For Marcia Bassey Jones, the 1980s was both an exciting and morbid time.
Born in Cardiff in 1966, Marcia, who’s real name is Mark Venn, grew up in a loving environment where his sexuality and identity was cherished, accepted and supported. A rare experience at that time.
“I was adopted into a single parent family. My mum was always so artistic, she sowed and I did everything with her. She was a huge influence on me,” Marcia recalled.
“She was quite elderly, but had a forward-thinking way of life. She was never put off by the fact I was gay, she knew I was very different growing up as a child and never deterred me from playing with dolls and dressing up. I had a really easy, comfortable childhood.”
Mark’s love of theatre and dressing up was a catalyst in the creation of his drag persona, Marcia Bassey Jones. Becoming a resident in 1988 at the Tunnel nightclub and a staple figure in Cardiff’s LGBT+ community, it was an exciting time for Marcia and party goers.
“It was a very exciting time. At the clubs in Cardiff you still had to do a knock on the door and a little hatch would slide and if they knew you, you could come in,” he said.
“You’d have to phone up in the daytime to get a password for the night time.
“It was all very exciting, but all of a sudden the AIDS epidemic came along and all over the papers was ‘gay plague’. The gay scene went from a happy place to quite a frightening place, to be perfectly honest.”
The AIDS epidemic struck fear into UK society in the ’80s. Recalling a drastic change in people’s behaviour during the crisis, Marcia described how people used to “disappear”.
“People’s behaviour changed drastically that year. From being promiscuous it went to nobody sleeping with anyone and we lost a lot of people,” he explained.
Citing the recent Russell T Davies drama, It’s A Sin, Marcia explained how the adaptation of that time was similar to people’s lived experiences.
“In It’s A Sin it’s true, people would move to Cardiff from the Valleys then all of a sudden they would disappear. You were losing people on a weekly basis. It’s sad. There aren’t an awful lot of us still left, I suppose I’m one of the lucky ones.
“I was working at the Tunnel and there would be regulars who would come in on their own and all of a sudden they would disappear. People were dropping like flies.”
Being the resident drag host in Cardiff, many members of the community took solace in Marcia and other performers as a way of attaining new information about the progress of AIDS. An escape for people in an exceptionally dark time for the LGBT+ community, Marcia frequently headed AIDS benefits in an effort to raise money for charities.
“We used to do four or five AIDS benefits every year, and they were always hugely attended. We’d get people down like Lily Savage, David Dale the big names at the time to perform,” Marcia added.
“It was an escape for people. There was always an underlying message, we did what we could to raise money and we always had buckets going around.
“Messages normally always came from the drag queens, because they were the ones with the microphones. People would listen to (us). If you had some new information you would say it and people would listen, rather than reading a pamphlet.
“We’re always seen at matriarchs anyway. I’ve had lots of people who’ve come to me who’ve lost loved ones and partners to take solace. I’d always make the time to try and give as much time as I could to people.”
A vocal advocate, Marcia and other members of the LGBT+ community frequently organised and marched in protests across Cardiff. Donning full Madonna drag and taking to the streets, Marcia was determined to fight for LGBT+ rights, regardless of the risks.
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“I was in full drag, dressed as Madonna, I remember walking down Queen Street coming around at the top of the street and people were spitting on us,” he explained.
“I got spat on from the top deck of a bus by an old aged couple. We couldn’t believe the hostility, but we were fighting for gay rights. It was a bad time, but it was the press who did that. People believed what they saw in the papers.”
Notably, young queer people began making their way from the Valleys to take refuge in Cardiff’s LGBT+ scene. Obtaining a bedsit or shared accommodation, Marcia reflected on the numerous times new people were taken under the wings of the community regardless of who they were.
“Particularly that happened a lot at the Kings Cross, you would get people that were straight off the bus from the Valleys and it would be their first time in a gay bar.
“You went over and you asked if they were OK, because all of us had been in those situations in the past. We took hundreds of people under our wing,” he said.
“There are some people who are so successful in their working and personal lives now, I sometimes think ‘If we hadn’t have offered them to come and sit with us, their life would’ve turned out a completely different way’.”
Over the years, back alley Pride celebrations started to turn into commercial events attracting thousands of people to come and watch drag performers and celebrate being LGBT+. Falling ill, moving to Spain and stopping drag for a few years, Marcia came back to the beginning of a step forward for equality.
“The Pride that I did do when I returned from Spain, I was quite amazed,” Marcia added.
“To go from mini Pride’s to something so massive, it was a good thing. I’d never seen families sat there, children sat there. I thought ‘My God, this is a real step forward’.”
Still an active performer and figure head on Cardiff’s LGBT+ scene, Marcia credits the closeness of the community and a family of fellow drag queens for the continuous love and passion for the art form.
As the world faces another pandemic, Covid-19, Marcia urged the community to “dig” their heels in.
“We need to do what we have to do. Be as strong as you can,” he added.
“These are the hardest times we’ve had to deal with. Dig your heels in, do what you have to do to keep safe and eventually things will be back to normal and we will have a social life again.
“We never thought we would get out of the AIDS epidemic, and we did, and look how far we’ve come with that.”
-- to www.walesonline.co.uk