Mark Ashton was a significant figure in the LGBT community in 1980s Britain. A strong advocate for gay rights, he co-founded Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM), an organisation that raised funds for mining communities affected by the strikes of the mid 1980s. The creation and political ideologies of Mark and the the LGSM are significant in the fight for equality in the UK because of the alliances formed between miner labour organisations, the Labour Party and the LGBT community. The work of Mark and the LGSM formed the basis of the 2014 film Pride, starring Ben Schnetzer as Mark Ashton.
Born in Oldham and raised in Northern Ireland, Mark Aston moved to London in 1978, where he worked as a barman, in full drag, in a club in Kings Cross. He volunteered with the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard, providing help, information and support to London’s LGBT community. In 1984 he founded the LGSM as a direct response to the Thatcher government’s treatment of the miners. Mark reasoned that the miners were a group being stigmatised and mistreated by the government in the same way the gay community was and that every minority group should unite to assist them in their cause.
Supporters of the strikes were unable to send donations in support of the strikes due to the government sequestering funds of the National Union of Mineworkers, and as a result organisations were encouraged to “twin” directly with affected communities. Working from a small bookshop in London called Gay’s the Word, the LGSM collected donations during the 1984 London Pride March for its twinned town of Neath in Wales. As part of their fundraising efforts the LGSM organised a benefits concert called “Pits and Perverts”, allegedly the event was named after a headline covering the story that was featured in The Sun at the time. The event brought Welsh miners, their families, friends, supporters and London’s LGBT communities together to raise money for the strikes. The concert, headlined by 80s openly gay supergroup Bronski Beat, raised thousands of pounds for Welsh families affected by the strike.
“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
The alliances formed by Mark and the other volunteers of the LGSM form a significant part in the history of the fight for gay rights in the UK. Mining unions across the UK offered their support to the LGBT community, participating in gay pride events across the UK as a thank you for their support. The unlikely alliance between the two organisations offered an opportunity for LGBT rights to be visible among the political parties in opposition to the 1980s Conservative government. So great was the union’s support for the LGBT community that during the 1985 Labour Party conference, the party extended its full support for LGBT rights. The miner’s proved to be a formidable ally for the LGBT community, particularly in the campaign against Section 28, the Conservative governments proposal (a proposal that became law in the UK) to ban any intentional promotion of “homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” by a school or local authority.
After the year long strikes came to an end in 1985, Mark drew his political activism elsewhere, joining the Red Wedge Collective, an organization that encouraged young people to engage politically. The organisation’s overall objective was to oust Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative government. Mark’s activism was cut short however when he was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS on 30th January 1987. He died on the 11th February 1987, 12 days after his admittance to hospital. He was 26 years old.
Mark’s continued activism during his short life proved to be significant for the gay rights movement during this period. His ability to establish and maintain strong alliances within a male, heterosexually dominated industry was a great achievement. Due to this unlikely alliance, the LGSM propelled gay rights issues further into political dialogues and encouraged the Labour Party to publicly show their support for equality. Mark’s ability to unite two different communities together to fight for fair treatment is one that should not be forgotten today. Every triumph was, and continues to be, an important step in our journey to acceptance.
The LGSM’s story formed the basis for the 2014 film Pride: