The UK in 1984 was a divided country. But two very different groups of people were about to come together in one of the most unlikely alliances in political history. And in doing so, they would change hearts and minds around the nation and show the global LGBTI movement anything is possible.
This is the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners – a story which has just been turned into the critically acclaimed film, Pride, out in theaters in Britain on 12 September.
The Miners’ Strike was sparked by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government announcing in March 1984 it was to close over 70 coal pits. The resulting industrial action lasted for a year.
That July, a group of lesbians and gays – the term LGBTI was not yet invented – met in Elephant and Castle, London to discuss how they could raise cash for the striking miners.
Deprived of income from their jobs and of benefits from the government, many families in the collieries were struggling to scrape by. In the end Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) offered the money to miners in the South Wales valleys.
Mike Jackson of LGSM was in the first group to meet David Donovan of the Neath, Swansea and Dulais Valley Mineworkers. While the movement was bigger than two individuals, without them, much of what followed may never have happened.
Donovan told GSN: ‘LGSM brought together disparate lesbian and gay women and men around London in a common cause to help the striking families in Wales.
‘This was not as easy as it may appear, simply because the politics of lesbian and gay men was still developing and I think a “common aim” provided many with a way to forget differences in the interest of doing something.
‘Also, whilst the money was vital in sustaining the strike, the visits [between miners and gay people] were an important political step. Once you have looked on the face of someone that is offering their hand in friendship, it is not so easy to fall back on stereotypical prejudice.
‘To have experienced this in 1984 was a very stimulating experience. To see two groups, nervously perhaps, taking tentative steps to reach out to each other was moving and rewarding.’
And the miners and gays soon realized how much they had in common – not least that both were vilified by the government and press.
‘Make no mistake, the money collected was vital to the families but the fact that people who had felt the antagonistic force of the government and the press chose to set their own problems aside to help the striking families, many of whom were experiencing press and political oppression for the first time, was not lost on people in Wales,’ Donovan told us.
Jackon shared his account of the days that followed with GSN. He says: ‘That first visit to Dulais valley as out, proud, working-class lesbians and gay men was an emotional event for every one of us. We had been made to feel so welcome.
‘We drank with the miners and their families, talked, danced, laughed and discovered each other. Our banner was displayed by theirs at the front of the hall. They invited us to make a speech to the two or three hundred people there – something we hadn’t prepared for – and we finally bullied Andy Denn into doing the job.
‘The miners knew we were nervous and Andy, 20, was trembling when he got on that stage. There was a tremendous round of applause when the miners introduced him then avid silence to listen to what he had to say.
‘He spoke straight from the heart in rich Scouser tones about working-class solidarity and the importance of getting to know each others common interests. People stood clapping and cheering when he finished.
‘Later that evening they read poetry and sang to us. We stayed in their homes, went for walks with their kids in the ancient craggy landscape that surrounds their pit villages, we went to their own support group meeting where they presented us with trophies.’
Donovan told GSN the warmth of the welcome in the valleys for the gay and lesbian visitors was far greater than he expected.
As Sian James, a miner’s wife and secretary of South Wales Women’s Support Groups put it: ‘When you say to people now in the [mining] communities that the gays and lesbians have been they say “Oh! How are they, did you have a good time?” Some of my neighbors have said “Why haven’t you brought me to meet them?”
‘Now I thought that they might be… well… not offended exactly but… well… closed in. But they haven’t been like that at all. They’re great and they’ve accepted that there is a life apart from that in the valleys.’
And this little revolution spread far further than the Dulais Valley. Other LGSM groups and individuals supported miners elsewhere. Some women formed Lesbians Against Pit Closures too.
Together their struggles made it into the newspapers. The top British tabloid newspaper The Sun dubbed the alliance ‘Pits and Perverts’ – it was supposed to be an insult, but LGSM wore it as a badge of honor. Their biggest fundraiser took on that name and saw top performers gig in an event which raised £5,000 ($8,200 €6,300).
Just as importantly the miners spoke about it and word spread in communities around the country where homosexuality had previously been a taboo.
LGSM funding helped pay for a little minibus which trundled around the South Wales valleys and beyond, proudly sporting its sponsor’s name and gay pink triangles.
Donovan told GSN: ‘What is harder to quantify is how many people who would have grown up trivializing, and stigmatizing and whishing to speak derogatively about lesbian and gay people were prevented for doing that by the presence of that van and the support they had been given?
‘Children would have grown up with a view of lesbian and gay people that could have been nothing but gratitude. It is hard to quantify that but I believe the events of 1984 and 1985 had a profound affect on people who have grown up in the South Wales valleys, not only at that time but ever since as well.’
No story is as simple as a film or an article portrays it. There were arguments and lovers’ tiffs within LGSM and the gay world was not entirely united. Gay Conservatives gave a £25 ($41 €31) donation to strike-breaking miners, offensively called ‘scabs’.
In the end, the striking miners were defeated.
Donovan recalls: ‘The legacy of that is with us to this day – many of the communities haven’t bounced back. In Wales and in other parts of the United Kingdom which had a strong dependency on the coal industry, it still leaves us with significant economic difficulties to this day.
‘So in terms of the economy, nothing that has happened in the last 25 years has replaced the old industry. Many of us felt it very strongly, it was so traumatic.’
Many miners were in desperate hardship still, so LGSM kept up its support for a few months after the strike ended before the group wound up.
Jackson remembers: ‘We were on one of our many visits to Wales when the decision was made to return to work. It was a sad weekend. South Wales had been almost completely solid throughout the strike and many of our friends were angry at the decision.
‘It had been a long and bitter dispute and the state had thrown everything that it could at the miners. Major sections of the labour and trades union movement had failed to offer real support. On the other hand many new forms of support had emerged, mainly from the marginalized and oppressed sections of our society the black groups, Bengalis, women’s groups and ourselves.
‘At the Dulais support group on the Sunday evening a miner stood up and said: “Now our fight is over, it’s time to turn round and support those who have supported us, for their struggle continues, and none less than the lesbians and gays who have stood by us solidly.”
‘They did. They came on Lesbian and Gay Pride ‘85. A thousand people joined our section which was put right at the front. They’ve never stopped speaking about us at meetings and rallies, appeared on TV or wrote about us. They’ve made several collections for AIDS work to continue.
‘Memories are long in their communities – the imprint of generations of struggle, hardship and confrontation creates a class-consciousness that is impossible to eradicate so long as the community survives.’
As Donovan told the 1,500 strong crowd at the Pits and Perverts Ball in 1984: ‘You have worn our badge Coal Not Dole and you know what harassment means, as we do. Now we will support you.
‘It won’t change overnight, but now 140,000 miners know… about blacks and gays and nuclear disarmament – and we will never be the same.’
Some see the strike as a turning point for LGBTI rights in the UK. At the 1985 Labour Party convention, the party committed itself to gay equality, thanks to block vote support from the National Union of Mineworkers. It would take until 1997 before Labour would get into power but they eventually delivered some of the best equality legislation in the world – policies the Conservatives now support and have furthered with equal marriage.
Despite all this, the people involved remain humble. Donovan, when he spoke to us, was hesitant to talk about himself but hoped by sharing his story of the ‘marvelous example of the support given by lesbian and gay men to the striking miners’ to inspire international solidarity for LGBTI people in Russia and other countries.
And the men and women who started the movement had no idea their friendship with the miners would bare fruit for LGBTI people today. Indeed at first, they feared they may be rejected and mocked in the very communities they were trying to help.
But they had seen people in need and set out to do a selfless good deed. In the event, their low expectations were met with gratitude, open hearts and a willingness to reassess and change.
The politics of the Miners’ Strike divides Britain to this day. But it is hard not to conclude – whether you are on the right or left – that the friendship between ‘pits and perverts’ was a great good and the outcome was like magic.
See the trailer for Pride here: