OBITUARY: Paul O’Grady: drag queen, LGBTQ+ activist and British national treasure (1955-2023)

by Ash Kotak | AIDS Memory UK
Thursday, 30 March 2023 13:30 GMT

Television presenter Paul O'Grady speaks against Russia's anti-gay stance outside Downing Street, central London February 5, 2014. REUTERS/Paul Hackett

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The sudden death of the much-loved British entertainer and television star, Paul O’Grady, marks the passing of a remarkable advocate for the LGBTQ+ community

Ash Kotak leads #AIDSMemoryUK – the campaign to establish a national tribute to memories of HIV and AIDS in Britain

Drag queen, broadcaster, actor, writer, HIV/AIDS and animal rights campaigner – and, finally, British national treasure – Paul O'Grady has died unexpectedly but peacefully in his sleep at the age of 67.

He was one of the best of British comedians, a hugely talented man. As his drag persona Lily Savage, he continued a centuries-old tradition of cross-dressing in Britain as one of the greatest drag artists the UK has ever seen.

Born to a loving working-class Irish migrant family in Tranmere, Birkenhead just across the River Mersey from Liverpool, O'Grady moved to London in the late 1970s, working as a peripatetic care officer for Camden Council.

He created and developed Lily Savage, the rough "blond bombsite, divorced prostitute with two kids" with ever-present cigarette in mouth and drink in hand, from 1978 in gay bars across England. She was witty with a coarse sense of humour and razor-sharp barbs as well as politically gobby and proudly working class. Her traits were inspired and borrowed from O’Grady’s female relatives.

She went solo in the early 1980s with crowds of LGBTQ+ people flocking to her eight-year residency at the popular South London pub, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern (RVT). It was a time of extreme homophobia in Britain and the emergence of HIV and AIDS provided the excuse for waves of prejudice from the media, religious groups, politicians, the police and the general public. Savage made us laugh through so much despair and hostility.

In January 1987 the RVT was raided by police wearing rubber gloves. Savage was onstage at the time and memorably quipped: “Well, it looks like we have help with the washing up.” Our community sanctuary had been polluted.

She demystified drag to the British masses, confidently taking it to the mainstream TV in the 1990s on shows including “The Big Breakfast”; “Lily Live!”, “Blankety Blank” and, emerging from his Lily persona, for “The Paul O'Grady Show” and later “Paul O'Grady: For the Love of Dogs”. The awards kept coming including a BAFTA for Best Entertainment Performance.

O’Grady took to national fame easily. He was a determined man with a cause, a champion to so many with so little when the community was still so under attack. He was at the forefront of the movement to transform public opinion of LGBTQ+ people and move society towards a more inclusive Britain.

O’Grady was authentic and cared deeply about the dehumanisation of all LGBTQ+ people, especially for those affected and living with HIV or AIDS and those who were grieving.

He was a true northern-no-nonsense, say-it-as-it-is socialist fighting against oppression of every kind especially highlighting the plight of the British working class. O’Grady and Savage campaigned acerbically and hilariously for elderly people, for care workers and, more recently, against the austerity measures imposed by the British Conservative government.

This policy disproportionally affected the poorest and most marginalised in Britain and furthered the ever-widening gulf between the haves and the have nots. As a drag persona, Savage had far more license to allow herself the occasional outburst on primetime BBC TV with far more liberty than most.

Both worked towards the humanisation of LGBTQ+ people and our increased visibility. O’Grady and Savage represented all of us who did not fit in and kept us all fighting for equality and to live in the world as it is, not one that lives in so many people's delusional minds.

O’Grady’s death has prompted a flood of tributes from celebrities and campaigners from singers Elton John to Cher and even the British Royal Family.

Through grief, O’Grady’s many fans have saturated social media with their own heartfelt condolences and memories, and it is these that would have meant the most to him.

Openly is an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation dedicated to impartial coverage of LGBT+ issues from around the world.

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