The British miners’ strike of 1984/5 is generally considered a heavy defeat for the miners, their communities, and the trade union movement as a whole. To a certain extent, that assumption has merit. But one outcome that is less well known is the role the strike played in contributing to bettering the lives of homosexuals in Britain. In a decade when vast homophobia was expected and accepted, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) drove a couple of minibuses and a camper van from London to Dulais, a small mining town in South Wales, to present their donations in an attempt to aid the miners’ efforts. The events that followed provide us with an important lesson about the importance of empathy, tolerance, and togetherness in facing common enemies.
Here, Jon Hill tells us a story about solidarity.
Roots of Oppression
Firstly, it is perhaps important to refer to the ways in which miners and homosexuals were oppressed in Britain at the time. The strike began in March 1984, in response to Ian Macgregor’s plans to close twenty pits, leading to a projected loss of 20,000 jobs. Margaret Thatcher had previously claimed, ‘the industry cost the taxpayer thirteen billion pounds’ and called for the worst economically performing pits to close. The areas targeted were considered overly reliant on mining. The mining community in South Wales had not been the worst hit, but employment in the coalfields had nevertheless fallen from 108,000 in 1948 to 20,347 in 1984.
Mistreatment by the police was a shared experience between gay people and miners. Amongst other places, picketing miners were subjected to police brutality at Easington in August 1984. Thatcher claimed that the police were ‘upholding the law’ and stated; ‘I find it totally and utterly false to cast a slur on the police for the superb way they have handled this dispute.’ An LGSM member described how ‘a lot of mining communities have found out what police harassment is for the first time, which gay people have known about for years’. Such views were also reciprocated by members of the mining community. Sian James described feeling that ‘we were next in line after lesbians and gays…you cannot sympathise with an oppressed group until you’ve actually been a member of one’.
An Unlikely Union
In the face of such adversity, coordinator Mark Ashton encapsulated the aim of LGSM; ‘It is illogical to say: ‘I’m gay and I’m into defending the gay community but I don’t care about anything else.’
Donovan travelled to Paddington on September 6, 1984 to collect a cheque of 500 pounds from LGSM, mostly collected from poorly paid young people who hankered for a different Britain. Donovan subsequently invited members to Dulais. Tensions were high when the mining community received news of the impending arrival, yet the experiences were generally positive for both sides.
London magazine City Limits described how LGSM members visiting Dulais were welcomed into the miners’ homes for the weekend; whole families discussed gay rights and sexuality ‘over the tea-table’. Prior to the arrival of LGSM, one member of the Dulais group admitted that they were ‘expecting a bunch of weirdos’. Another woman commented that ‘It’s had to take the strike for us to get friendlier with lesbian and gay men’. Such apprehension was mutual; a correspondent of Capital Gay claimed that the mining communities ‘encapsulate all the sexist, patriarchal and anti-gay views which threaten us’. However, experiences reported by LGSM visitors challenged such views. Ashton recalled being overwhelmed with the open-mindedness of the miners; ‘I had this semi-antagonistic attitude towards the organised labour movement, trade unions, macho bully boys, and it just opens your eyes to the attitudes that they had, and the strike up to that stage had kindled in people.’
Members of LGSM returned to Dulais on February 15, 1985 and held sponsored bike rides from London to Dulais during Easter 1985. These continuing visits maintained feelings of solidarity and laid the ground work for the appearance of Blaenant Lodge, a group of approximately 80 miners and sympathisers from South Wales who marched with LGSM at Gay Pride in London in July 1985. Writing to Blaenant Lodge following the march, Jackson enthused; ‘Your presence on Saturday stood out like granite pillars of our mutual trust, solidarity, and hope for the future.’ The words of the NUM’s note, sent to the fringe meeting of gays and lesbians at the 1984 Labour Conference, sum up the sentiments from the other side: ‘Support civil liberties...Our struggle is yours.’
The presentation of a resolution to the British Labour Party Annual Conference that year which committed the Labour Party to gay rights was made. The passing of gay rights resolutions showed that there was a place in the Labour movement for homosexuals. The growing acceptance of gay issues in the Labour movement would play a role in the passing of progressive legislation by following Labour governments on the age of consent, civil partnerships, and the repeal of Section 28 in November 2003.
By the time that the group was wound up in July 1986, LGSM had gathered approximately 22,000 pounds for the mining community at Dulais, collected through street collections, jumble sales and events such as the ‘Pits and Perverts’ gig, named after a derogatory slogan used by The Sun newspaper.
The Importance of Solidarity
Notions of community over class were reinforced by an opinion piece written by LGSM for City Limits. They claimed that; ‘Our support for the strike arises not purely from the fact that we are gay, but because we are members of the same class’. Ashton made a similar point in a separate interview where he argued for the need to ‘organise with my own kind of people. That’s not necessarily lesbians and gay men – that’s working class people’.
The Gay Liberation Foundation marched with the Trade Union Council against Edward Heath in 1971. This kind of cross over support was continued by organisations like LGSM in the 1980s. This idea is summarised by Lucy Robinson, who argues that examples set by LGSM ‘meant that gender and sexuality had fed into a cross-class comradery even if the strike had failed.’
A Brighter Future
In a recent correspondence of mine with LGSM member Jonathan Blake, Blake emphasised the importance of changing attitudes that have occurred since minority movements such as LGSM were formed. Besides referring to the NUM’s contribution to Labour’s inclusion of gay rights in their manifesto in 1985, Blake noted the significance of the movement, and specifically the film Pride, ‘in inspiring youth folk’. This feeling seemed to take effect in South Wales as early as the summer of 1985, when students from University College Cardiff held the city’s first Gay Pride march. The march provided visible evidence of a change in Welsh attitudes towards sexual minorities. The South Wales Echo declared the Welsh capital ‘a place where you can be glad to be gay.’
From the outset of the campaign, Ashton and Jackson emphasised the need for minorities to refrain from hiding, and encouraged gay people and miners to embrace their label. During the meeting with Donovan in October 1984, Jackson said ‘We call ourselves LGSM to emphasise our label - I hope this can encourage people in places like Dulais to say ‘I’m gay and I’m proud’. This self-awareness partly reflected a belief in the importance of the organisation concerning sexual history, but also fitted into wider processes of the 1980s. There was an increasing appreciation arising of migrant histories, signalled by the first Black History Month in 1987. Whilst it cannot be suggested that this was a consequence of the movement, it can be interpreted that minority movements like LGSM contributed to maintaining alternative histories.
Reason for Celebration
Whilst LGSM and the miners ultimately failed in their immediate aims to prevent collieries closing and overthrow the Thatcher government, the legacy that remains is worth salvaging. Whilst gay activists had worn badges for other campaigns, like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Troops Out and Rock Against Racism, this time the gesture was reciprocated. A pamphlet published by the Labour Campaign for homosexual rights in 2006 noted support for the miners ‘including hundreds of lesbians and gay men working through support groups’ and added; ‘the already deepening union backing for lesbian and gay equality has been reinforced by the experience of the miners’ strike.’ Ideas of solidarity were emphasised by Mary Joannou, who suggested that ‘it strongly conveys what solidarity can feel like to those who have been taught, by the legacy of Thatcherism, that all that matters is the individual.’ Mark Steel summed up the legacy well; ‘Defeat did not mean that we’d be better off if it never happened. Apart from anything else, it did so much to bring together disparate groups in British society, justified when a miners’ brass band was chosen to lead a Gay Pride march.’ Steel was right; with courage, dedication, and solidarity, LGSM serve as a reminder that a minority can inspire a majority.
What do you think of the arguments in this article? Let us know below…
Audio recording of meeting between some members of LGSM and Dulais miners (16/9/84).
‘All Out! Dancing in Dulais’, dir. by Jeff Cole (1986).
Daryl Leeworthy, ‘For our common cause: Sexuality and left politics in South Wales, 1967-85’, Contemporary British History, (2015), 260-280).
Diarmaid Kelliher; ‘Solidarity and Sexuality: Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, 1984-85’, History Workshop, (2014), 240-262.
Edward Townsend, ‘Thatcher ‘no surrender’ message on miners.’ Times (London), 18 October 1984: 1.
Julian Haviland, Anthony Bevins, and Richard Evans. ‘Thatcher endorses police conduct in miners' dispute.’ Times (London), 10 Apr. 1984: 1.
Mary Joannou, ‘The Miners’ Strike and Me: A Very Personal Response to Pride’, Contemporary British History, (2016), 107-113.
Personal correspondence with Jonathan Blake (10/03/2017).
Todd, Selina, The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class (London: John Murray Publishers, 2014).