Coming out in the 80s
Creative Director Mark Sands talks about coming out in the 80s, Section 28 and seeing the original 1988 production of Philip Osment’s This Island’s Mine.
I knew I was gay from a really early age, around 9 years old, maybe younger. I knew I had an attraction to the same sex. Back then, these things get explained away as hero worship; in retrospect, it was because I was gay. I just didn’t have the reference points, the understanding, the language, the role models or the confidence to articulate it. I had a girlfriend, whom I genuinely loved, in my late teens, and my first boyfriend at 17, whom I also loved. It’s an indictment of the times that he is sadly no longer with us.
I know the exact date I came out – it was the 26th May 1989 – and I was 20. My friend and I used to spend our weekends driving from Portsmouth to Southampton in his Robin Reliant to a club called Magnum’s where I became obsessed with someone. After many months of stalking him across the 3 dance floors, we had a date. Not a great one - I was an insecure wreck - but good enough that a second was planned. This time I made my way to Southampton alone by train only to be stood up. Drowning my sorrows in Bicardi and Coke an older lesbian friend drove me back in her yellow Mini ending with me breaking down, drunk in front of my parents. There was a moment of comedy in amongst all the dramatic sobbing because the person who stood me up had the same name as my brother and in blubbing on about him, my parents thought I’d actually been let down by my brother, not my date.
But it happened, that night, in 1989, I came out.
We talk about coming out as something we do to other people, but actually the hardest thing I faced was coming out to myself. I had the best of times in the 80s; but it was also one the harshest of times. Media homophobia was rampant and the introduction of Section 28 caused a genuine unease, not least because if felt like an institutional act of persecution. No one really understood how the policy was to be implemented, leading to a climate of uncertainty about the context in which you were ‘allowed’ to talk openly and positively about being gay and lesbian. If we didn’t already feel like exiles in our own country, Section 28 certainly made sure we were.
In 1988, Gay Sweatshop Theatre Company toured their production of Philip Osment’s This Island’s Mine to the Hornpipe Arts Centre in my hometown of Portsmouth. It was the first time I had ever seen a piece of ‘gay theatre’. It was important because two parts of me – my interest in theatre and being gay – suddenly came together in one experience. I remember distinctly the absolute fear and feeling of sickness of having to walk through the door of that venue, not knowing who might see me going in. This was despite having hung out in gay bars and clubs since I was 16 and having the aforementioned yearlong gay relationship. I wasn’t out to my family at this stage; such was the climate of fear and prejudice I grew up in, so it still took a huge amount of courage to be seen attending something so brazen about sexuality.
It was a life changing experience, to be in a room with people just like me, away from the context of a bar or club, and to have something so beautiful and articulate speak about my life in such a positive, warm, humourous, enlightening way. To be celebrated in public was a far cry from being shamed by the media and government. It was an awakening, not just because it made sense of my life to myself, but also because it showed me the power of theatre. At a time when positive LGBT role models were far from visible, when coming out was seen as a career killer for actors, when The Sun newspaper headlines screamed ‘Eastbenders’ across its front page, here was a company, a play and a group of people that were unashamedly positive. And I wanted to be just like them and play my part in promoting that positive vision.
It’s from that moment that I decided – without fuss or fanfare – that I wanted to make theatre that had the potential to change peoples’ lives for the better, and this is something I’ve pretty much dedicated my entire career to.
Now here we are, 31 years on, about to go into rehearsals for the first ever revival of This Island’s Mine since the original back in 1988.
Is it still relevant? Yes. Absolutely. We must never forget our darkest times and what it was like before hard-earned rights were won. I remember clearly the shift that took place with the introduction of Section 28. It empowered and united so many of us, but it also fanned the flames of prejudice by giving legitimacy to homophobia. I see it again, with the rise of far right sentiments and anti-LGBT protests outside schools in Birmingham. As Miss Rosenblum in This Island’s Mine warns her lodger:
It can happen again.
I see the signs, Mr Martin,
They want someone to blame.’
At the same time, there is much to celebrate. We have come a long way and the play is truly a celebration of love, defiance and unity. That’s the power of the play and I hope it has the same liberating, uplifting, life changing impact on others in 2019 as it did for me back in 1988.
This Island’s Mine by Philip Osment runs from 15 May - 8 June at the King’s Head Theatre, Islington.
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