The following article was written by David Allison, a member of OutRage!, and was published in the last issue of Outcast magazine. We are very keen to hear feedback about the article – please e-mail us or call David on 020 8240 0222.
On behalf of OutRage!, David Allison tracks the group’s history, confronts some of
its critics and looks forward to new developments.
There must have been more pleasant ways to spend an early summer afternoon, but at the time, twelve years ago, Cowcross Street was where it was all happening. In a shabby, run-down road on the fringe of the City of London, a group of people who were considered (by themselves at least) to be leaders of the queer community were gathering in the old Lesbian & Gay Centre. There they pondered how to set up a direct action group that didn’t suffer from the same shortcomings of the other groups that were imploding at the time because of the venality, incompetence and egos of those who ran them.
The Lesbian & Gay Centre folded a few years later, but the offspring spawned on that sunny May afternoon lives on as the world’s longest-surviving gay direct action group.
Not everyone loves OutRage! – not even some of us who have been involved for many years. Like most groups, we have had the mad, the bad and the sad. We’ve had those who were out to push their own agendas; those who sought to further their own careers. But, in between, there have undoubtedly been many, many others who got involved simply because they cared and wanted to contribute. Those people will always be the soul of the group. We had a business man from the USA whose ability to think laterally was nothing short of genius; a lawyer from Catalunya who put the fear of god into god with an energy born out of total commitment. In between there have been all sorts. We’ve even had some people who were not male, not white and not middle class – not many, but some.
Meetings in the basement of the Lesbian & Gay Centre used to attract an average of eighty people, week after week. Sub-groups were formed to specialise on specific targets. The ‘Whores of Babylon’, for example, took on religious homophobia. Colourful and imaginative actions followed each other in quick succession and media saturation meant that we gradually ceased to be ‘OutRage, the gay pressure group’ and became just ‘OutRage!’.
The media is important. There is no point in staging an action unless it gets coverage and, consequently, encourages public debate on the subject that you are trying to raise awareness of. London witnesses a demo of one sort or another almost every day. Most are ignored. Marches are boring, unless you can bring hundreds of thousands onto the street – like, for example, when the squirearchy and the peasantry came to town last summer.
Using the media successfully was – and is – an integral part of our activism. Setting up photo opportunities with camera-friendly subjects, in attractive, relevant locations makes life easier for the people behind the cameras, and is therefore more likely to get our message into print or onto TV. Similarly, remembering the rule of ‘who, what, when, where and why’ when talking to reporters gives us the chance to give journalists what they want quickly, and still leave time aplenty to sink a couple of pints with them before they return to their office. How better to get them onside?
“The Archbishop of Canterbury had looked into the abyss and seen Beelzebub in an OutRage! T-shirt. Compared to that, the LGCM was the Choir of Angels, even if they were singing ‘Jesus wants me for a bumboy!’.”
OutRage! has been accused of seeking publicity for its own sake. We would not deny that we have had our fair share of media-queens who can hear a camera click at a hundred metres but, fortunately, most of them have been able to make a persuasive case too. Having people who are articulate, informed and confident is an obvious prerequisite to ensuring that our message gets across on air.
Neither would we deny that some individual members of the group have been less than reticent about propagating their own ideas in the media, however daft or far removed these ideas are from what OutRage! has always been about. But you get that everywhere, whether it is your local darts club, political party, or Senior Citizens’ S&M thrash. The strength of the group is that it can exercise some control over what is done in its name, whilst respecting diversity and individual’s freedom of expression. We are not a political party; we do not have whips to keep the troops in line.
Over the years, we’ve done some pretty outrageous things that have put us below the salt in the eyes of more polite and respectable individuals within the community. Many of them would prefer a softly, softly approach. We respect that. In practice, we are separate branches of the same tree – we rely on each other.
Bashing MPs and PMs, pop stars and presidents has reminded the country that gays are not a crowd of limp-wristed, handbag-swinging, mincing poofs. In many cases, our confrontational approach has persuaded homophobes to give in and talk to the ‘nice’ gays rather than endure OutRage!’s in-yer-face vulgarity. A prime example of this is the reaction of the Church of England to our intrusions into its life. For nearly twenty years the leaders of the Lesbian & Gay Christian Movement (LGCM) had tried to get the Church to talk to them, but met with total silence. Then we started questioning the sexuality of a number of bishops and invading Lambeth Palace at embarrassing moments and suddenly the LGCM was being invited round for tea and sticky buns. The Archbishop of Canterbury had looked into the abyss and seen Beelzebub in an OutRage! T-shirt. Compared to that, the LGCM was the Choir of Angels, even if they were singing ‘Jesus wants me for a bumboy!’.
Careful planning and attention to detail has contributed to the success of many of our actions, as when we invaded the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party in the heart of their headquarters in the Walworth Road. While one team distracted the security staff, another team, dressed in smart business suits, headed for the meeting room (we had obtained a plan of the building and other details from an insider). When the team walked in on the meeting, one member went straight to a bewildered David Blunkett to reassure him that we were not an IRA active service unit and that he and his guide dog were in no danger.
Whilst most of OutRage!’s activities are well covered by the media, some aspects receive no publicity. When the Lesbian and Gay Centre closed, many of the groups whose offices and meeting rooms were housed there became instantly homeless. The Receivers promptly evicted them. Only OutRage! refused to move, having taken advice from a sympathetic lawyer. On a Saturday evening, a group of us occupied the OutRage! office and refused to move. The Receiver argued but we had the advantage: although our lawyer was hosting a dinner party at his home, he broke off from time to time to answer our questions and give advice. The Receiver gave up, flabbergasted that we had 24/7 access to legal advice whereas he had to wait until the Monday to speak to his solicitors. We held out for several months until the Receivers offered us a substantial sum of money to relocate. During the hiatus, our office became the meeting place not only for OutRage! but also for the youth group Stepping Out and others. When we finally moved out of the Centre, we took Stepping Out with us and gave them a meeting place in our new, temporary office on the other side of Farringdon Road. They now meet upstairs at the Central Station pub, as do we.
Another unsung activity is providing information, support and back up to the thousands of individuals who contact us. Because of our high profile, people in small towns and villages, many of whom have no access to the gay press and have never heard of Switchboard, are able to track us down and make contact. We do our best to put them in touch with relevant gay groups, if they exist in their areas, and often maintain personal contact by letter, phone or e-mail. At the moment, in addition to this country, we are in ongoing contact with individual gays in rural France and other parts of Europe, in Indonesia and in China…. We share experiences and learn from all these people, and from other activists across the world. We have provided speakers for schools, universities, political groups, trades unions, youth groups and religious organisations – always listening as well as lecturing. OutRage! tries to be part of the community; we don’t lord over it.
We also give lots of help to students writing dissertations, essays or projects, usually via face-to-face interviews. We never say no. These young people, gay or straight, are the future so we do all that we can to ensure that they are as well informed as they possibly can be – not only about OutRage!’s philosophy, insofar as we have one, but, much more importantly, about the issues that affect our community. We are honest with them, whether it is about those who have fought homophobia using controversial tactics or those who have succumbed to the ghetto mentality; whether it is about those who have contributed to the community by giving their time, money and energy, or those who are attempting to drain every last penny from us, in exchange for over-priced and inferior goods and services. They get the whole picture, warts and all. Anything less would be to betray their trust and confidence.
OutRage! no longer has eighty bodies at its meetings. We have lost to AIDS one of our most stalwart and dependable members, Martin Corbett, who gave his all to the group. His wisdom and experience did so much to prevent some of the younger members’ wilder excesses! Other members have moved on to do other things, like sort out their neglected careers, settle down with their partners or just get a life. Fresh blood has pumped through the group’s arteries and, unfortunately, often hemorrhaged away as fast.
To survive, every group has to evolve and change. For OutRage!, there has been a recognition that meetings in dingy pubs in grim areas do not encourage people to come along, particularly those who have to make a long journey to get there. Our current meeting place, upstairs in a gay male pub, excludes many women and disabled people, as well as those outside London. One innovation that we are actively considering is to have only one ‘physical’ meeting each month and then meet weekly using a chat room on our website. In between, our lively e-mail lists will keep people informed about what is happening. We are lucky that one of our members owns a successful Internet company, 4D Media!
We still need to raise funds, and we are seeking appropriate methods. Any suggestions will be welcome, particularly if they are accompanied by a cheque (standing orders are even more likely to create a state of euphoria and delight!). Remember, as a political group, we are excluded from charity status, and we do not attract the generosity of the fageratti. Every penny we get comes from ordinary members of the community. To save money, we have given up our office and now function from the living room of one of our members. Our artifacts are stored in a shed rented from a borough council. Our website is provided and serviced by 4D Media. Our costs are therefore fairly limited so every donation does make a big difference.
Please visit our comprehensive website. It features all that we have done since we went online. Our Links page is also very extensive, but if you know of a relevant group that is missing, please let us know.
You are also very welcome to participate in our meetings, but please phone first to determine the current meeting times during this transitional period. To receive regular e-mails, please go to our website and sign up, or e-mail us and we will do it for you.
If you have any questions, please get in touch. Either by post (OutRage! PO Box 17816 London SW14 8WT), e-mail (outreach@outrage,org.uk), phone (020 8240 0222) or via our website (http://www.outrage.org.uk).