British Labour politician, former actor, Member of the European Parliament and co-founder of LGBT rights charity Stonewall Lord Michael Cashman is a long-time supporter of the LGBT human rights movement in Lithuania. Having participated in the ILGA-Europe Conference held in 2007 and attended the first Baltic Pride March in Vilnius, Lord Michael Cashman closely followed the transformation of Baltic Pride. Lord Michael Cashman shared his profound experience in advocating for LGBT human rights both in the United Kingdom and Europe during the “Pride Voices Gala” event. Today we will take a look at some of the highlights of Lord Michael Cashman’s career.
In 1989, along with Sir Ian McKellen and Lisa Power, you founded Stonewall, an LGBT rights charity. Could you please tell our readers more about this period? What was the social climate for LGBT people in the UK back in 1989?
“Ian McKellen, Lisa Power, and others founded Stonewall in 1989 in response to the Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher, which had introduced an anti-gay law in 1988. We had led the campaign to try and stop this law becoming a reality. But the law passed, and so we founded Stonewall which had to be comprised of a board with equal numbers of women and men, as a non-party political group, in order to advance the case for legal equality and social justice for LGBT people in the United Kingdom. At that time we did not take up trans issues, although I am thrilled that Stonewall does now.”
What impact did your role of Colin Russell in BBC TV’s EastEnders – a character who was a participant in the first gay kiss in a British soap opera – have on the LGBT community in the UK?
“When I went into EastEnders in 1986 it was the first time a gay character had been portrayed in such an important and popular show, especially in that Colin Russell, my character, did not conform to the media stereotype of a gay man. He was an ordinary man, a graphic designer, and he had a young working-class boyfriend. We must remember at that time there was much hysteria and homophobia around gay and bisexual men in particular. This was because AIDS and HIV was represented in the popular media, the tabloid press in particular, as ‘a gay plague’. So my character did much to dispel the myth, to give an identity of ordinariness to being gay, and though it sparked controversy in the popular media it meant that we were talked about, and that people were aware of our place in BBC’s most popular television show. It changed minds and changed the attitudes and it certainly helped young LGBT people growing up in the United Kingdom.”
You are both a politician and human rights activist. You took a role as Labour spokesman on human rights and President of the Intergroup on LGBT rights at the European Parliament. Could you tell us more about your work in advocating for LGBT human rights in the European Union?
“Since being a founder of Stonewall and using my position in the United Kingdom to speak out for equality and diversities, and the recognition that human rights are equal to us all and universal, I have taken the opportunities that I’ve had wherever I have been to advance the cause of human rights. I was particularly fortunate to be co-president of the LGBT Intergroup in the European Parliament, which was the most effective and biggest Intergroup during my 15 years there. Both with the domestic work of the European Union, when we were 15 Member States, and then through our accession to 28 we watched very closely, promoted the rights of the union, ensured that they were adopted by accession countries, and then made the case for further measures to be adopted into law to protect LGBT people and others from discrimination. After all European Union countries are equal and individuals living there should be treated equally.”
You have been appointed to the House of Lords. Could you tell us more about this experience? What effect did it have for you?
“Being in the House of Lords is a wonderful opportunity for me to give a voice to people and issues that might not otherwise be heard. To speak out against discrimination wherever it occurs, and to ensure particularly now that even though we may be leaving the European Union we will not be leaving the family of human rights and diversity. I was lucky to do this as the global envoy for the leader of the Labour Party, and now I do this as an independently minded member of the House of Lords representing the Labour Party. I’m pleased to speak out on many issues, it’s one of the advantages of being in the House of Lords – it’s difficult for them to keep us quiet!”
Could you tell us more about the infamous Section 28, a provision prohibiting “the intentional promotion of homosexuality” by any local authority and “the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” What impact did it have on LGBT youngsters in the UK? What is your view on the Russian style anti-gay propaganda Law (Lithuanian Law on the Protection of Minors against the Detrimental Effect of Public Information) actively restricting the freedom of expression of Lithuanian LGBT community? Do you think it is normal to have such laws present in one of the EU Member States? What measures do you think could be taken in order to repeal this law?
“Section 28 was a dangerous piece of law because it effectively was trying to force lesbian and gay people underground, it was telling us that our families and our experiences could not be talked about in public and that schools and local authorities could not talk about us or support LGBT people. The fact that it has been transported to other parts of the world like Russia is deeply worrying. Equally the Lithuanian Law on the protection of minors against the detrimental effects of public information, all have their roots in the nastiness of section 28. As civilised societies we should be encouraging people to be themselves, we should be supporting children and young people to develop their own unique identity and welcome them into the family of the nation and the communities of families. This makes countries stronger, not weaker.”
You have visited Vilnius in 2007 for the ILGA-Europe Conference and in 2010 you have attended the first Baltic Pride March. What was this experience like for you? Do you think the Baltic Pride 2019 March will be different?
“I was pleased to visit Vilnius in 2007 for the ILGA-Europe conference and the first Baltic Pride in 2010. These were wonderful experiences and although we came up against a lot of oppression and some intimidation it showed that our community was strong, that others were in solidarity with us and that we would continue to move forward making the case for equality and inclusion. I am sure Baltic Pride 2019 will be incredibly different, I’ve watched the movement grow across the Baltics and I am immensely proud of it.”
You are planning to publish your memoir One of Them in 2020. Will you consider its translation to Lithuanian?
“My memoir, One of Them, will be published in 2020 by Bloomsbury Press, and I would certainly love for it to be translated into Lithuanian. It would give me great joy.”
What key message would you like to give to the Lithuanian LGBTI community during your visit in Lithuania?
“My key message to the Lithuanian LGBTI community during my visit will be: we celebrate diversity, we celebrate our families, our communities, but most of all we celebrate that each and every one of us should be afforded equal rights, non-discrimination and the opportunity to become ourselves. We achieve together, only together.”