This past week, we lost an extraordinary kind, generous and funny man to cancer, who played important behind-the-scenes roles in international LGBT organising and activism, in a quiet, understated life of contributing to human rights. I’d not been so conscious of the fact but with his passing, I realise I’ve had few professional mentors in my life. He was a great mentor to me, and a friend.
David, who told me the news, asked how my writing is going. I told him that I answered the same question the night before at a party, where I explained that while I still get published occasionally, I’m not actively writing. Years ago, I had stories, words and a viewpoint that I wanted to get out to the world. But after being published, my drive to write fell away. Being in a happy long-term relationship and happily settled in life has also not been particularly good for my writing or music, which often came out of sadness or dissatisfaction. The tragic artist, that was me. David laughed, and said that I should live back in Brussels, where we met. It would be good for my writing – the joke being how unhappy I was when I lived there from 1994–96.
There is humour in explaining that I’m not writing and then sitting down, driven to write, for the news of Peter Ashman’s death, rather suddenly, to pancreatic cancer drives me to want to put these words out to the world.
When I moved to Brussels in 1994 to work for the International Lesbian Gay Association (ILGA), Peter, along with David and Micha, and later Chille and Tom, were the small group of people who provided me with the support to keep the office running; they kept both me and the organisation alive. Peter had been deeply involved with ILGA (I believe he was one of the founders) and he still played a quiet role in keeping it financially solvent, facilitating project funding and more. He and David had interviewed me for the job of coordinator in New York City at the ILGA conference in the summer of 1994. I remember he made a comment about Brussels which I didn’t understand at the time, but later saw that he was acknowledging it could be a difficult place to live in and like.
The mentoring that I received from Peter (and David and Micha) was not only about the history and ins and outs of ILGA, but about how to handle or avoid prickly gay and lesbian activists, how to work across cultures, how to live in Brussels and, well, how to live in general. It was my first job, my first time living overseas. I slowly learned to dress better, the components of having people over for a nice meal, how to be a good dinner guest, how to run the office by myself, work with project funding, manage a board and work with volunteers. I was twenty-five, and had no idea how young I really was.
Peter wasn’t really a father figure, more like a friendly uncle. From the viewpoint of a young Canadian, Peter was a wonderful English stereotype in combining reserve with dry wit. I had no particular concept at the time of what designated upper and lower British classes but thought that his warm voice and accent indicated good education and an established family, worldly and travelled. His eyes seemed to sparkle when he laughed, which was often, indicating pleasure or amusement with company, or a situation, or it seemed to me, life itself as he seemed happy with his work, the world and his place in it. He was private, unshowy and seemed to have no ego-driven need to be the centre of attention, preferring to work behind the scenes. I don’t think he would have necessarily been displeased to be the subject of a tribute such as this; but would have had the same sentiment as how I heard he’d downplayed the severity of his illness: he didn’t want a fuss made over him.
Peter was a wonderful role model as someone working for advancing human rights, not a grassroots protester but working through organisations, networking and a lot of intelligence. He was smart and strategic without seeming calculating or cunning and would delight in explaining, for example, the contrasting style of British activists in ILGA changing decisions to match a circumstance with the Nordic priorities of a deliberate and slow consensus-building.
He talked to me seriously, after only a few months at work. I had few friends and little life, so had thrown myself into work. ‘You’re no good to the movement if you burn out. You need to have a long career and not work so hard, and all the time.’ I took his words to heart, and from that age, work hard when necessary, but never overwork and value my leisure time.
He had a calm, measured and undramatic approach to work, an example that I didn’t necessarily follow in years after, but a good model to have. I’m not sure that I ever recall seeing him rattled or upset. He could certainly show sadness and concern at a situation, but always had a quiet confidence in making things work.
He also extended friendship to a young Canadian while in Brussels. I think I might have amused him with my naivety. He shared extremely fine wine with me at the occasional dinner party, and I introduced him to my parents over dinner when they visited me in Belgium (We dined at In T’Spinnekopke. My Dad is taking the photo as he’s not in it).
When I was ready to leave Brussels, after just over two years, I decided to move to London. In the generous offer that he made to me, I always felt there was not only his natural concern and generosity but a recognition of the challenge I’d had living in Brussels in a difficult job. ‘I’ve a house in London, and it would be wonderful if you could live there. I’d stay occasionally, and sometimes my friends would stay in the extra room, but I like having someone I know live there.’ He helped me transport my life in Brussels in the back of a station wagon to his home in Rector Street, a cute two-floor house in Islington. For two years, I had the cheapest rent of anyone I knew with the most space. At the end of my time in London, the money that I’d saved from this generous favour gave me the leeway to head to Australia and look for work with a financial cushion.
This theme of generosity and care is probably what I’ll remember most of Peter. It was on what he’d built his career and volunteer work, in the broad sense in his professional and volunteer work with gay and lesbian rights, with human rights, working beyond national boundaries at both an international and European level. But of course, what I noticed was at the personal level. Years after I left Brussels, when we’d catch up, he’d tell me about winding up his work with the European Human Rights Foundation. I remember his clear concern and priority was that each staff member would be OK, whether in a new job or on the right pathway. He would tell me about each of them, as if he’d been put in charge of their care. I remember that he was often taking care of people, though with advice, guidance and a gentle push rather than a handout. We were made a family of sorts, those graced by his caring.
I last saw Peter about five years ago on a visit through London in 2009. He was glad to see me happy and settled and basically grown up. I was happy to see him in his Rector Street home, which had been nicely renovated, to hear about him in a happy relationship with Poramate and that he was happily living in London doing consulting work. I’m happy we took the photo above on that visit. After that, I think we exchanged only a few emails; life these years has less news and less to report.
Peter really was an important influence in my life and I think of him with warmth and much gratitude. His passing allows me to reflect on a pivotal time in my life and the guidance and kindness that he showed during it. My condolences to Poramate and Peter’s family, and all of his friends in our shared sadness. Farewell, Peter, and thank you.