A number of memorials to activist Mark Ashton are scattered across Europe. His name appears on plaques in Paris, London and Onllwyn in Wales. Now, campaigners are calling for a memorial in Northern Ireland – where Ashton grew up.
So far, an online petition has received just under 30,000 signatures, while a crowdfunding page set up to cover the cost of a plaque has already exceeded its target of £5,000. The matter is also set to be discussed by the local council in county Antrim.
So who was Mark Ashton and why are so many people eager to remember him?
In 1960, Ashton was born in Oldham, Manchester. But he was brought to live in the scenic seaside town of Portrush as a young child.
Here, he grew up against the backdrop of The Troubles. But the nearby university town of Coleraine also brought many students to the area and, with them, came progressive ideas.
In Coleraine, a branch of the Sexual Liberation Movement was set up and Ireland’s first conference on sexual freedom took place here too. By the mid-70s, the small town of Portrush was home to gay-friendly bars as well.
This environment was well-established by the time Ashton attended the town’s catering college. But he still decided to move to London when he turned 18.
As the leading authority on Ashton, Daryl Leeworthy points out that London was a world away from both The Troubles and the homophobia of Ian Paisley’s ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’ campaign. At this time, homosexuality was also largely decriminalised in England. So, like many other emigrants, Ashton left for London where it was easier to be himself.
After arriving in the city, Ashton even began to dress in drag. As his friend Richard Coles recalls in his autobiography, Ashton would put on a blonde beehive wig and go to work at the Conservative Club in King’s Cross. His transformation was so convincing that Coles still isn’t sure whether the customers noticed.
Cole also describes Ashton as “unafraid of a fight” – a trait which became stronger as politics took over his life.
In 1982, Ashton visited his parents in Bangladesh and the poverty he saw there motivated his involvement in politics.
He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain and began to get involved in a wide range of organisations – from tenants groups and LGBT helplines, through to anti-racism movements and nuclear disarmament campaigns.
In 1983, he was interviewed for a documentary by the Lesbian and Gay Youth Video Project. In it, he explains his views:
“I started to come out and I had to question the morals and the ideas that society had put there for me to follow. What they wanted me to be was a little straight boy, getting married, settling down, having kids…
“If that’s what they say about sexuality, then what about the rest of life? And I started to see that basically the whole country is not geared for the people. It’s geared for the few people who’re making money out of it.”
Building a movement of unity
The following year, at London’s Pride march, Ashton and his friend Mike Jackson jangled buckets to collect donations for the striking miners. They raised £150.
The following evening, they also attended a meeting of LGBT activists at the University of London Student Union. Here, a miner from the South Wales National Union of Mineworkers spoke.
Afterward, Ashton and Jackson decided to give the miners their full support. But they wanted to do it as out and proud gay men. And so Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners was born. They posted an ad for ‘LGSM’ in the Capital Gay newspaper and held their first members meeting at Ashton’s flat.
The group quickly began to collect donations on the pavement outside Gay’s the Word – a brick-fronted bookshop on Marchmont Street. Policemen regularly threatened to arrest them, so they hid inside until they passed.
They also organised fundraisers. In December 1984, the Pits and Perverts concert at Camden’s Electric Ballroom was a huge success. The event, which appropriated a headline from The Sun newspaper, raised nearly £20,000.
When Margaret Thatcher began to sequester the NUM’s funds, the LGSM began administering their support directly to specific mining towns in south Wales: Neath, Dulais and Swansea Valley.
During a visit, the miners realised some members of the LGSM group were Irish. So they brought them to St. Patrick’s birthplace in Dulais. This inspired Ashton and the other Irish members to host a Paddy’s Day fundraiser in his flat. It included dinner and a ceilí.
By 1985, there were 11 LGSM groups around the UK. In the face of marginalisation and police brutality, the miners and the LGBT community managed to come together in spite of their differences.
Returning the favour
In March 1985, the miners voted to end the strike. Ashton ran LGSM’s last meeting, distributing leftover funds and sending its banner to the South Wales Miners’ Library for safe keeping.
But three months later, Ashton reunited with his companions from Dulais when NUM members joined London’s Pride march. At the trade union and labour conferences later that year, NUM delegates also lobbied for the adoption of policies which supported lesbian and gay rights.
At the Labour Party Conference, a motion to support equal rights was a close call. But, in the end, it passed thanks to the work of the NUM.
During this time, Ashton continued his activism and became involved in a lengthy strike by London print workers. They were let go after News International opened a modern new plant in Wapping. At one point, Ashton even wrestled a shiny, wooden truncheon from a policeman – an artefact which is still held by the Chris and Betty Birch Archive today.
Ashton was present on the picket line until just three days before his admittance to hospital in 1987. Just 12 days later, he died of an AIDS-related illness at the age of just 26.
Remembering Mark Ashton
At the time, Ashton’s death prompted a huge response. In his memory, the Mark Ashton Trust was set up to support people with HIV. Richard Coles also wrote the hit song ‘For a Friend’.
More recently, Ashton’s integration of gay and left politics inspired the movie Pride. And, today, his memory continues to be honoured through several memorials. His name is also present on the AIDS Memorial Quilt, alongside a hammer and sickle, some red stilettos and a green shamrock.
As the 35th anniversary of his death approaches, his legacy may be marked once again in his hometown of Portrush.
Discover more stories like this at EPIC’s newest exhibition ‘Out in the World: Ireland’s LGBTQ+ Diaspora‘, free throughout the month of June at CHQ Dublin.
Header image: ‘Support the Miners’ at London Pride 2015. Photo by David Jones