me now.”
Michael first saw a therapist 18 years ago, which he couldn’t recommend more to people suffering with mental health issues, but the role of therapy in his life has been much more prominent since Paul died.
You find your demons and you know how to wrestle them, but you ignore them, and then you get into repetitive behaviours so you can keep ignoring them. “But in therapy, you begin to learn about yourself. And if at 66 I can still learn about myself, or I can begin to learn about myself, then the last few years will have been interesting for me.
Like a lot of people who suffer with mental health issues, you wouldn’t see it in Michael just by looking at him. Throughout our interview he jokes jovially about his upbringing – “My mum and dad had so many gay friends. Camp used to drip out the wallpaper at our council flat with all the drag queens that would stay over!” He remembers fondly his guest return to EastEnders at the tail end of 2016 – “It was great to work with June Brown, or Dame June Brown, as it needs to be. I’d walk over hot coals to work with June!” And as you might expect, he’s still passionate about political issues – “I get so angry about what’s happening to refugees and the rise of Islamaphobia and xenophobia in the wake of Brexit. All people have to wonder is, ‘What if that was me?’ If I wouldn’t want that happening to mine, how dare I allow it to happen to another!”
And talking about the proudest moment of his lifetime, he doesn’t hesitate to say: “Meeting Paul Cottingham on 9 September in 1983. Paul was a 19-year-old boy who took a 33-year-old man by the hand and taught him how to love, taught him how to live and changed my life. If I could have a pact with the devil, I’d give him everything I’ve got for one more moment with him.
“Our relationship lived through the HIV years, the Section 28 years, he was outed by the News of the World and we had a brick through our window not once, but twice. I couldn’t have become the man I am without him. He gave me amazing strength and pushed me. We went through a time where we had to be very careful about being ourselves, but you know what? He didn’t give a fuck. He was amazing.”
It’s why if we’d written this interview as we originally intended, you wouldn’t have known that such a strong, powerful man – an inspiration to thousands – could be feeling so much hurt and pain. And to be frank, if it can happen to Michael, it could be happening to any one of your friends or family members. It’s why Michael wants us all to talk more, even if it’s just as simple as asking how somebody is – and to actually wanting to know the answer.
“I used to say to people when they’d ask how I was – ‘Do you really want to know?’” he laughs. “But mental health is extremely important to talk about and get the words out in the open. Some of us are completely unaware that the people we’re working alongside could be suffering. The openness helps get rid of taboos and bring solutions.”
And considering everything Michael has done throughout his life, working so that we can live how we do today, we think we can do him the simple favour of turning to the person next to us and asking them how they are – and actually meaning it. It could do more for them than we may ever know.
If you’re suffering from mental health issues there’s always someone who can listen or help. The LGBT+ Switchboard can be contacted on 0300 330 0630 between 10am and 10pm each day. They also have advice online at switchboard.lgbt. Mental health charity Mind also offer support and information online at mind.org.uk, or can be contacted on their helpline between 9am and 6pm by calling 0300 123 3393. Follow Lord Michael Cashman on Twitter at @mcashmancbe.