Lord Michael Cashman: 'If I didn’t get involved in LGBT rights, I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the mirror again'
Michael Cashman talks to Gary Connor about his new book, 'One of Them: From Albert Square to Parliament Square' and the long fight for LGBT equality
Michael Cashman’s first stab at an autobiography just didn’t work. “Too complicated,” he explains, and not a warts-and-all account of his life. “It turned out as a eulogy to Paul,” his late husband, and partner of 31 years. “It read like he walked on water.”
“I went back and looked at it and thought, come on, you’ve got to write it honestly and objectively. I wanted to say that no matter what happens to you in life, you can become yourself. But that means you have to own everything. Even those dark moments.”
That book, One of Them: From Albert Square to Parliament Square, is brutally and at times uncomfortably honest. It describes his poor upbringing in the East End of London and his beginnings as a child star in the original West End production of Oliver. The pages evoke a London which no longer exists; when kids played in bomb sites and boats carried exotic cargo into the heart of the city.
But it also reveals the abuse he suffered as a young boy at the hands of a docker, who bribed him with the promise of a shilling. Later Cashman was to be groomed by a theatrical agent who persuaded his parents to let the young Cashman stay with him and his family. When he arrived, the wife and children turned out not to exist.
The book is funny and heart-breaking in equal measures, with tales about Cashman’s activism, political career and relationship with his husband Paul Cottingham. It’s most similar to the memoirs of Alan Johnson. Though the former Home Secretary never hinted in his book about having a threesome with the son of a Russian KGB officer.
On the day we meet, in the cosy parliamentary office he shares with Baroness Kinnock, the phone keeps ringing. Requests for interviews are coming in, just hours after Phillip Schofield has revealed that he is gay. Cashman is being asked for his reaction, and sees the positive way the news is being received as a sign of how far we’ve come as a society.
Things weren’t always so easy. In 1986 he joined Eastenders as Colin Russell, a graphic designer who just happened to be gay. An insider tipped off the press and ‘East Benders’ was the predictable tabloid headline. “That was one of the nicer ones,” he quips dryly. “The press at that time were awful.”
That’s something of an understatement. In the book, Cashman recalls how his partner Paul was outed by a double page spread in the News of the World; ‘SECRET GAY LOVE OF AIDS SCARE EASTENDER’, accompanied by photos and their address. The Aids reference was part of a storyline. Inevitably, bricks were thrown through the window of their home.
When in 1989 his character was one half of the first ever same sex kiss on a British soap, a young Piers Morgan wrote in The Sun about the BBC One show’s ‘yuppy poof’ characters – and included a condemnation of these “perverted practices” by a then-Tory MP. “I’m told that Piers Morgan has since apologised, and that’s to be welcomed,” says Cashman. “But that language did damage.”
As one of the most high-profile gay actors on television at that time, Cashman joined the campaign against a clause in local government legislation, to prohibit local authorities from promoting homosexuality. Clause 28 or Section 28 had its origins in a bill by Tory backbencher Jill Knight, and was picked up by the Thatcher government in the 1980s. It was to remain in force until 2003. The book recalls the many struggles for equality in detail. But were there ever any thoughts about leaving the battle to someone else?
“If I didn’t get involved, I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the mirror again. My father was a trade unionist, who believed in defending other people’s rights. Well I had to defend mine.”
He went on to co-found the LGBT rights charity Stonewall, became an MEP in 1999 and was made a peer in 2014. For many years, Conservatives in the House of Lords were at the forefront of the resistance to equality issues; blocking the lowering of the age of consent and the repeal of Section 28. When Michael became Lord Cashman, Baroness Jill Knight was there too.
“Did I ever look across at her, or a couple of others, with any malice? No. But a degree of sadness that they did what they did.”
One of Margaret Thatcher’s last political acts, he reminds me, was to turn up and vote against the repeal of Section 28. “Even during her lonely years, she couldn’t imagine what life would be like if she were me.”
There’s not a hint of bitterness at the fact LGBT people these days haven’t had to go through the same struggles. Cashman instead celebrates the fact that he “carries those scars so the next generation don’t have to”. People like him “will continually remind them through the things we do”, he says, as well as warning that their rights can disappear as quickly as they came in.
Demonstrations against LGBT inclusive education at Anderton Park primary school in Birmingham is one example he cites. “When I went up for the court case, for the permanent injunction against protests, I was staggered to hear eminent barristers refer to lesbian, gay and bisexual people as a threat. That’s the language of Section 28. That’s exactly the approach they took.”
He continues: “It chills me, but I am grateful that I’m reminded that our enemies never go away. When the Christian Right joined the action against the permanent injunction, I thought, yes, our enemies are much more subtle. They’re much better financed now.” There’s always an excuse, he tells me, when someone wants to take your rights away.
“When the attacks come, as I think they will in future, they’ll say it’s because of the economy, or because we want to free people, so that they decide whether they want to make a cake for two men or two women.
“I think with a majority of 80 in the Commons, we might see that a lot sooner. The Conservatives previously promised to look at the human rights landscape post-Brexit. So I wait with bated breath to enter the arena.”
Today Cashman is politically homeless. He resigned from Labour in May 2019 over anti-Semitism and Brexit. He sits as a non-affiliated peer, his reminder that the party left him, not the other way round. As a member of USDAW, he’ll get a vote in the upcoming leadership election though won’t reveal who gets his backing – “because it will encourage a lot of people to vote against them”. Could he one day rejoin?
“I’m patient. And I love the independence that being a member of the House of Lords gives you. If I can still do that and return to the Labour Party, brilliant. But if not, you have to cut your cloth according to what you have.”
I also wonder whether he’s considered following the career path of another actor turned politician – turned actor again, and “do a Glenda Jackson”.
“I’m not pretty enough!” he quips, laughing. “It would have to depend on what I was offered, but if something came up that I loved, perhaps I wouldn’t say no. I’m getting more and more offers about playing elderly diplomats.”
Running through the pages of the book are tales of Cashman’s relationship with Paul Cottingham, who he met in 1983 at a party thrown by Barbara Windsor, and married in 2006. He charts their ups and downs, and speaks honestly about how the work he was doing as Stonewall’s chair nearly destroyed them. The last chunk of the book recalls Paul’s diagnosis with a rare form of cancer. He was to die in 2014, just days before Cashman took his seat in the Lords. He found becoming a peer gave him a purpose; something to get up for. I see photos of Paul scattered around his office where we’re chatting.
Cashman is incredibly open about how much he has struggled since. Grief, he says, never goes away, and all you can hope is that it eventually “hangs on your shoulders like an old worn cardigan”. I ask how he would answer the question: “How are you?”
“The external part of me would say I’m brilliant. The Michael inside would say – ‘I wish he’d come back’.”
He continues: “I’ve had the most amazing life, but it’s missing Paul, the one person who could turn a joy into something stupendous and unimaginable.
“Paul changed me, changed my life. It was because of meeting him and what we became that I’m where I am now and I’ve done the things that I’ve done.”