A blue plaque has this week been revealed to the gay activist Mark Ashton. The plaque, commissioned through a crowdsourced campaign, is now displayed outside Gay’s The Word, the UK’s oldest existing queer book shop – a site Ashton regularly visited during the 1980s.
Mark Ashton is best known as co-founder of the gay activist group Lesbians And Gays Support The Miners, who raised funds and offered support for workers during the 1980s miner’s strike. LGSM was one of the earliest organised queer groups in the UK, and was hugely important in shifting common perceptions of the LGBTQ community during the Thatcher-era. The group is also one of the most widely recognised LGBTQ groups, largely in part thanks to their depiction in the BAFTA-winning 2014 film Pride.
Ashton, born in 1960, was a proud queer rights advocate and socialist. He was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and also campaigned for nuclear disarmament, workers rights and was a volunteer for the Lesbian And Gay Switchboard. Alongside his friend Mike Jackson, he founded LGSM initially as a fundraising group during the 1984 Lesbian And Gay Pride March in London. LGSM went on to spawn numerous groups across the country which went on to support similar campaigns, both for workers’ rights and LGBTQ equality. The group is regarded by many as a political awakening for Britain’s then-fledgling LGBTQ community. In 1987 Ashton died due to HIV-related illness at the age of just 26. His legacy was continued through the Mark Ashton trust, which raised money for people living with HIV.
Although there is no official central body for the commission of blue plaques, the majority are administered by English Heritage or local government. The unveiling of Ashton’s plaque marks one of only a handful of LGBTQ figures memorialised in this way, and one of the only specifically marked for their activism.
A number of plaques dedicated to LGBTQ figures can be found across London and the UK, however the English Heritage’s website does not currently list any plaques tagged with the keywords ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘queer’ or ‘LGBT’. In Cambridge, a plaque dedicated to early computer scientist and codebreaker Alan Turing received criticism for its failure to mention his sexuality – or the arrest, imprisonment and forced sterilisation he faced under anti-sodomy laws which led to his eventual suicide in 1954.