Remembering Mark Ashton

The campaign for a Mark Ashton memorial in Portrush has gained almost 20,000 signatures in its first month.

A photo of Mark Ashton
Credit: Mark Ashton Trust | Facebook.

Mark Ashton (19 May 1960 – 11 February 1987) was a gay rights activist and the co-founder of Lesbian and Gays support the Miners (LGSM). He was also a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). 

Born in Oldham, Mark moved with his family to Portrush, County Antrim, where he grew up, before moving to London in 1978. He was active in a wide variety of campaigns, including the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and volunteered for the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard. In 1984 he co-founded Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners with his friend Mike Jackson and that year they collected donations at London Pride for the miners. From this gesture of solidarity, a solid friendship and comradeship with the striking miners developed. Mark was also the General Secretary of the Young Communist League, the youth section of the CPGB, from 1985-86. Mark was diagnosed with AIDS in the late 1980s and sadly died of pneumonia in 1987. 

Mark’s involvement in Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners was documented in the 2014 film Pride.

LookLeft spoke to Jude Copeland who has recently started a campaign for Mark to have a memorial erected in his hometown of Portrush. 

Q: Thank you for your time, Jude. Can we begin by asking you to tell us a little bit about Mark? His personality, his politics? And why you started the campaign for a memorial for Mark?

A: I only got to know about Mark through Pride the Movie. I didn’t watch it as soon as it came out but thought it was a lovely, inspiring film. I think I googled a few of the characters and read a little more about them. That was that until I was in London, working, and saw there was a screening followed by a Q&A with some of the LGSM people. I went along to this lovely old-school boozer in a part of London I’d never been in before, got lost a couple of times! I watched the film and listened to the questions being asked. Everyone was full of pride.

There were books for sale, which they were signing. I bought one for me and one for a pal who had been having a difficult time as an LGBT+ activist. When Mike Jackson asked my name and I told him who to write the books for, he just looked at me and smiled “it’s a long time since I’ve heard that accent” and I realised he was thinking about Mark Ashton. 

I did a little more research and thought about memorials to him and the amazing story of his legacy. I visited Gay’s the Word, where LGSM was founded and where there is a plaque to Mark. I often thought about doing something, but it felt a little silly for me to do it, but I still felt a bit connected to him and grateful to him. 

Fast forward to February 2020, Northern Ireland finally achieved the milestone of marriage equality (ish – in Northern Ireland there are always exceptions!). I realised that the first same sex marriage in Northern Ireland would take place on the anniversary of Mark’s death. 11th February. 

I had started the petition expecting a few dozen signatures and have been astounded by the outpouring of love for him.

Q: Mark was instrumental in setting up the Lesbian and Gays support the miners and that led to a friendship and comradeship that lasted beyond the times of the strikes. Why do you think that was? And do you think his communism was the driving force for Mark to begin to campaign for the miners?

A: Mark was born in England and moved to Northern Ireland when he was very young. Through his formative years, homosexuality was still a criminal offence in Northern Ireland. In addition, he spent some time in Bangladesh through his father’s work. To me, it feels that, through witnessing unfairness and discrimination he developed a deep empathy for others. Rev Richard Coles recently said “he dreamed of a better world” and I think that’s true. 

Mark’s politics were very important to him. He was an incredibly effective grassroots activist and volunteer. He is well, and kindly, remembered by some who worked with him at the London Switchboard. He would have been taking calls from anxious and scared LGBT+ people, dealing with queries about the new illness targeting gay men, AIDS. That would have been very difficult work. 

He seems to me to have been selfless and enthusiastic. He cared about others. To some, that may be an expression of his communism. To me, he is the epitome of an old Irish concept of “meitheal” – a community effort where everyone helps each other when they need a hand, and everyone benefits.

Q: There is a plaque for Mark in London and a garden named after him in Paris. Why do you think that it’s taken so long to begin the process for a memorial in his own country?

A: What is very clear is that he is well remembered and well loved. While he does have many people locally who grew up with him, others left Northern Ireland to live somewhere kinder to LGBT people.

As well as Paris and London, I understand there is also a memorial to him in Wales.

Several years ago, Unite the Union named a meeting room after him. While that is a lovely thing to do and a sign of the esteem he is held in, it is not publicly funded or publicly available. 

Things have progressed in Northern Ireland and we are moving beyond the traditional view of “two communities” as the reality is there are people of many diverse backgrounds, beliefs and identities in Northern Ireland and we are becoming better at celebrating that. 

The interest in the LGBT History Project is a testament to that. People want to know more about our very recent history and some people are working hard to capture that history. LGBT+ people alive now can remember criminalisation; can remember paramilitaries coming in to “patrol” gay bars in Belfast; can remember homophobic words of elected politicians.

I think there is also less of a stigma about being an ally. People are interested and are not afraid to ask questions.

A line drawing of a man infant of a country landscape and the words "Portrush Memorial for Mark Ashton".
Credit: Jude Copeland/Queerspace LGBT Collective, Belfast.

Q: Do you think that a memorial for Mark will help to make the country more inclusive and highlight LGBT+ campaigns?

A: I think it would be a positive step in the right direction. I think that Mark deserves this irrespective of his sexuality. However, I believe that his memorial would be the first to an openly LGBT person in Northern Ireland. 

It is significant that the petition has gathered cross community support, including from our local and National politicians spanning the Green Party, Alliance, SDLP, Sinn Fein and the UUP. 

Q: What would you like the memorial to be/say for Mark? Have there been ideas sent in or is there something specific in mind?

A: There are so many wonderful aspects to Mark’s character, it’s hard to know where to start. We will be working closely with his friends, family, and other stakeholders to create the wording. 

Q: How can people support the campaign?

A: Well, things are tough for people at the moment, financially. If you have a few extra pounds (but only if you don’t need them), we are starting a fund to pay for the memorial.

An excellent way you can support us is by sharing our petition or tweeting/emailing your support to the local council. Words are powerful, and very valuable. 

Jude Copeland is a lawyer, amateur historian and volunteer with several local charities.