Paul O'Grady offered a glimmer of hope for queer kids like me under Section 28
As I awoke to the devastating news that Paul O’Grady – a fixture on the landscape of British television – had passed away on Wednesday morning, I felt a tremendous personal loss.
You see, Paul O’Grady once liked one of my Instagram posts.
Stay with me, because I’ll admit – as far as proximity to a celebrity goes – this alone doesn’t qualify me to eulogise.
What if I told you about the spark of excitement I felt when I saw the notification? Or if I explained that the Instagram post wasn’t exactly mine, but that of my drag alter-ego Myra DuBois?
It wasn’t a profound post, just Myra DuBois sat there in full slap advertising that week’s gigs. And Lily saw it.
My joy at this interaction was because, of course, O’Grady first caught the attention of the mainstream not as Paul, but as the indomitable Lily Savage.
I have a few snapshot childhood memories of Lily. The first is from the early 90s.
In this recollection, Lily was spread across leopard-print bedding, clad in fishnet stockings while interviewing celebrities. I watched while I shovelled Lucky Charms in my gob before school.
In the next memory, Lily was against our kitchen wall in the form of a flyer pinned to our corkboard. She was sporting a mini-skirt and cutting a shapely silhouette against a vivid yellow background advertising ‘The Lily Savage Show’ at the Bradford Alhambra Theatre. Mum had tickets.
To me, this flyer was a totem of the adult world; the smoke-filled concert room at the social club that I wasn’t allowed in, the late-night television that saw me ushered upstairs to bed.
The mystique was broken in 1997 when Lily Savage blew through our TV screens with Blankety Blank. There she was in her unavoidable glory on prime-time Saturday night television draped in sequins and chiffon. As Dr Frank-N-Furter once sang: ‘As it clung to her thigh, how I started to cry, for I wanted to be dressed just the same.’
You see, back in 1998, us queer kids had very few opportunities to see ourselves represented on screens, in schools, or anywhere. I didn’t know it then, but I was being schooled under Section 28, which banned the ‘promotion’ of LGBTQ+ people.
It wasn’t by accident that us queer kids saw little representation – that loneliness was by design. The few glimpses I got of Lily Savage were glimmers of hope in my closeted isolation.
What I also didn’t know back in 1998 was, since the late 1980s, grassroots activist groups were fighting to have Section 28 repealed so that LGBTQ+ children like myself could grow up knowing that we weren’t abnormal.
These groups had flourished in the gay pubs and clubs of the UK – like the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. The RVT, as it’s now more commonly known, is a Vauxhall landmark.
The terraced houses that once sprouted from its sides long demolished, the RVT sits proudly alone like a dowager duchess, grandly regarding the traffic whizzing past her down Kennington Lane.
For years, before television called, Lily Savage ruled supreme from its stage, delighting a packed audience of LGBTQ+ people night after night during the height of the devastating AIDS crisis.
Possibly marinated with legend, there’s a story about Lily that I love. It’s said that on a night the police raided the Vauxhall Tavern, Lily was carted down to the station, then an officer asked Lily her name.
‘Lily Savage,’ she curtly replied. Then the officer pressed her for her real name.
She added: ‘Lilian May Veronica Savage’.
Over 25 years on from Lily’s appearance on Blankety Blank and I find myself lucky enough to be working regularly at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. The venue oozes history.
When I find myself on stage looking out at the audience, I know I’m enjoying a view known to the titans of drag such as Regina Fong, Ardella, Lee Paris, Hinge and Bracket, and Lily Savage.
When Paul O’Grady liked Myra’s Instagram post, I felt a fleeting connection to the old guard that came before me. It wasn’t much, but it meant a lot.
Lily came from a generation of such ferocity, strength, and defiance. And as we face new bigotry from those who once again want to stamp out our existence with death-threats, violence and harassment – as libraries are protested and LGBTQ+ people are once again told we’re dangers to children – I remember Lily’s generation.
I remember that I must be to someone else what Lily was to me – a glimmer of hope. That’s Paul O’Grady’s legacy and that’s why this loss feels so personal.
Rest up, Lily – and thank you.
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