Chris Creegan

Comment | Ideas | Opinion

Damian, Me – and Maggie Too

by Chris on 31st January 2019

On the morning of 13th October 1984, aged 23, I stood on my friend Sue’s doorstep in Stoke Newington. Sue was a fellow trade union activist. We were members of a small but determined community, engaged in a struggle for our rights — lesbian and gay rights.

I’d gone round to drop off some papers for a conference. We spent our days organising them — and marches too. But our talk that morning was of another — deadly — struggle. One which had, quite literally, blown up at the Grand Hotel in Brighton. An explosion designed to deal a fatal blow to Margaret Thatcher.

The Prime Minister had survived but the scale of the destruction — both human and structural — was horrific. We could scarcely believe what had happened. Sue and I were no fans of Maggie. And she was no fan our cause. Yet our lives were framed by her premiership. There was no avoiding her.

The evening before, 8-year-old Damian Barr had sat next to his mum on a sofa in Lanarkshire glued to the unfolding horror on the BBC Nine O’Clock News. Damian was about to go on a journey, now captured — hilariously and heartbreakingly — in his award-winning memoir, Maggie and Me.

On the face of it, my journey and Damian’s couldn’t be more different. I’m middle class and grew up in owner-occupier, rural suburbia in the north of England. Damian is working-class and grew up in a council house in Scotland’s post-industrial heartlands.

By 1984, I was working. I’d voted for the first time in 1979, though not for Mrs Thatcher. Damian was just a boy, still at school. I had already graduated from the same university Damian was to study at more than 10 years later.
Yet neither of our childhoods was a laugh a minute and both of us grew up to be gay. And, for good or ill, Maggie was a constant in each of our lives through the 1980s. The sirens of the decade — industrial strife, the arrival of AIDS and Section 28 — left a lasting imprint on Damian, and on me.

I met Damian for the first time two years ago. More than almost any other, his memoir inspired me to write my own. Mine is still a work in progress, while Damian’s is a best selling book. And now, wonderfully, Maggie and Me, has been optioned by STV productions with the brilliant Andrea Gibb, of Call the Midwife fame, adapting it.
‘It will be just the kind of show I watched as a boy, terrified of getting caught’ Damian tweeted earlier today. ‘How the world has changed.’

How indeed. And he’s right. I remember that fearful curiosity — and shame — watching occasional snippets on the small screen during the previous decade. Knowing they were about me but not sure how or why. Ten years later as a young gay activist, I was invited to discussions at Channel 4’s studios about what was to become, Out On Tuesday, a gay magazine series launched in 1989.

But, dare I say it, Damian’s not quite right. Because there was nothing like Maggie and Me on the TV in the 1980s — and definitely not in the 1970s. And it’s because the world has changed that there will be 30 years later.
Curiously, that change is Maggie’s legacy. Inadvertently, true blue Thatcherism turned society pink.

When we met that morning in 1984, my friend Sue was embarking on the creation of a ‘pretended family’ so despised by the architects of Clause 28. We didn’t prevent the clause from becoming law but it was to prove a turning point in our struggle. In 2017, I married my husband. Our families aren’t ‘pretended’ now.

The change wasn’t accidental. We didn’t let up. Placards, posters and protest all played their part. But above all, stories made it happen. Stories we told each other, stories we told our families and friends — and stories they told about us. In the end, nearly everyone knew ONE OF US and we weren’t just ONE OF THEM anymore.
Maggie was alarmed, back then, that children were growing up thinking they had an ‘inalienable right to be gay.’ Now they do and the country Damian grew up in is, groundbreakingly, about to embed lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex rights in the school curriculum. This matters because, despite that change, kids are still growing up in straight jackets. We’re not there yet.

Damian couldn’t have dreamt that one day his story would become the stuff of popular television. But it has. Because he gifted his story to us. And because although Maggie and Me is Damian’s story, it’s also a story about — and for — all of us. A story of — and for — our times.

And now — magically — it’s a story for the next generation too. They will be able to find themselves in it, and they won’t have to sit in terror anymore.

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