Back in 1980s Britain, a group was formed which called itself ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’, which was… well, a group of Lesbians and Gays who supported the miners. Rashers Tierney spoke to Reggie blennerhassett, an Irish emigrant who ended up in the thick of it.
Can you give us a little bit of background about yourself and how you ended up in Britain in the mid 1980’s?
I was born in Sligo and moved to Dublin in 1978 to study at the College of Commerce in Rathmines. While there I was the Public Relations Officer for the SU in my third year. We were pretty tame but did have a day of action for better canteen services. I was interviewed by Deirdre Purcell on the RTE news about it. First came to London as a student to work in a pub over the summer in 1981 and liked it. After graduating I came straight back to London basically because I was gay and the thought of another 4 years in Ireland filled me with despair. Can you give us some indication of just how repressive Ireland was when it came to the gay community in the early 1980s and then what it was like in Britain then too?
I was not out when living in Ireland as it was just too scary. I was aware of places like the Hirshfield Centre in Dublin but I think only visited once with a straight friend in my final year at college. It was not a good time to be growing up gay in Ireland. London was like a different world. My first experience was in 1982 and building up the courage to go Heaven, the disco. I paced up and down outside it not sure what to expect on the other side of the door. Of course as soon as I actually went in I realised I had nothing to worry about. I was 21 so clearly some waste years!
How did you get involved in Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners and what were the politics of those involved?
I met Ray, my partner, 3 weeks after moving to London at the end of 1982. He was politically active having been involved in a long running strike at the bookshop where he worked. When I first moved to London I shared a house with Gethin who Ray worked with. We were involved in various marches etc during that period. We all went to alternative gay pubs at that time and it was outside the Bell one evening that we met Mark Ashton collecting for the miners. We got chatting and he said we should come along to a group meeting.
We all went to the next one and got involved from there on in. The group came from a range of political backgrounds as you would expect. Each had their own agenda which is fine but the group was at risk of breaking up because of this. Early on we agreed that we had to focus on the single issue and put our different political views aside. It worked amazingly well. I think the film gives a flavour of the politics of the group and I think it does this well. It must be a nightmare writing a script that gets an important message across in just 2 hours. I still can’t believe it is out there in mainstream cinemas.
Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners ended up doing a lot of work with the community of Onllwyn in the Dulais valley in South Wales. How did you end up linking up with people there?
The group was look for a community to support directly and the link came through a contact with Dai Donovan who was raising funds for the community. Because the NUM (National Union of Miners) bank accounts were frozen, groups had to make direct contact with communities to get the money to them.
In the documentary All Out Dancing In Dulais, one of the women from the mining community says, “we didn’t know what to expect.” What did the support group expect when you first went down to the mining valley?
It was the same for us! 3 vans and 26 people went on the first trip. I remember us all having a great time in our bus, full of excitement, until we saw the Severn bridge and the reality set in. There was no going back. In truth we had nothing to worry about as we were made so welcome.
Someone else in that documentary said you raised something like 400-500 pounds a collection. That’s phenomenal. What was the atmosphere like when you were out collecting?
The response was usually positive and people gave money. Of course there were others who shouted names at us etc. but that goes with the territory. Despite the propaganda of Thatcher’s government, there was a lot of grassroots support for the miners. Maybe surprisingly from the LGBT community, although on reflection I am not sure why we were surprised, these were politically savvy people already involved in politics in other areas.
Eventually the media turned their attention to the group, branding a concert you were running with Bronski Beat “pits and perverts” – can you tell me how you turned this to the groups advantage?
The actual ‘Pits and Perverts’ headline never happened, at least no one can find it. But the sentiment was there in the press. However as a group we did try and turn language around to our benefit as the gay community has done for years. This was some wonderfully creative thinking among the group and just gave us the most amazing title for the gig. Brilliant t-shirts too.
Did you continue with activism after the Miners Strike? Where did things take you after that?
I remain involved particularly around section 28 and went on to work at the London Lesbian and Gay Centre for a few years. My active involvement waned after that I suppose. It’s good to be back!
Photo by Nicola Field. Watch the trailer for Pride here.