The Racecourse Pavilion, Northampton recently hosted the launch event for a beautiful and impactful exhibition of photographs, featuring portraiture with a political and social story to tell. Liz Carroll-Wheat attended the launch and met with photographer Matthew Toresen, to discuss message.
Liz: Matthew, the backdrop for the photographs is the community activism of the 1980s, in particular Section 28, then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s controversial law, banning the “promotion” of homosexuality by local authorities and in Britain’s schools. Set this in context for us, about you in that time.
Matthew: I came out as a gay man in 1983 at the age of 20, when the age of consent for gay men was 21 and just as AIDS – the ‘gay plague’ – arrived from the States. The new world I was entering was one where I was an outlaw, I was told my desires could easily kill me, but luckily for me, I found access to community activism, which was key to leading myself and others through that time.
Section 28 meant that our community could be explicitly discriminated against, many local authorities interpreted this as no longer providing services for lesbians and gays in case these services were seen as ‘promoting’, and schools stopped talking about the issue, meaning young lesbian and gay people were even more isolated and marginalised.
Liz: The 80s was a period featuring strong social movements, from the support and protests around the Miners Strike throughout 1984/5, to the poll tax protests, which signalled the end of Margaret Thatcher’s leadership. Set the Section 28 protests within that time for me, how important was social activism of that time?
Matt: Absolutely the 80s were a time of real social reaction, whereas the government may have expected a passive response to Section 28, in fact, it mobilised a public response from groups who were angered at the way in which they were being described and treated.
It wasn’t just the gay & lesbian community, it was the same anger and struggle for other groups, for other reasons, for the working class in terms of the miners and their fight for their jobs and then later on, the poll tax era.
In the end with Section 28, it backfired as it further mobilised a community already under siege due to HIV and AIDS, and on the 20th February 1988 tens of thousands took to the streets of Manchester in protest, ending in a huge rally outside Manchester Town Hall. So many protest movements of that time brought mass social action on to the streets.
Liz: So your portraits are set in this time of protest, but the exhibition is for the most part, a selection of calm, personal images of individuals. What interests me is why you have chosen to use these to capture what was an angry and eventful period?
Matthew: I wanted to document the people I met, some famous back then, and still famous now, but more importantly the queers, dykes, bisexuals, bi-curious, drag queens, trans and straight allies who were brave enough to challenge the status quo and who lived the lives they wanted to live with dignity and pride.
From my personal friends, my straight friend Graham’s portrait, which actually ended up on the front of Gay News when they published my first portfolio in 1985, and of Scott, then my partner and now my husband, being arrested at a rally. People taking a stand, making a difference.
Those images sit beside a truly withering glare from an in-character Lily Savage, and a portrait of Ian McKellen…who I twice arranged to meet, travelling down to London each time. To apologise for not turning up to our first meeting (leaving me on the doorstep), he treated me to a lunch of chicken nuggets, Marks & Spencers as I recall….
Exhibition runs until 31 October