The Speakeasier with Lisa Power: Not capturing LGBT+ history? Surely it's a sin

It’s the middle of LGBT+ History Month and we’re lucky enough to be joined by Lisa Power MBE. Lisa is an LGBT+ history consultant, sexual health & LGBT+ rights campaigner whose portfolio of achievements is nothing short of remarkable. Not only did Lisa co-found the Pink Paper and Stonewall, she was also one of the first volunteers for Lesbian & Gay Switchboard, as well as the first openly LGBT+ person to speak at the United Nations and - more recently - a consultant in the creation of Channel 4’s most successful drama series ever, It’s a Sin. All this makes Lisa more than qualified to help us delve into the subject of LGBT+ history.

Looking from the past to the present with a sense of forthrightness which we welcome, Lisa explains how the success of It’s a Sin is grounded in lived experience and authentic stories from the 1980s. She also talks openly about navigating the complex identity politics of the time, using a feeling of tokenism as a lesbian to ensure her voice was heard.

We also discuss the responsibility that organisations and individuals within them have when it comes to LGBT+ inclusion. Plus, what needs to change in order for queer history to take a more permanent position in modern culture.

Hearing all of this (and so much more), it becomes very clear why Lisa is so passionate about preserving such a valuable part of British history. Referring to her vast experience with unapologetic candour, Lisa’s is most definitely a voice worth hearing.

The Speakeasier is available on all podcast platforms.

A full transcript of this episode is available at the end of the page.

Click here to view other episodes of The Speakeasier


Lisa has recommended the following resources for those looking to expand their understanding of LGBT+ history linked to Black, Asian and other ethnic minority identities in the UK:

  • The Equiano Centre - an exploration into Black LGBT+ histories in Britain

  • Black Out UK - a not-for-profit social enterprise run and owned by a volunteer collective of Black gay men.

  • 100 Great Black Britons - a list of prominent queer Black & minority ethnic activists, artists and campaigners.

Keep up with Lisa’s views by following her Twitter @alisapower


Voiceover: [00:00:05] The Speakeasier podcast by The Unmistakables.

Asad: [00:00:10] Here we are, another week, another podcast, and you can't help but avoid the fact that February is LGBT History Month and there's one show that everyone is talking about: It's a Sin. So spoiler alert, I've only watched that episode three. Ben has binged it. What do you think of it?

Ben: [00:00:27] I watched it with my parents and my mum was a cancer nurse. She was you know, all of her patients were terminally ill for like 20 years of my life. So sitting next to her and hearing in the context of her having nursed HIV, well AIDS patients actually, it was really moving for me. It was very moving because I thought I didn't know how close it was to my life. I didn't know that that's what was happening at the time because it was you know, a lot of it was so unspoken, as you see in this series as well. You know, people essentially locked away through fear and through ignorance about what was actually happening, transmissibility. You know, it's very evocative of what's happening now, in a sense, isn't it?

Asad: [00:01:07] It really is. And the PR around this show has been sublime. I mean, we've written about it on our blog and centred that conversation around Russell T. Davies' comments about should gay actors play gay roles. But there was one interview that really stuck out as I listened in the trail up to the show, and that was with Lisa Power on Radio Four, and Lisa Power is a history consultant on the show. And I was lucky enough to meet Lisa a couple of years ago through the work I did with Pride in London. And so when she agreed to come on to the Speakeasier, not just to talk about It's a Sin and getting authenticity and representation right. and what she did as part of the preproduction of the show and the research, talking about LGBT History Month with an LGBT historian feels like a very lovely place for us to have a conversation today. And I'm really excited not just because it's Sunday and we've got a bit more time to do it, but because I think Lisa is going to be a real expert on this.

Ben: [00:02:07] I don't even know if you know how big a history geek I am. The most recent podcasts have all been about history and I'm just, I'm in my element. This is brilliant. I can't wait. Let's talk to her.

Voiceover: [00:02:22] The Speakeasier podcast by The Unmistakables.

Asad: [00:02:29] Welcome to the Speakeasier, Lisa. Where are you? Tell the listeners. 

Lisa: [00:02:33] I'm in Cardiff Bay and it's lovely and sunny here.

Asad: [00:02:36] And where are you, Ben?

Ben: [00:02:37] I'm in the northwest. I'm in Merseyside at my parents house where we're in a lockdown bubble together, which is nice.

Asad: [00:02:45] And I'm down in London and it's snowing, snowing and not settling, so I'm jealous of your sunshine, Lisa. So we always start these with a word association game just to get the brain loosened up. So I'm going to say a word or a term and tell us the first thing that comes to mind. Lockdown.

Lisa: [00:03:04] It's just a feeling is not even a word. 

Asad: [00:03:06] HIV 

Lisa: [00:03:06] Aids

Asad: [00:03:11] It's a Sin.

Lisa: [00:03:13] Joy.

Asad: [00:03:15] LGBT History Month.

Lisa: [00:03:17] Oh, Alphabet Maffia.

Asad: [00:03:20] Ok, we'll come back to that one and... tokenism.

Lisa: [00:03:25] Everywhere 

Asad: [00:03:26] Everywhere, OK. I think we have to go straight to Alphabet Maffia.

Lisa: [00:03:31] Alphabet Mafia, a phrase with which I've only recently become familiar, but which has been out there in abundance this month.

Asad: [00:03:38] Ok, tell us more.

Lisa: [00:03:40] Well, it's this thing of, you know, how many more initials and all of the initials are important. I'm not denigrating the importance of every single one of those categories, but frankly, we're at the stage where we could start making words on Countdown.

Lisa: [00:03:56] And and I'm sorry, I know this upsets some people of my generation, but I'm just reverting to queer because it keeps all of us who are this way not completely straight or heterosexual.

Asad: [00:04:09] But why does that upset people of your generation?

Lisa: [00:04:12] Because queer was an insult. And I think we've all had insults which settle in our hearts or our brains. And it makes it quite difficult when a younger generation decides that actually it's quite a nifty little word. But actually, as someone who's always quite liked being the awkward squad and quite not minded being called perverse or things like that, it's much easier for me to go back and adopt 'queer' than I think for some people of my generation who are outraged at its re-adoption. But honestly, how many more letters are we going to shoehorn in before it becomes completely unpronounceable? I mean, I really feel for people like television and radio announcers trying to grapple with it, you know, and it's hilarious watching politicians trying to get all the letters in the right order.

Asad: [00:04:59] Yeah, it is. And I guess just to put some context for the listeners. So It's a Sin has been an amazing success by all measures, it seems. And I heard that you were a history consultant and I heard that because you were Radio Four one morning talking about being a history consultant. What is a history consultant on a television show?

Lisa: [00:05:22] Well, basically, it's someone who gossiped a lot with Russell and then got sent on to the script editor who asked me questions that even I couldn't answer quite often. Before I became a pain in the bum of the establishment in various ways, I was actually trained as a medieval historian, and that's translated into being a modern, queer history person. I'm on the board of Queer Britain. I wrote a history of the Gay Liberation Front, and I was one of dozens and dozens of people who Russell T. Davies talked to about the 80s when he was putting the series together alongside his own memories. But I was the one who was a historian. And so I was the one who got hired to run around trying to find the exact date that something was announced or the documentary evidence for something having been said or done or in one glorious case, trying to find somebody who'd retired into obscurity to get permission to use a headline from their magazine or newspaper that they had published back in the very early 1980s.

Ben: [00:06:29] So you're the authenticity in the story, really.

Lisa: [00:06:33] Yes. I have to say there's a lot of authenticity that was brought into it anyway. I mean, I was astounded when I saw it visually. They have recreated gay switchboard as we were at that point because I was on switchboard throughout the 80s, throughout this happening. That's really where a lot of my knowledge comes from. You know, that was perfect. I was at those parties. I lived in a short life house in Islington that was basically a licensed squat. And that's exactly the kind of fairly outrageous parties that we used to have. You know, I knew those people. I knew those places. And there are lots of, there are lots of little nods throughout the script and throughout the set dressing to people from that era who died. For example, in one episode, there's a visual in the background of somebody's room in the Pink Palace is a poster for the National Theatre production of Guys and Dolls. Well that included Ian Charleson, a very well known actor who died with AIDS. That's where the Iin Charleston ward up at the Royal Free is named after him.

Asad: [00:07:40] And how did those nods come about? Because it might be easy to conclude that the authenticity was what has made it such a success, because I think people have really resonated, above and beyond the fact that there hasn't been very much new television on during lockdown. But what do you think that's been really key to the success of the program?

Lisa: [00:07:59] I think it's helped, but it's that physical resonance, which is brilliant, goes alongside an emotional resonance. And that's pure Russell T. Davies. I mean, he really gets under your skin. When Queer as Folk came out, one of my best friends, a gay man, rang me in a panic and said, "oh, my God, my mother knows my entire life now". And last week, another friend of mine who was on switchboard with me through the 80s said on a post on social media, you know, I feel like Russell T. Davies was reading my diaries. He has captured the feelings. But what he's also done is he's inspired everybody who worked on that production to actually step up to the same plate on the accuracy of it. I mean, some of the questions I was asked were like mind glowingly detailed, and that's brilliant. I mean, you know, I just try very hard not to let them down. But loads of us, loads of us talked to Russell. I was far, far, far from the only person who told him about our stories of the 80s. And he you know, he's had five years to develop this thing as well as what was going on percolating in his own head before that.

Ben: [00:09:11] It's a stunning piece of television. I mean, I couldn't help but watch it all immediately. And I watched it with my parents as well. And I was really struck by the fact of how open the conversation was between us all. You know, like it just felt different in 2021. It felt very different to be able to talk like that. And I've heard that HIV testing has been up as a result. Have you heard that too? Is that true?

Lisa: [00:09:36] By sheer coincidence that I actually got a call from somebody at Terrence Higgins Trust who went, "I can't believe it! The testing episode of It's a Sin is the same week as National Testing Week in England!" And he was sort of bouncing off the walls like, "Yay look!" And it's just a happy coincidence. They actually ran out of test kits, Public Health England this week. And, you know, they've had to order ten thousand more in Wales. It's not national testing week, but it's still gone up. It's still going up by a measurable amount. And the number of orders from, we're lucky we actually, because of lockdown, all of the things I love about Wales is because it's small, we can pivot. When we want to, we can really pivot. And quite early on in lockdown, we pivoted to an entirely national postal HIV testing scheme, HIV and STIs. So we didn't stop testing at any point. But that scheme, you know, we can measure now how testing is going in a very sensitive way in Wales, which we really couldn't before. We were reliant on lots of little data streams. And we know that here it's gone up, even though it's not testing week.

Asad: [00:10:48] And do you think that you're making history at the same time? Because obviously  alphabet soup history month, if that's what we're calling it now. And as a historian, you must have seen so much change over time. And do you see that right now through this show that you're making history again because it's touching a new generation and pulling people back to the roots of the movement?

Lisa: [00:11:13] Well, in terms of the alphabet, I should say another nice thing about living in Wales is we're very pragmatic, so we stopped at LGBT+, we just make sure we stick the plus on everything. Which covers a multitude of sins. I'm kind of used to being a historical artefact. I often say, you know, I'm just a historical artefact. It is distinctly peculiar when you are seen as part of history and It's a Sin was actually filed under 'period drama' at Channel Four when they filled in the forms, they had to fill in all the forms for period drama. That's pretty weird when, you know, a lot of us are still alive. And that's why, I mean, my Twitter handle is 'not dead yet' as my biography.

Asad: [00:11:57] That's very interesting. Like being categorised as 'drama'. Do you think, I mean, where else could it have been categorised?

Lisa: [00:12:05] Well, it's drama, but period drama. You know, historical drama is a very specific, you know, bodice ripping, Bridgerton, Pride and Prejudice sort of genre usually. Wolf Hall if you're lucky.

Asad: [00:12:17] And with that. So from what I've read and understand in our conversations in the past, you helped to set up Stonewall in the UK.

Lisa: [00:12:28] That was back in the late 80s as a response to Section 28. And we lost that hands down. People talk about the resistance to Section 28 as if we did amazing things. But actually we lost hands down because we didn't know how to deal with politicians and we didn't know how to lobby. So we set Stonewall up as a reaction to that. And originally as just a lobbying group, we had no idea how far it would go.

Asad: [00:12:56] And tell us about, what was that like? What were those conversations like back then?

Lisa: [00:13:01] Well, there were two really weird aspects to it. One weird aspect was that for someone like me who'd been a proper activist, you know, double denim and lots of badges and a few banners to wave, I had never dealt with gay police officers, gay Tories very much. I'd certainly never had them in the house. So equally, someone like Ian McKellen was not closely familiar with fairly radical lesbian feminists, you know, he knew plenty of lesbians in the theatre, but that was a slightly different matter usually. So we were all stretched in finding new people and being a much wider and more diverse coalition than people were used to. You know, if you'd come from the Black Lesbian Group, as Olivet did, or you had come from being Mrs Thatcher's assistant, as Matthew Parris did, you know, this was an interesting range of people. And so that was really interesting trying to remember that what we had in common was what we were there for. And the other thing was that actually the greatest opposition to us came from within the existing gay movement. Lesbian and gay movement, as we would have said then.

Asad: [00:14:18] What was that?

Lisa: [00:14:19] Well, I think there was a lot of anger that we were small and exclusive, and we were small and exclusive because some of us had just been through the throes of OLGA, the Organisation for Lesbian and Gay Action, and a bunch of other organisations where the straight left had suddenly discovered lesbian and gay politics. And they tried to take over things. And we'd also been through a bunch of organisations that called themselves Democratic, but actually weren't in the least Democratic because it was a small number of people and it was he who shouted loudest got their way. So, and that's, you can't conduct lobbying on an open mass membership basis. It doesn't really work. You have to have, you know the whole point of lobbying is that it has to be discreet. It has to be unattributable sometimes. And that was anathema, complete anathema. I also think, frankly, there were quite a number of people who were really, really pissed off that they had not been invited to join. Let's be honest. And we still, I still hear that sometimes occasionally from friends. It's kind of like, why wasn't I in on it? But they say that now because it's been a massive success. I mean, we were seen as jumped up. We were seen as self-appointed. We were self-appointed. Yes, we were. But so was everybody else in the movement. It's just they pretended they weren't.

Asad: [00:15:37] What you're saying makes me think about what's going on now in twenty twenty one, which is people being defined by certain characteristics or being asked to the table because of certain characteristics. And it sounds like it was also a similar thought back then, like people were there because of their sexuality. But that was sort of the greater good that was being worked towards rather than the individual letter or individual characteristic.

Lisa: [00:16:00] Well, the movement of the eighties was very much about identity politics. It didn't get intersectionality. So, for example, when I was a secretary general of ILGA, I would be shouted at if I didn't attend the women's caucus because I was a woman. But the women's caucus was always up against the action workshop and I would be shouted out as the secretary general if I didn't attend the action workshop. So, you know, we didn't allow for any nuance or very much nuance in those days. But at the same time, identity was supposed to trump everything. And what that did was it scattered us off into our little corner