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Having your time in the spotlight is great, but it’s the behind-the-scenes work that really makes a difference

Life-long activist Paul Fairweather explains how a Gay Sweatshop Theatre play in 1975 showed him the power of storytelling, and how fifty years later, Dibby are helping him unlock the power in his own story.

A white man with short white hair in a grey blazer is stood in front of a black door.
Paul Fairweather. Credit: Jordan Roberts

I’ve been an LGBTQ+ activist for fifty years and I’ve witnessed huge reforms in legislation and shifts in social attitudes that have completely changed the landscape for LGBTQ+ people.

But it’s not just changes to laws, I’ve also seen the incredible rise of LGBTQ+ culture - it increasingly feels like people want to celebrate our lives and bear witness to our struggles.

In 1975, I remember seeing Gay Sweatshop - the UK’s first gay theatre company - perform their first play Mr X.

The play told the story of a gay man coming out - hardly revolutionary these days - but as a young man at the time I remember the profound impact it had on me.

Here, onstage I saw someone like me, someone who I could relate to.

Back then I wanted to be part of the exciting tidal wave of change that was happening for LGBTQ+ people, but instead of a life of creativity I fell into activism, charity work and local politics.

I worked the phone lines at Manchester AIDSline in the 1980s, lobbied the town hall for better LGBTQ+ rights and services, helped set up the HIV charity now called George House Trust, and even became a local councillor.

I was angry at the injustice and homophobia gay men faced during the AIDS epidemic and I turned that anger into passionate action.

I’m still a proud activist today, but more and more I find myself making way for the next wave of LGBTQ+ changemakers, and that’s given me more time to indulge my other passion… writing.

But as an older man, where do you turn?

Talent development opportunities are often targeted at young people, but at Dibby Theatre I found something quite different.

Through their First Dibs talent development and their community-led creative outreach programmes, I found a supportive environment that dismantled the barriers and hierarchies you often find in the arts.

I have worked with Dibby on a number of projects, most notably telling my personal story in HIV+Me – three powerful short films about people determined to end HIV stigma.

But it didn’t stop there.

Dibby’s mentorship continued as they supported me to write a monologue that was performed on stage at The Lowry at a concert hosted by The Sunday Boys – a real pinch me moment.

These days, I still work in local services (old habits die hard!) and in my in my current role as LGBTQI Development Worker in Bury I’m helping develop better-connected services for LGBTQ+ people.

This year I’ve helped cement a partnership between Dibby, Bury LGBTI Forum, and performance venue The Met to deliver a new monthly queer cabaret night.

Loud Cabaret has been a great success promoting new LGBTQ+ talent in Bury and Greater Manchester (we hope to continue the event in the autumn) and I’ve used the event to support the work of the LGBTQI Forum in Bury, providing a safe space for LGBTQ+ people to meet and network.

Being in the spotlight is great occasionally, but it’s the behind-the-scenes work that really make a difference to our community.

And unjustly, it’s this work that often goes unnoticed and unfunded.

I know from experience that running small organisations like Dibby is a huge challenge - there’s a real lack of funding and support and it’s a daily struggle to survive. 

But even so, the support I received from Dibby was crucial to my development - I learnt new creative skills, and they amplified my voice in places many writers only dream of!

And although I’ve seen things improve over the years, our community still faces challenges – most notably the horrific rise in transphobia and LGBTQ+ hate crime.

Now, more than ever, we need a vibrant LGBTQ+ arts scene that tells our stories loud and proud, offering hope, inspiration and affirmation to the next generation – just like that play I saw all those years ago did for me.

After the life I’ve led, I was never going to grow old quietly.

But opportunities like the ones provided by Dibby’s ‘Pride in Performing Arts Fund’ have allowed that indomitable creative spirit in me to flourish.


Paul Fairweather is LGBTQI Development Worker for Bury VCFA (Voluntary, Community and Faith Alliance)

This Pride Month, Dibby Theatre are aiming to raise £5000 for the ‘Pride in Performing Arts Fund.’

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