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We had death threats and bricks thrown at us..now it's all so different; MICHAEL CASHMAN ON HIS HISTORIC EASTENDERS GAY KISS.

Byline: MICHAEL CASHMAN

SO Coronation Street finally catches up with the real world on Sunday night when Todd Grimshaw kisses Nick Tilsley.

It's taken 15 years since my own gay kiss in EastEnders - the first shown on television - but I welcome it as another milestone.

And I am also pleased that the scene is unlikely to cause the hysteria that greeted my storyline - the ultimate proof that we have become a much more tolerant society.

I wouldn't wish anyone to experience some of the public, political and media reaction that greeted my arrival in EastEnders in 1986 as a character called Colin, who was to be gay and lived with a younger man called Barry.

I was an openly gay man myself.

I was "out" at work, to my family and to the neighbours - I loved the idea of the role. But when it was offered to me I said that I needed to talk to my partner Paul Cottingham, and to my mum and dad first.

I accepted the part of Colin the next day but I was totally unaware of the shockwaves it would cause.

There would be questions in the House of Commons, outrage from the Conservative Party and from Mary Whitehouse. There was even pressure from within the BBC to remove the characters.

Some people just hated Colin for being gay. Others were outraged that he had a younger boyfriend, Barry - played by Gary Hales - or that Dot and Pauline had accepted them.

In Parliament, the complaint was that we shouldn't be portraying a gay character in a sympathetic way when Aids was rampaging through the world.

When we shared that famous kiss, The Sun ran the headline: Eastbenders! The Star screamed: Filth! Get This Off Our Screens. A senior BBC executive asked for the entire episode to be axed or edited - without even having seen it.

ONE weekend a Sunday newspaper published our home address in Bow, East London, next to a photograph of Paul and myself together. That afternoon a brick came through the window.

The second brick was more frightening. It came through the window in the night and we realised it could have been a petrol bomb. But it made us both think: "We'll carry on. The bastards won't stop us."

I received a lot of letters, some were very nasty, but most were sympathetic and I took a lot of strength from them.

In that first gay kiss between Colin and Barry - little more than a peck on the cheek - our lips barely touched and there was no hug, no touching.

One letter said: "Watching East-Enders, my six-year-old son asked: 'Why is Colin kissing Barry?' and I said to him: 'Because Colin loves Barry the way Mummy loves Daddy'." I thought that was a lovely letter.

On the second kiss there was barely any fuss. By the third kiss barely anyone noticed.

I had some death threats and the National Front put me on its hit list. I suspect they hated me for being in the Labour Party as much as for as being gay.

It was a good job they never realised I was a vegetarian...

The script was very important. The show's original producer, Julia Smith, and original writer, Tony Holland showed the most immense courage and foresight.

They had based Colin and Barry on people they knew - which was part of these characters' strength.

Viewers were interested in the characters first and the gay storyline second. By liking the characters, their homosexuality stopped being a fearful thing.

Television has completely changed over the years. There have been programmes such as Queer As Folk, gay characters on the Bill, new gay characters in EastEnders.

Being gay is becoming more ordinary. People are starting to understand that we're as mundane or as exciting as anyone else.

There are gay firefighters, gay police officers, politicians, entertainers. The government has had the courage, in the face of some opposition, to legislate to end discrimination.

I took part in a debate recently in a blue-rinse Tory heartland in Buckinghamshire.

Someone asked the panel: "What would you do if the world was about to end." I said: "I would find Paul and I would hug him for all the world was worth."

Everyone applauded.

Y ET heterosexual men don't like to think they are being looked at the way they look at women. And many think that all homosexual men are about to pounce on them in the street.

That's why Horace in Coronation Street will be hiding in the corner of the bar, thinking he'll be next.

Coronation Street has always been full of gay icons, from Pat Phoenix to Ena Sharples.

What gay men did before homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967 was to use camp humour to hide their sexuality and show the heterosexual world that they weren't a threat.

Homosexuality has taken a little longer to get to Salford but it has got there in the end because soaps reflect life.

Some people say to me that working class people will never get their heads round homosexuality but I'm the son of an East End docker and a cleaner.

As an MEP with a constituency in the West Midlands since the 1999 election, I like to think I'm still changing attitudes from Birmingham to Bulgaria.

There's still a way to go. I don't like to see anyone - gay or straight - snogging someone's face off in the street.

But in 20 years I have never been able to kiss Paul goodbye in public for fear that someone might attack us.

If I'm going off to get on a plane I don't kiss him - I can't show him that affection because of what might happen. And that makes me sad, because that might be the last time we meet.

But we've come a long way in the 15 years since Colin kissed Barry - and Coronation Street's gay kiss is proof of that.

CAPTION(S):

CORRIE: Todd (Bruno Langley) and Nick (Adam Rickett) in The Street's first gay kiss; ALBERT SQUARE: Gays Colin and Barry in 1988
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Sep 25, 2003
Words:1013
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