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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Matt Cain

Paul O’Grady faced down Tory austerity, homophobia and shame – he was a true hero

Paul O'Grady, 2005
‘Paul O’Grady may have been embraced as a national treasure, but the British public knew exactly who they were embracing.’ Photograph: David Gadd/Allstar

Paul O’Grady may have been a national treasure but before anything he was a gay hero. As a gay storyteller myself, I found him hugely inspiring.

I first saw O’Grady perform as his drag alter ego Lily Savage in the 1990s. I was gobsmacked yet galvanised by his bawdy, often sexually explicit humour. I also remember feeling encouraged that so many straight people in the audience were roaring with laughter.

Lily Savage could be abrasive and her form of drag was anarchic and disruptive. As the punk rock of its day, it was the perfect fit for his rebellious political views. These weren’t just limited to queer culture – in 2010, he delivered a famous rant against Tory austerity. He had a passion for social justice, and from an early age was fired up by ignorance and prejudice.

First and foremost, though, he was a gay activist. And his work on this front began when increasing visibility was key.

Lily Savage was a pioneer for drag in the mainstream, way before RuPaul’s Drag Race. With a spot on The Big Breakfast and a hosting role on Blankety Blank, O’Grady may have cleaned up his language but he didn’t tone down his act.

This meant that when he retired Lily Savage and began presenting TV shows as himself, it had a huge impact. It showed the mainstream public that gay people could be just like them. And it showed gay people that it was possible to be embraced by society without having to sanitise certain of the less “respectable” elements of our culture. O’Grady may have been embraced as a national treasure, but the British public knew exactly who they were embracing.

Lily Savage with Darren Bennett in Widow Twankey And Abanazar, December 2012.
Lily Savage with Darren Bennett in Widow Twankey and Abanazar, December 2012. Photograph: Graham Whitby Boot/Allstar

When I was editor of Attitude magazine in 2017, I interviewed O’Grady at his home in London, where I found him warm, witty and gloriously unguarded. Under a portrait of Lily Savage, he told me about the sense of terror he felt the first time he visited a gay bar, worried about what he was unleashing in himself. Once he’d conquered his fears, he started picking up sailors in bars around the Liverpool docks, doing the walk of shame down the ship’s gangplank the next morning.

I was rapt as he told me stories of travelling the country in the early days of Lily Savage, visiting bars like Rocky’s in Manchester and Sheffield, Flamingo in Blackpool and Fire Island in Scotland, the majority of which are now gone.

In those days, O’Grady was accompanied by his long-term partner, Murphy. This was a time when loving for gay men was a political act; in the media and, in general conversation, we were routinely reduced to what we did in the bedroom – which allowed people to disrespect us. But loving ourselves was an even more powerful political act, and O’Grady was very open about how he had to get over his discomfort and even self-disgust in order to express his affection for another man.

But the stories that made the most impact on me were from the 1980s and 90s, when he’d visit Aids wards, performing as Lily and sneaking in alcohol and cigarettes for patients. By sharing some of the patients’ stories, he humanised them long before It’s a Sin burst on to our TV screens.

He also, chillingly, evoked the terror that ripped through the gay community – and the revulsion with which we were viewed by many. O’Grady was present at several police raids on gay bars, most famously at London’s Royal Vauxhall Tavern in 1987, when the police wore rubber gloves to avoid touching gay men.

I believe that stories like these constitute a vitally important historical record. And that’s, for me, where O’Grady’s greatest contribution lies. His greatest talent was as a storyteller, a communicator. And he provided a crucial link for the gay community to our history.

We are pretty much the only minority community who don’t automatically have parents from the same minority. Because of criminalisation, prejudice and the Aids crisis, there are very few people we can hold up as gay elders. O’Grady was one of them – and one of the best. And seeing him so warmly welcomed by the mainstream public only added to his power.

That link to queer history has now gone. But Paul O’Grady left British society a much better, more accepting place. And for that we should all celebrate him.

  • Matt Cain is the author of the novel Becoming Ted and upcoming musical Drag Addict. He was formerly editor-in-chief of Attitude

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