Openly gay, living under a death threat and standing as an MEP - ex-soap star Michael Cashman talks to MAUREEN PATON

Michael Cashman occupies a uniquely uncomfortable position in politics: he is the only European Parliamentary candidate known to be living under a death threat. Still, he continues to approach life with what he calls an "appalling optimism". "If they get you, they get you," he reasons from his high-security Docklands flat where he regularly entertains friends such as Sirs Elton John and Ian McKellen.

Cashman, 48 - a party animal as well as a political one - is recovering from the rigours of the night before with a stiff pot of tea, having gallantly squired McKellen's new friend Monica Lewinsky round the dance floor. Like McKellen, Cashman is a woman-friendly, camp-free gay man whose unattainability probably makes him all the more attractive to the opposite sex.

"Well the recognition factor has certainly been useful on the doorstep," the former EastEnders actor says with a grin, citing as an example the rather positive reaction he received when he recently visited a Stretch and Tease ladies' exercise class.

Tomorrow he will learn whether he has become an MEP. Official second- favourite among the Labour candidates who are predicted to win five out of eight seats in the West Midlands, he has no intention of hanging up his disco shoes if success at the ballot box raises his profile even further. "Although you have to be aware of your own personal security, you can't live your life immobilised. Arguably I could have had an easier life, carrying on acting and not looking over my shoulder or worrying about the pressures of office, but I want to do something of lasting value."

A Stonewall gay rights campaigner, he became its chairperson in 1988 which did not please some of his EastEnders colleagues. "One closet gay cast member said I should think of my career, and even the producer, Julia Smith said: 'Don't you think you've gone far enough?'" He ended up on a National Front hit-list after his stand against the notorious Clause 28, introduced by the Conservative government to ban the "promotion" of homosexuality. Four years ago the police informed Cashman he was also being targeted by a homophobe called George Rees, now serving 16 years for the attempted murder of a homosexual. This means that every time Cashman and his partner, 35-year-old Labour HQ fund-raiser Paul Cottingham, change their address, they have to inform the police in case Rees escapes or is released early. "Rees had been sexually abused in the army, and because I was trying to end the ban on gays serving in the military, he was out to get me. He tortured a gay man and left him for dead because of his hatred for me; the police found clippings about me among his belongings."

In the immediate aftermath of the nail bomb attack on the gay Admiral Duncan pub in Soho on 30 April, Stonewall received, he says, more hate calls than ever before. "Thugs hunt in packs like wild dogs; they get excited by fear and blood. That had to be a defining moment. It could have been me or friends of mine in that pub - Paul has been there in the past. If the BNP [British National Party] gets even one vote in the Euro elections, it's one vote too many."

Frank and forthright to the point of therapy, he is not like other prospective politicians, and his outspokenness - "Some people think that will change if I get elected, but it won't" - has led to feuding with Ken Livingstone over Cashman's refusal to support his candidacy for mayor of London. "Unbridled ambition in a politician worries me. The run-in with Ken was but a nano- second in my life, and he wants to turn it into an hour-long play."

Neither is he shy of talking about being assaulted age nine by a paedophile in the street, nor of being humiliatingly raped at 18 by a heterosexual married man who thought him "easy meat" because he is gay. And how many other political hopefuls would suddenly mention during the conversation that they've played away from home? But Cashman seems determined to "out" every aspect of himself before anyone else does.

"Paul and I are not saints," he unexpectedly offers of his relationship with the partner he met through Barbara Windsor. "We are in a committed long-term relationship that has meant we have both had the occasional fling, but at least we're honest with each other. We tell one another; that way we don't undermine the relationship. We don't give power over the relationship to anybody else. We've been together for 16 years and we're very happy."

Rumours have long persisted of an affair with McKellen, but Cashman insists they have never had a relationship. "People tried to encourage us, because they thought we would make a great couple. But Ian and I haven't so much as shared a bed and a bolster," he says in his typically blunt way. He adds defiantly: "I don't believe in being PC. I call it Personally Censored. If I'm elected they're going to get someone who's human." And he's going to have to live with the flak. "I'm absolutely aware that people will try to get a negative on me. But I've played Caesar with 32 knives in my back, and that's a wonderful rehearsal for politics."

Cue a jeering William Hague who has already tried to make political capital from Cashman's appearance in The Rocky Horror Show wearing stockings and suspenders. "Anyone who wears fishnets and suspenders in public is all right. It's when they wear them in private that you want to worry," retorts Cashman. Mo Mowlam, another mate, gently suggests that he might be too nice for the bear-pit of politics. "Yes, I am nice, but I do fight a tough corner politically."

Still he admits to bouts of being thin-skinned. "I sometimes imagine personal slights where none necessarily exist." He still bridles at the memory of a Panorama programme back in February which focused, unfairly he felt, upon his being "an openly gay actor living with an openly gay man who happens to know several prominent Cabinet ministers who might or might not be gay". He felt this to be irrelevant. "I'm not trying to win friends here but I don't see why politicians should have to be thick- skinned. They should be treated as human beings; cynicism on both sides undermines the electoral process. Integrity is what matters in politics."

Sexuality aside, he has had to get used to being a soft target for "Labour luvvie" slurs; just as no one will ever let Transport Minister Glenda Jackson forget that she once writhed naked on the floor of a railway carriage in Ken Russell's The Music Lovers, so Cashman will never quite escape his place in soap history as Colin, EastEnders's first homosexual character. It must be irritating, because it's a take that ignores three decades of hard graft as a shop steward.

"I first put my head above the political parapet 31 years ago when I got involved with trades union rights". At 17 he was shop steward for Equity and his father, John, an East End docker, was always resistant to his going in to showbusiness. "He wanted me to be a shop steward in the docks like him." In other words he grew up politically aware ... "although judging by elements of the so-called liberal press, when I was running for Labour's National Executive Committee last year [he is currently standing for re-election], I had suddenly arrived on Politics Earth from a planet called EastEnders."

At the onset of his soap fame in the Eighties, when the tabloids were after him, hysterical questions were asked in Parliament about the wisdom of featuring a homosexual character in a family show during the Aids panic. The "outing" last January of the bisexual Conservative MEP Tom Spencer once again put politicians' sexuality centre-stage.

"I'm out because I want privacy; that's the conundrum. I made my homosexuality public when I joined the cast of EastEnders in 1986. I think there are some people in politics who still haven't come out. It's so easy to start going out with a girl simply because she's a mate. You find yourself almost Vaselined into a set of circumstances where the small lie becomes the big lie.

"But honesty is absolutely the best policy. There isn't anything in the world I'm ashamed of; I even kept my clothes on in The Virgin Soldiers. If it's legal, I've done it."