How TV and pop music changed our attitudes…

When people speak of major events of the Eighties, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War often spring to mind.

But I would argue that one of the most significant steps forward during my formative years was actually a radical change in attitudes.

It may seem incredible these days, but being gay in the early to mid-1980s opened people up to ridicule and much worse.

Mercifully, by the end of the decade, outdated stereotypes and overt homophobia were finally on their way out.

Here in the UK we had a couple of people to thank for this seismic shift in the way in which gay people were viewed.

One of the leading lights in this social revolution was the man who was to go on to become one of the people representing us Stokies in Brussels.

Michael Cashman is now the Labour MEP for the West Midlands but rose to prominence as an actor on BBC TV’s misery-fest Eastenders.

You have to remember that during the mid-80s gay-orientated content was still relatively rare on prime-time television.

However, Michael Cashman changed all that with his portrayal of yuppie graphic designer Colin Russell.

There was outrage when in 1987 the BBC screened the first ever gay kiss in a British soap opera between the character of Colin and his boyfriend Barry.

To be fair, it was only a peck on the forehead, but some national newspapers reacted furiously – dubbing the soap ‘EastBenders’ and branding the content ‘filth’.

Questions were even asked in Parliament about the appropriateness of having openly-gay men in a prime-time TV show as fears over AIDs grew.

At the time, huge misconceptions over the origins of AIDs, the way in which it could be contracted, and its association with gay men had caused widespread fear and confusion as our ill-advised health services struggled to come to terms with this ‘new’ illness.

It wasn’t until 1989 that the first mouth-to-mouth kiss between Colin and his partner Guido was screened and again it caused controversy.

Around 20 million people saw the show and some right-wing newspapers condemned the brief scene at a time when Margaret Thatcher’s government was championing a return to ‘traditional family values’.

Thankfully, however, attitudes had already changed.

Over time, the viewing public – including yours truly – had grown rather fond of nice-guy Colin whose character had helped to highlight issues such as homophobia and so-called ‘gay-bashing’.

Cashman quit the soap in 1989 and went on to found the lesbian, gay and bisexual rights charity and lobbying organisation Stonewall before entering into politics. Another person who was responsible for altering the way the public felt towards the gay community was George Alan O’Dowd – AKA Boy George.

I recall delivering the Sunday papers over a period of months (I’d have been about 14 at the time) and reading numerous stories about Culture Club’s ‘gender-bender’.

Despite suffering some horrendous abuse courtesy of the tabloid press for his androgynous appearance, Boy George was a superb showman – who also happened to produce some killer pop tunes.

I was bought the album Colour By Numbers – containing the singles Church Of The Poison Mind and Karma Chameleon for Christmas in 1983 and genuinely thought it was the bees knees.

Despite the criticism, the constant scrutiny, a media vendetta, and a battle with his own personal demons, Boy George went on to become one of the UK’s most successful recording artists of the decade.

At the same time, his simple live-and-let-live philosophy helped to win many hearts and minds and persuade the nation that being different wasn’t necessarily bad or wrong.

By the end of the decade, I like to think that the tide had genuinely turned.

It wasn’t being gay that was no longer acceptable – it was being openly hostile towards those who were.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

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