On 13 October 1970, the Gay Liberation Front was founded in Britain. It was a modest beginning, with 19 people meeting in a basement in the London School of Economics. But it grew rapidly and proved to be a defining, watershed moment in British queer history. From 1970 onwards, thanks to GLF, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) mindset changed forever, from victims to victors.
I was an activist in the GLF, aged 19 with long curly hair and living in Shepherd’s Bush with my 16-year old boyfriend, Peter Smith. I was student. He was a budding jazz guitarist. The age of consent for gay relationships was, at the time, 21. Our love was criminal and we were both at risk of imprisonment. We didn’t give a damn. We despised and defied the law.
GLF was a glorious, enthusiastic and often chaotic mix of anarchists, hippies, left-wingers, feminists, liberals and counter-culturalists. Despite our differences, we shared a radical idealism – a dream of what the world could and should be – free from not just homophobia but the whole sex-shame culture, which oppressed straights as much as LGBTs. We were sexual liberationists and social revolutionaries, out to turn the world upside down.
GLF espoused a non-violent revolution in cultural values and attitudes. It questioned marriage, the nuclear family, monogamy and patriarchy – as well as the wars in Vietnam and Ireland. Although against homophobic discrimination, GLF’s main aim was never equality within the status quo. We saw society as fundamentally unjust and sought to change it, to end the oppression of LGBTs – and of everyone else.
GLF aligned itself with the movements for women’s, black, Irish, working class and colonial freedom. We marched for troops out of Ireland and against the anti-union Industrial Relations Act. Although critical of the “straight left” and often condemned by them, most of us saw ourselves as part of the broad anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist movement, striving for the emancipation of all humankind.
Our idealistic vision involved creating a new sexual democracy, without homophobia, misogyny, racism and class privilege. Erotic shame and guilt would be banished. There would be sexual freedom and human rights for everyone – gay, bi and straight. Our message was “innovate, don’t assimilate.”
GLF’s critique of straight society amounted to more than condemning violations of gay civil rights and campaigning for equal treatment. Revolutionary not reformist, our goal was an end to “male chauvinism” and the “gender system”.
We saw queer oppression as a consequence, at least in part, of the way many LGBT people deviated from the socially-prescribed gender roles of traditional masculinity and femininity. According to the orthodoxy of millennia, men were expected to act masculine and desire women. Women were supposed to be feminine and be attracted to men.
We queers subverted this conventional gender system. Gay men love other men and many of us are deemed inadequately macho. Lesbians love other women and tend to be less passive and dependent on men than most of their heterosexual sisters. Queer males don’t have to sexually subjugate women and female queers have no need for men to fulfil their erotic and emotional needs.
This is a part of the reason why we’ve been persecuted for centuries. Our nonconformity threatened the gender system which has, historically, sustained the social hegemony of male heterosexuality and misogyny.
GLF positively celebrated queer deviance. We said the right to be gay includes the right to disobey straight gender norms. We singled out macho heterosexual masculinity, with its long tradition of domination and aggression, as the main oppressor of LGBTs and women. While not condemning all straight men, we saw sexist, homophobic straight males as a major roadblock to women’s and gay liberation. This is why GLF allied with the women’s liberation movement.
The “radical drag” and ”gender-bender” politics of GLF glorified male gentleness and gender role subversion. It was a conscious, if sometimes exaggerated, attempt to renounce the oppressiveness and privilege of orthodox masculinity and to undermine the way it functioned to buttress the subordination of women and gay men.
The dissolution of straight male machismo was, we argued, the key to ending LGBT and female oppression. True human liberation could only be achieved by breaking down the rigidity of the gender system and ending its tyranny. This transformation was necessary to allow gender-variant people – both gay and straight – to live their lives freely, without stigma or shame.
In contrast to the gay law reform movement, GLF’s strategy for queer emancipation was to change society’s values and norms, rather than adapt to them. We sought a cultural revolution to overturn centuries of male heterosexual domination and thereby free both queers and women.
Forty years on, GLF’s gender agenda has been partly won. Male and female roles are, today, less prescribed and inflexible than in 1970. There’s greater fluidity and gender variance is more accepted. Butch women and fem men – whether homo or hetero – are still rarely social icons but they are also less likely to be demonised and outcast. Girlish boys and boyish girls don’t get victimised as much as in times past. LGBT kids often now come
out at the age of 12 or 14. While many are bullied, many others are not. The acceptance of sexual and gender diversity is increasing. The women and men of GLF trail-blazed a social revolution. Bravo!
Same-sex marriage is an idea whose time has come. It is the growing trend all over the world, from Canada to South Africa and Argentina.
Why can’t we have marriage equality in Britain too?
Political support for ending the ban on gay marriage is growing rapidly. London Mayor, Boris Johnson, and Conservative Party Vice-Chair, Margot James MP, have both come out in favour of allowing lesbian and gay couples to marry in a registry office, on the same terms as heterosexual partners.
This view is also endorsed by the leader and the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg and Simon Hughes. Indeed, Hughes has predicted that the ban on same-sex marriage will go within five years.
All five Labour leadership contenders – Ed Balls, Diane Abbott, Andy Burnham, Ed Miliband and David Miliband – now back marriage equality, regardless of sexual orientation.
Public attitudes have also shifted strongly in favour of allowing gay couples to marry. A Populus poll for the Times newspaper in June 2009 found that 61% of the public believe that: “Gay couples should have an equal right to get married, not just to have civil partnerships.” Only 33% disagreed.
Some people say that civil partnerships are sufficient for gay couples. This is hypocritical. They would not accept a similar ban on black people getting married.
They would never agree with a law that required black couples to register their relationships through a separate system called civil partnerships.
It would be racist to have separate laws for black and white couples. We’d call it apartheid, like what used to exist in South Africa. Well, black people are not banned from marriage but lesbian and gay couples are.
We are fobbed off with second class civil partnerships.
Personally, I don’t like marriage. I share the feminist critique of its history of sexism and patriarchy. I would not want to get married. But as a democrat and human rights defender, I support the right of others to marry, if they wish.
That’s why I believe that civil marriage in a registry office should be open to everyone without discrimination.
Don’t get me wrong, civil partnerships are an important advance. They remedy many – though not all – of the injustices that used to be experienced by lesbian and gay couples. But they are not equality.
They are discrimination. Separate is not equal.
In terms of the law, civil partnerships are a form of sexual apartheid. They create a two-tier system of partnership recognition: one law for heterosexuals (civil marriage) and another law for same-sex couples (civil partnerships).
This perpetuates and extends discrimination. The homophobia of the ban on same-sex civil marriage is now compounded by the heterophobia of the ban on opposite-sex civil partnerships.
Just as a gay couple cannot have a civil marriage, a straight couple cannot have a civil partnership. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
Sadly, the official policies of the Conservative and Labour parties do not support same-sex civil marriage. They oppose it. They support discrimination.
The Green Party and the Liberal Democrats are, so far, the only parties officially committed to giving same-sex partners the right to civil marriage – and heterosexual couples the right to civil partnerships.
In a democracy, we are all supposed to be equal under the law. The Con-Lib coalition’s professed commitment to gay equality cannot be taken seriously while it upholds the ban on same-sex marriage. Over to you, Dave and Nick.
To celebrate our 20th anniversary, we have relaunched our website. We are in the process of collating, curating and uploading two decade’s worth of material, including old flyers and leaflets, press releases from seminal campaigns and a great deal of visual material from OutRage!’s first decade - from the iconic black-and-white photos of Steve Mayes to the colour images taken by John Hunt on an early digital camera.
Over the course of May, the scope will be extended as we add material from the second decade. We will feature photos, news and other material from the campaign for equality in marriage and partnerships, the Stop Murder Music campaign and other events.
However, OutRage! is still very much active and we hope to have the most up-to-date material on our current campaigns and activities online here very shortly too.
Hasan Sabeh was a happy, talented 34 year old a transgender fashion designer, affectionately known as Tamara. He lived in the al-Mansor district of Baghdad. In January 2007, he was tending his fashion accessories stall in a street market. An Islamist death squad, wearing Iraqi police uniforms, seized Tamara, partially stripped his clothes off and, discovering that he was a man dressed as a woman, shot him dead. Tamara’s brother-in-law was nearby and rushed to cradle his body. He, too, was shot dead at point blank range. The killers then took Tamara’s body, hanged it in public, and mutilated it, as a warning to other gay and transgender Iraqis.
Late last year, five gay activists were abducted at gun-point by Iraqi police in Baghdad on 9 November. Nothing has been heard of them since then. It is feared they may have been murdered by death squads operating under the cover of the Iraqi police.
The kidnapped men are Amjad 27, Rafid 29, Hassan 24, Ayman 19 and Ali 21. All were members of Iraq’s clandestine gay rights movement, Iraqi LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender).
“For the last few months they had been documenting the killing of lesbians and gays, relaying details of homophobic executions to our office in London, and providing safe houses and support to queers fleeing the death squads,” said Ali Hili, a gay Iraqi Muslim who is head of Iraqi LGBT and Middle East spokesperson for the British gay human rights group OutRage!
At the time of the police raid, the five men were holding a secret meeting in a safe house in the al-Shaab district of Baghdad. They were communicating with Mr Hili.
“Suddenly there was a lot of noise, then the connection ended,” recalls Mr Hili.
Just days after these five activists were abducted, Haydar Kamel, aged 35, the owner of famous men’s clothing shop in the al-Karada district of Baghdad, was kidnapped near his home in Sadr city. The kidnappers were members of the Mahdi army, an Islamist militia loyal to fundamentalist leader Muqtada al-Sadr.
“Haydar had previously received death threats because of rumours about his alleged homosexuality. For many months, he had financially supported several men who were in hiding after they had been threatened by death squads because of claims that they were gay,” said Mr Hili.
Another recent raid was on the Jar al-Qamar barber shop in the al-Karada district of Baghdad. It was popular with gay men, which is probably the reason it was targeted. All four employees were arrested and taken away by the Iraqi police. They have disappeared.
It is feared that these 10 kidnapped men have been summarily executed.
“These disappearances are the latest ‘sexual cleansing’ operations mounted by extremist Islamist death squads, many of whom have infiltrated the Iraqi police,” notes Mr Hili. He has obtained details of the kidnappings direct by phone and email from his underground Iraqi LGBT activist colleagues in Baghdad.
“They are systematically targeting gays and lesbians for extra-judicial execution, as part of their so-called moral purification campaign. The aim of the death squads is the creation of a fundamentalist state, along the lines of the religious dictatorship in Iran,” said Mr Hili.
Earlier, in June this year, extreme lslamist death squads burst into the home of two lesbians in the city of Najaf. They shot them dead, slashed their throats, and also murdered a young child the lesbians had rescued from the sex trade.
The two women, both in their mid-30s, were members of Iraqi LGBT. They were providing a safe house for gay men on the run from death squads. By sheer luck, none of the men being given shelter in the house were at home when the assassins struck. They have now fled to Baghdad and are hiding in an Iraqi LGBT safe house in the suburbs.
“These homophobic kidnappings and murders are a snapshot of the rapidly growing power and menace of fundamentalist death squads,” added Mr Hili.
“Gays are not their only targets. They enforce a harsh interpretation of Sharia law, summarily executing people for listening to western pop music, wearing shorts or jeans, drinking alcohol, selling videos, working in a barber’s shop, homosexuality, dancing, having a Sunni name, adultery and, in the case of women, not being veiled or walking in the street unaccompanied by a male relative.
“Two militias are doing most of the killing. They are the armed wings of parties in the Bush and Blair-backed Iraqi government. Badr is the militia of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which is the leading political force in Baghdad’s government coalition. Madhi is the militia of Muqtada al-Sadr.
“Both militias want to establish an Iranian-style clerical tyranny. They have a perverted, corrupt and violent misinterpretation of Islam.
“The allied occupation of Iraq is bad enough. But victory for the Madhi or Badr militias would result in a reign of religious terror many times worse.
“The execution of lesbian and gay Iraqis by extreme Islamist death squads and militias is symptomatic of the fate that will befall all Iraqis if the fundamentalists continue to gain influence. The summary execution of queers is a warning of the barbarism to come.
“Saddam Hussein was a tyrant. It is good that he is no longer in power. I don’t want him back. But under Saddam discrete homosexuality was usually tolerated. There was no danger of gay people being assassinated in the street by religious fanatics.
“Since Saddam’s overthrow, the violent persecution of lesbians and gays is commonplace. It is actively encouraged by Iraq’s leading Muslim cleric, the British and US-backed Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. In late 2005, he issued a fatwa ordering the execution of gay Iraqis. His followers in the extreme Islamist militias are now systematically assassinating lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people,” said Mr Hili.
“Despite the great danger involved, Iraqi LGBT has established a clandestine network of gay activists inside Iraq’s major cities, including Baghdad, Najaf, Karbala, Hilla and Basra,” said Peter Tatchell of the UK-based LGBT rights group OutRage!, which is working with Iraqi LGBT.
“These courageous activists are helping gay people on the run from fundamentalist death squads; hiding them in safe houses in Baghdad, and helping them escape to Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.
“The world ignores the fate of gay Iraqis at its peril. Their fate today is the fate of all Iraqis tomorrow,” said Mr Tatchell.
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).
“Is Eminem queer?”, asks Peter Tatchell of the gay rights group OutRage!.
“To me, Eminem looks and dresses queer. His short-cropped, bleached blonde hair, earrings, tattoos and white vests are typical gay club fashion. It would be easy to mistake him for a stylish young gay man”.
“For someone who says he hates fags, Eminem is totally obsessed with gay sex. Almost every track on his Marshall Mathers album has a reference to homosexuality, much of it dwelling on oral and anal sex. This fascination with gay sexuality begs the question: Why? If he loathes homosexuality, why does keep rapping about it all the time?”
“There is no evidence that he is gay, but his image and lyrics do make me wonder”.
Tatchell’s comments come on the eve of Eminem’s UK tour, starting on 8 February.
“Eminem’s abusive, violent homophobic fantasies suggest a deep, inner unease with his own sexuality. Well-adjusted heterosexual men don’t care if other guys are gay or straight. Their response is: Live and let live”.
“Does Eminem fit the stereotype of the homophobic repressed gay man?”
“Eighty per cent of aggressively homophobic men are self-loathing, repressed homosexuals, according to Prof Henry Adams of the University of Georgia”.
“His research, published by the American Psychological Association in 1996, tested men who were strongly anti-gay, and who claimed they were totally heterosexual. He wired these men to a penile-circumference measuring device and showed them gay sex videos. Prof Adams found that eight out of ten of these homophobic men became sexually aroused (got an erection) while watching the gay videos”.
“Prof Adams concluded that men who express strongly anti-gay attitudes are usually expressing a fear and loathing of their own repressed homosexual feelings. Homophobia is mostly a displaced, disordered form of homosexuality, where the person attempts to deny their queer desires to themselves and to others”.
“Eminem may be an exception to this general rule that most homophobes are self-hating gays. But he seems very insecure about his manhood. Why else would he resort to such macho, homophobic posturing? His ostentatiously anti-gay lyrics look like a desperate attempt to prove his masculinity and heterosexuality.
“It is evident from his abusive relationships with his mother and wife that he doesn’t like women. Like many misogynistic gay men, Eminem would rather hang out with other guys. That’s why he loves the macho world of rap. It’s an all-male scene, where the brothers chill together united in their disrespect for women”.
“It is not hard to imagine Eminem as a woman-hating, self-loathing, repressed gay man”, said Tatchell.
Terry Connell, 57, died from a heart attack on Saturday, 25th March: just hours after being discharged from hospital after having suffered another heart attack a week earlier.
Terry was the driving member of the Bolton Seven, who championed the cause of gay equality when they were prosecuted under the U.K.’s discriminatory sex laws. His courage and unwavering tenacity in fighting the case through the courts were a living example of Gay Pride at its simplest and noblest.
His hearing at the Court of Appeal, (heard separately from that of the other six, owing to the untimely illness of the defending barrister), was rejected in a mockery of justice on the 5th March, 1999. It was characteristic of Terry that his unhesitating response on hearing the verdict was: “Well, now we go on to Europe”.
Terry Connell – A tribute
by Ray Gosling
Terry was a quite extraordinary good man in life, in gay life — he was a living antidote to the stereotype straights often have. He was neither a limp-wristed Julian-Sandy, nor some overbutch leather queen. He was normal — a fan, fanatic loyal, true and regular supporter of Bolton Wanderers because he liked football. He believed in it. Football. As he liked his flat cap. He liked company and pubs, but Terry didn’t drink alcohol. He was T.T. by choice. He didn’t mind you smoking, but he didn’t. He didn’t swear, but didn’t mind if you did. At first I thought because of his name he must be Roman Catholic and of Irish ethnicity but he wasn’t. He was Lancashire English, and wasn’t a Christian believer — and yet in the practice of life Terry Connell was a great New Testament man — loyal: never let a pal down: selfless and forgiving — though he would always speak his mind. It was his opinion and you were entitled to differ. And he’d respect you. Respected all men. But he expected you to respect him. That’s what so incensed Terry at the prosecution of himself and the lads –particularly the lads on the Bolton Seven video– it was gross indecency –the prosecution was– an invasion by The State into the privacy of the messy intimate embarrassing bits of lads’ lives at an age when you do go a bit giddy because you don’t know what you are exactly. As the trial judge Michael Lever expressed it quite correctly: “It was young men tipsily experimenting with sex”.
Terry was adamant. No harm. No force. The harm, the force was with the prosecution of what should have been left in privacy.
Terry was well known in Bolton gay ciircles and well respected. He was a frequenter of The Church, the town’s main gay pub. And he ran disco sometimes. He didn’t go cottaging, though he understood those who did and saw no harm in it. He wasn’t a chicken chaser, though he had a good eye to a pretty youth, he wasn’t at all predatory. He liked young people –a lot– and like the best of male gays have so often been, he was generous, genuine, kind, affectionate and a good ear: enormously supportive and long suffering and never pushy to teenagers he befriended. He well understood, instinctively, the terrifying pressures young poor white boys face today — from the power of girls: the lack of proper jobs of craft and pride and good wages; the loss of esteem; the pervasiveness of drugs. He’d help in the best possible ways, weaning lads off drugs and into work — and of course football. He was a very proper Bolton guy. He worked himself –night shifts in the bakery– and gave his all to the lads he befriended: for next to no sexual favours in return — because he enjoyed their company free of favours, to help them grow through their difficulties — and he did. He was quite lovely: caring — and fun — and then he got hauled in by police and through the courts at vast expense to the public purse and all that video had on it was some afternoon very mild malarky, not an orgy of the depraved. Not at all.
He was appalled at the prosecution. He could never admit any wrong had happened because it hadn’t. All the lads were over age –well, Craig was seventeen and a half– and they freely took part. And were they in an heterosexual group, or lesbian, they could not have been brought to court. No charge. A law just to prosecute male gay behaviour. What had been videoed was right mild, gentle, innocent, silly –embarrassingly so– a joke as much as anything, just fooling around. Why on earth the prosecution was let go ahead — Common Sense was not in it. Just because the party had amateurly videoed themselves and one in the party had copied it and kept the copy — silly boy. Not that Terry had kept his — that tape long ago had been reused by him to record more precious soccer. Oh, he had his proportions, Terry Connell.
But many of us if charged with such open-and-shut evidence on camera of clearly legally definable ‘indecent acts’ would have in embarrassment said ‘guilty’ and skulked off and hid. But not Terry. He was outraged. “Why,” he said to me when I first met him, “is Prince Charles not being prosecuted for his adultery?” There’s Bolton logic there — aye: fair do’s.
And it takes guts to go not guilty.
“It’s what I am — GUILTY of being human: not guilty of any crime.” So he carried on working — and walking the streets and held up his head. A very courageous man and when he spoke at public meetings of his indignation at this unjust happening — to gay groups as he did eventually all over the country, they just loved him. He was a great speaker on the stump — of a kind as’d make any Bolton man proud. He was from the heart and blunt. Terry Connell –and sometimes he wouldn’t take his flat cap off– he was a natural performer with his strong ‘Fred Dibnah’ Bolton accent: his clear voice: his determinations: his indignation and his chuckles of laughter. In London particularly he was quite a hero.
He’s died sudden — before his time. It’s a real tragedy — he had a lot more to contribute in showing older people a role model in how to treat the young — open and honest, kind and giving of your time and being supportive. Particularly showing how the older gay man should behave towards the young. He had much to give — and to football: to social life: to the politics of sex, the law – and ageism.
There will be many circles in Bolton that will be very sad. He will be greatly missed: not least by Craig. But his example of courage and patience, and laughter: the example of his life should inspire us. I’m sure it will and into the next generation and into history. A great man has gone.
Thank you Terry. Terry Connell: thank you.
MARTIN ROGER CORBETT
Queer Activist and Saint
27-November-1944 – 11-July-1996
Martin Corbett, who died three years ago of AIDS aged 51, was one of the great unsung heroes of the struggle for gay liberation. Although rarely taking the limelight himself, his legendary behind-the-scenes organisational skills played a crucial role in every gay rights campaign for a quarter of a century. No one else can claim such a distinguished and unbroken record of commitment.
Martin’s activism began in 1970, when he joined the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). This was the first movement of openly gay people, and the first to reject defensive pleas for tolerance, demanding instead nothing less than total acceptance and full equality.
Having witnessed the failure of “begging-bowl” style polite lobbying, Martin enthusiastically embraced GLF’s unapologetic, assertive direct action. This idea that homophobia had to be confronted and challenged – not appeased – remained the lodestar of his activism for the rest of his life.
Drawing on the queer tradition of camp, GLF invented a whole new style of political campaigning, “protest as performance”, where the claim for human rights was projected with imagination, daring and wit, instead of the usual boring format of marches and rallies.
During the GLF’s famous disruption of Mary Whitehouse’s Festival of Light, Martin calmly strode into the basement of Westminster Central Hall and ordered out the staff with a wave of “official” authority. He then proceeded to plunge the Festival into darkness by disconnecting the electrical and broadcasting cables, much to the misery of Mrs. Whitehouse, Malcolm Muggeridge and Cliff Richard.
With the creativity of a stage designer and the technical know-how of a structural engineer, Martin was the quartermaster and prop-maker for many of GLF’s zany zaps. One of his masterpieces was the making of a giant 12-foot cucumber, which he delivered to the managing director of Pan Books. This was GLF’s irreverent response to the publication of Dr. David Reuben’s homophobic tome, “Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex”, which suggested that gay men were obsessed with shoving vegetables up their backsides.
As well as wacky theatricals, GLF also conducted serious civil disobedience campaigns. Martin was one of the orchestrators of the freedom rides and sit-ins that ended the refusal by west London pubs to serve “poofs”, perversely delighted that the police sent in the heavies of the Flying Squad to deal with a non-violent pub occupation.
Together with other GLFers, Martin helped to found groundbreaking community institutions such as Gay Switchboard, the first major gay information and advice service, and “Gay News”, the first gay community newspaper.
Post-GLF, he was prominent in the Gay Activists Alliance, and, in 1977, in the campaign to defend “Gay News”, when Mary Whitehouse prosecuted it for blasphemy.
In the 80’s, Martin helped convene the important (but regrettably fractious) Legislation for Lesbian and Gay Rights Conference, which led to the formation of the Organisation for Lesbian and Gay Action (OLGA). It was OLGA, with Martin’s crucial input, which spearheaded the fight against Section 28, the notorious spawn of Thatcherism, which banned the so-called “promotion” of homosexuality by local authorities.
Galvanised by a spate of horrific queer-bashing murders and apparent police indifference, Martin in 1990 was one of the co-founders of OutRage!. Incensed to discover that more men had been arrested for victimless homosexual behaviour (mostly cottaging and cruising) in 1989 than in 1966 (the year before male homosexuality was ostensibly decriminalised), he eagerly joined the invasion of police stations, the noisy disruption of New Scotland Yard, and the busting of police entrapment operations in parks and public toilets.
While years of negotiations by respectable gay lobbyists had done little to diminish police homophobia, this confrontational OutRage! campaign helped produce dramatic results: from 1990-94, the number of men convicted of consensual gay acts fell by two-thirds. As Martin was fond of reminding the critics of direct action, this turnaround in policing policy has saved thousands of gay men from being dragged before the courts.
At the renowned 1991 OutRage! Queer Wedding in Trafalgar Square, Martin played the role of the wicked judge, and he was also part of the group’s “zap squad” which disrupted official celebrations on the Isle of Man in the same year, to protest at the island’s then total criminalisation of male homosexuality.
In 1994, when OutRage! decided to expose hypocrites and homophobes in the Church of England, inviting them to “Tell the Truth” about their sexuality, Martin was one of the first to volunteer to name names. “If bishops bash the gay community, we’ve got every right to bash them back,” he argued. While OutRage! was vilified by all and sundry for daring to point out that the bishops preached one thing and practised something different, Martin remained calm and philosophical, convinced that history would vindicate OutRage! as it had the Suffragettes, once equally reviled. “Mrs. Pankhurst didn’t panic and neither should we,” he said, with characteristic coolness and wisdom.
Arguably one of Martin’s finest OutRage! moments was in April 1995, when a coalition of OutRage! and Lesbian Avengers members formed the “Dykes and Fags Gone Mad” group. The group plotted a spectacular zap of the rabidly homophobic psychiatrist Professor Charles Socarides, who was delivering a lecture at Regent’s Park College. Socarides was interrupted, shouted down, and sprayed with pink silly string by the horde of activists who had managed to get into the lecture hall by virtue of Martin posing as an academic in his “straight drag” suit. When stopped on the stairwell by a security guard and asked if he was with “these people” (our troops), Martin snootily replied: “Certainly not, I have an appointment downstairs. Excuse me!” and promptly unbolted the door when the guard wasn’t looking to let the “dykes and fags” in!
Martin’s last OutRage! action was in December 1995 when, despite illness, he joined the fancy dress zap of the Buckingham Palace Christmas Staff Ball, in protest at the Queen’s decree that gay male employees were forbidden to bring their partners. Within weeks of this protest, Martin’s health began a rapid decline and he attended his last OutRage! meeting in February 1996. OutRage! was never the same again as we had lost an amazing man with a wicked sense of humour, who was phenomenally kind, generous, intelligent, practical and devoted, not just as an activist, but as a personal friend to many people in the group and throughout the lesbian and gay activist community. He is, and will always be, sorely missed.
In 1994, in recognition of his quarter of a century commitment to gay liberation, Martin was canonised as a Living Saint by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at a ceremony on his 50th birthday. His title was, appropriately, Saint Martin of the Million Meetings.
PETER TATCHELL looks at the effect of the Balkan bloodbath on the lives of queers in Serbia and Kosovo. This article appeared under the title “Queer Serbia! Queer Kosovo!” in “QX Magazine”, 26-May-1999.
Imagine being cruised by the guy of your dreams and going back to his place to shag senseless. Just as you are about to cum, he notices that your cock is circumcised and suddenly goes beserk. Grabbing a gun from under the bed, he puts it to your head and blows out your brains.
Such are the perils of gay sex in the fratricidal strife of the former Yugoslavia. In a land where Kosovo Muslims are circumcised and Serbs are not, picking up the wrong guy can have deadly consequences.
Gay life in Serbia and Kosovo is not as we know it in Britain. In the ex-Yugoslav states, guns are more common than condoms. Lovers can turn out to be military torturers. Cruising is a minefield of ethnic hatred and violence. Sex often has little to do with pleasure; just as frequently, getting your rocks off is an escapist refuge from the torments of conflict.
On the battlefields of Kosovo (and previously Bosnia) homo-sadism is a weapon of war. Male prisoners are raped and forced at gunpoint to fuck each other. Boys are made to fellate their fathers, and fathers to suck their son’s dicks. These are the rarely-reported ritual humiliations of the terror in the Balkans.
For queers in Britain, such experiences are almost unimaginable. Apart from the war in the north of Ireland, all the post-1945 conflicts involving the British have been relatively small-scale operations in far away places like Malaya, Kenya, Aden, the Falklands and Iraq. Consequently, few British lesbians and gay men under 70 have any comprehension of what it is like to live and love in wartime.
Queers in the former Yugoslavia have, in contrast, known little else but war in recent years — first the butchery in Bosnia, and now the bloody conflict in Kosovo.
Since the NATO bombing raids spread the war to Serbia, lesbians and gay men in Belgrade have, like everyone else in that city, been hard hit by the supposedly “humanitarian” air war. Forced to spend long periods in air-raid shelters with often homophobic neighbours, many feel isolated. A lot of queers are cut off from their usual social support networks, being too frightened to venture out to visit friends and gay bars in case they get caught in the NATO bombardments. This fear has been compounded by the West’s sometimes inaccurate, indiscriminate cruise missile attacks.
The Belgrade-based gay rights movements, Arkadia and the Campaign Against Homophobia, protest that while the Allies claim the war is being directed against the Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, the reality is that bombs are hitting ordinary people, including gays and lesbians. This, they say, is playing into the hands of the Milosevic dictatorship.
The NATO bombing is fuelling Serbian nationalism, with its strong streak of homophobic machismo. There is no place for queers in the new nationalist iconography: the virile, masculine Serbian soldier defending his family and homeland. Serbia’s main TV channel, Palma Television, has condemned homosexuality as a “perversion” and “disorder”. Linking gayness with alien western influences, its programmes accuse gays of undermining national defence. This propaganda incites queer-bashing attacks.
According to the 23-year-old Belgrade gay activist, Dusan Maljkovic: “Anyone that does not fit the standard model of the strong man defending his native land until the last drop of blood is a possible victim of discrimination, ranging from verbal insults to physical violence and even murder”.
Gay fears are well founded. President Milosevic is manipulating NATO intervention as a justification for wartime “national security” measures, including a crackdown on dissent of all kinds. Critical voices on any issue are pilloried as unpatriotic, and are at risk of vigilante violence from ultra-nationalists. The Campaign Against Homophobia has had western donations blocked, and the doors of its offices have been sealed. Leading activists are in hiding, fearful for their safety. Efforts to promote acceptance and equality for homosexuals have ended. The NATO bombing has made sure of that. The war has now become the one and only issue of public debate in Serbia.
A rare glimpse, from a queer perspective, into the horrors of the Balkan nightmare is offered by the gay Belgrade university lecturer, Boris Davidovich. His book, Serbian Diaries, published in 1996, covers the period of the Bosnia war. Although predating the spread of ethnic cleansing to Kosovo, many of the book’s grim revelations also apply to the current bloodfest.
Chronicling his own personal experiences, Davidovich shows how the terrors of war have intruded into the lives of gay men who have never been near the battlefield. Some have made the sudden, shocking discovery that the kind, handsome man who tenderly caresses their body at night is, by day, a military torturer who sadistically mutilates the bodies of young enemy soldiers.
Davidovich himself had this unnerving experience. A man he met in the street turned out to be a member of the Bosnian Serb special forces who boasted of slitting a young Croat’s throat, forcing captured Muslim boys to suck their father’s cocks, and tying a Bosnian prisoner to a tree and cutting his head open with a welding torch. Yet this same man, who Davidovich describes as a “monster” and “the embodiment of cosmic evil”, made love to him with glorious tenderness and passion.
These are just some of the ghastly stories retold in Serbian Diaries, Davidovich’s seven-year record of cruising and sex in the Balkan killing fields. He offers perceptive insights on the complexities and dilemmas of gay relationships in a time of war. Is cruising in a forest littered with unexploded bombs worth the risk? Do you sleep with the enemy? What is the point of safe sex to a soldier who could be killed tomorrow?
Serbian Diaries also sketches a depressing picture of deepseated homophobia in the ex-Yugoslavia, including queerbashing, police harassment, media censorship and the political manipulation of homosexuality.
Most factions in the conflict use allegations of gayness to discredit their political opponents. Anti-war students denounce President Milosevic with the chant “Slobo is a faggot”. The rightist leader, ‘Duke’ Seselj, gets pilloried by left-wingers as the “Serbian Ernst Röhm” (a reference to the gay Nazi chief). Croation fascists cite homosexuality as evidence of cultural decline, linking queerness with subversion and foreign interference.
It all sounds depressingly familiar. But there are, nevertheless, some notable differences between gay life in Britain and the lives of queers in Serbia and Kosovo. One difference is that we don’t have to worry about land mines when copping off on Hampstead Heath.
Serbian Diaries, Boris L. Davidovich (GMP, £9.95)
Peter Tatchell celebrates the OutRage! art of activism, where style and symbolism are used to empower the struggle for queer emancipation
Making A Scene: Performing Culture Into Politics, Henry Rogers and David Burrows (Editors), ARTicle Press in association with the IKON Gallery, Birmingham, 2000
In this chapter from Making A Scene, Peter Tatchell explains how the direct action campaigns of the queer rights group OutRage! are a form of “protest as performance”, which draw on the traditions of camp and theatricality and of situationist and guerrilla art, in order to claim gay space, challenge homophobia and promote a queer liberation agenda.
The direct action campaigns of the queer rights group OutRage! are an example of a unique political genre – “protest as performance”. Our juxtaposition of political themes and cultural forms borrows ideas from performance art to promote an explicit human rights message. This “art of activism” campaigning seeks to profile lesbian and gay emancipation in a way that is both educative and entertaining.
Much of OutRage!’s direct action is also challenging and confrontational, claiming for the queer community public spaces and agendas that have been hitherto off-limits. Our bid for justice often involves intruding – usually uninvited! – into previously all-heterosexual domains where we stage symbolic spectacles that question the orthodoxy and presumptions of straight morality and culture.
This OutRage! activism has included, among other things, taking over solemn state ceremonies and appropriating sacred symbols of national consciousness, such as Remembrance Sunday at the national war memorial, the Cenotaph. Our annual alternative Queer Remembrance Day ceremony occupies – both physically and spiritually – a place of national identity and significance. It projects onto the geographic space of the Cenotaph, and into the emotional space of the commemoration of the war dead, a subversive queer message.
Queer Remembrance Day challenge four things:
By celebrating Queer Remembrance Day at the Cenotaph we are performing an act of subversive political symbolism in a hallowed place of national importance that has been previously forbidden to queers. This claiming of a state memorial and ritual for a queer agenda challenges invisibility and censorship, promoting public awareness and debate about a marginalised element of queer history and suffering.
Queer Remembrance Day illustrates the way OutRage! transcends a purely legalistic approach to homosexual liberation. Unlike the mainstream, respectable wing of lesbian and gay rights campaigning, which tends to be co-opted into the confines of parliamentary politics and law reform, OutRage!’s model of direct action is foremost about raising consciousness and transforming cultural attitudes and values concerning queer issues. We are seeking to simultaneously revolutionise ethics, opinions, laws and institutions, in order to change fundamentally the way society thinks and acts about homosexuality. Moreover, we are not merely trying to change the way straight society perceives queers; we are also attempting to change the way the lesbian and gay community perceives itself.
Too often, we are depicted as victims of prejudice, discrimination and violence: victims of religious condemnation, victims of hate crimes, victims of bias in the workplace, victims of police harassment and so on. This victimisation is, sure enough, a reality that needs to be acknowledged and remedied. But the constant labelling of queers as victims has its downside too. As well as evoking empathy, it can also stir heterosexual contempt and disparagement, even to the point of encouraging some homophobes to see us as easy, vulnerable targets for abuse.
For queers on the receiving end of bigotry, the label of “victim” can be profoundly disempowering and dispiriting. That is why OutRage! tries – through its militant direct action tactics – to undermine the notion of gays-as-victims. In its place, we seek to create a new queer consciousness of pride, defiance and resistance, where fags and dykes maintain a sceptical, discerning attitude towards straight culture and refuse to conform to the dictates of heterosexual society.
A precondition for the self-respect and self-empowerment of queers is overturning the psychologically disabling victim mentality that has been foisted upon us by straight society, and which many homosexuals have themselves embraced in a bid for public sympathy.
OutRage!’s feisty, sassy brand of political activism is an explicit rejection of the cowering, defeatist, long-suffering image of victimhood. Our confrontational protests, where we dare to challenge even the most powerful homophobes, are about making the mental and political transition from victim to victor; creating a new, strong, uplifting identity of queers fighting back and overcoming oppression.
Christian homophobia is a classic example of how lesbian and gay people have been victimised over the centuries. The millennium marked 2,000 years of Christian persecution of homosexual people. This religious persecution is not over yet.
In 1992 and on several occasions subsequently, the Pope declared that discrimination against queers is theologically justified, and that Catholics are duty-bound to oppose civil rights legislation for lesbians and gay men. In response to this Papal edict, OutRage! staged a series of protests against Catholic leaders and institutions. One of these protests involved transgressing a sacred act of worship in Westminster Cathedral.
As this intervention at Westminster Cathedral demonstrated, OutRage! consciously intrudes into places where queers are not wanted to raise awkward issues that the political, religious and cultural establishment would rather ignore. We pride ourselves in subverting the status quo and interrupting business-as-usual. It is precisely this unwillingness to conform to the rules of traditional political discourse that distinguishes our direct action politics from mainstream lobbyists. Making trouble, defying convention, undermining normality, and questioning authority: these are the hallmarks of our activism.
This querulous, dissenting philosophy was also behind another challenge to religious homophobia: the OutRage! protest in Canterbury Cathedral on Easter Sunday 1998, when we disrupted the Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon in protest at his advocacy of discrimination against homosexuals.
What characterises this and so many other OutRage! zaps is the guerrilla-style, hit-and-run seizure of previously hetero-dominated public and private spaces to promulgate a radical, discomforting, critical queer agenda. We deliberately confound both straight and gay orthodoxy by doing the undoable and saying the unsayable.
Our intrusion into public domains has a special significance, given the insistence of the legal system that homosexuality is, and must remain, a “private matter”. Law reform in England and Wales in 1967 partially lifted the ban on male homosexuality. One of its preconditions was that sodomy and other queer perversions were only to be tolerated, providing they were kept hidden and private. That privacy precondition is written into the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, and it remains the basis on which sex between men is today afforded a degree of grudging legal tolerance.
OutRage!’s direct action tactics and occupation of forbidden public spaces have sought to challenge the “in private” settlement of 1967, with its implicit demand that queers remain silent and invisible. The “Kiss-In” in Piccadilly Circus in 1990, under the statue of Eros, was one such challenge, where we flaunted expressions of same-sex affection and dared the police to arrest us. They didn’t. On the contrary, from that moment onwards, the arrest of lesbian and gay couples for kissing and cuddling ceased in central London.
The “Kiss-In” exemplifies a successful transgressive queer politics which insists that lesbians and gays are no longer willing to remain “in private” and excluded from the terrain of public consciousness and debate. It also represents a rejection of conformism and subservience. Too many homosexual campaigners confine their goals to the parameters of a straight-dominated political system and sexual morality. Playing politics by straight rules and mimicking the heterosexual norm signals a lack of self-worth and self-confidence. Moreover, it is bound to result in gay acceptance and equality on straight terms, which may prove to be a Pyrrhic victory.
What was revolutionary about the “Kiss-In” was the way it challenged not only homophobia, but Puritanism too. It went against uptight, strait-laced heterosexual norms, asserting the validity of public expressions of eroticism and affection.
The OutRage! genre of direct action politics is characterised by six key themes:
1. A fusion of art with activism.
Despite our weaknesses and failings, few people would deny that OutRage! has made a serious contribution to the invention of something a little more imaginative than the standard march from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square. We have escaped from the stale, boring methods of orthodox political campaigning through the development of a new, modern mode of political agitprop.
Many of our direct actions involve an element of theatricality, using costumes and props. There is often a story line. The aim of this “theatre of the streets” is to promote thought-provoking queer ideas through the projection of arresting imagery.
One zap where art and activism were literally fused together was the OutRage! disruption of the Romanian National Opera performance of Aida at the Royal Albert Hall in 1996. The Romanian government had, at the time, announced harsh anti-gay laws, cracking down on homosexuality and gay human rights organisations. We saw the disruption of this major cultural event – organised and promoted by the government in Bucharest – as an effective way of getting at the Romanian leadership and creating a global awareness of Romania’s abuse of lesbian and gay civil rights.
In attendance at the performance of Aida were representatives and friends of the Romanian government, together with business people from major corporations that were being encouraged to invest in Romania. In the middle of Act One, thirty of us stormed through the artist’s entrance and onto the main stage, unfurling a huge banner which read: ‘Romania! Stop Jailing Queers!’. Simultaneously, thousands of leaflets were showered down on the audience by OutRage! members in the top balconies. Although it was a brief, symbolic intervention, this protest got the issue reported in the Romanian and international media, ensuring that the new homophobic laws became a matter of public knowledge and debate in Romania and worldwide.
2. Re-inventing the queer tradition of camp and theatricality.
Traditional left-wing agitprop is frequently dull and dour. This tendency to be too serious can, sometimes, be a turn-off that inhibits the effective communication of a political message. It is important to think carefully about getting the balance right between humour and seriousness. OutRage! has shown that many gay equality issues are open to being conveyed with wit and satire, as with our 1992 posthumous outing of British military “heroes”, in protest at the ban on homosexuals in the armed forces. The statute of Field Marshal Haig in Whitehall was draped with a pink feather boa, and the memorial to Admiral Mountbatten postered with the slogan “For Queens & Country”.
This bent towards theatricality cannot be explained solely in terms of OutRage! consisting of lots of out-of-work actors, graphic artists, scriptwriters and costume designers. Our theatricality stems from a conscious choice to utilise queer culture, as well as a pragmatic recognition that theatricality works.
Throughout gay history, the queer tradition of camp has been mostly apolitical, misogynistic and even self-oppressive. We have attempted to turn this tradition on its head and reinvent camp as an instrument in the service of lesbian and gay liberation.
3. Acting out protest as a form of performance.
OutRage! activism creates public spectacles as a means of promoting of human rights. Many of our actions are the equivalent of putting on a one-performance play in the street. We draw on earlier incarnations of street theatre – as practised by groups such as the Gay Liberation Front in London in early 1970s – in order to advertise our political ideas and messages. The aim is to grab the media’s attention and, through the media, project these ideas and messages to a wider public audience of millions.
The old-style leftist marches with a rally and speeches are passé. It is very rare nowadays that this kind of protest gets media coverage and creates public debate – unless it involves hundreds of thousands of people.
Small direct actions can, however, be highly effective – providing they are done with imagination and flair. A daring, witty zap by a handful of activists has the power to generate media coverage and stir public interest.
Most of OutRage!’s big spectacles involve the performance of queer narratives and quasi-morality plays to expose human rights abuses. This was the case with our “Exorcism of Homophobia” from Lambeth Palace, the home of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Appropriating Biblical stories and imagery, and with queerified scriptural characters and hymns, we acted out the ritual purging of the “Demon of Homophobia” from the Church of England.
These OutRage! extravaganzas usually attract large crowds of passers-by, which is a good indication of their appeal and effectiveness. One of our big, set-piece spectacles – the 1991 “Wink-In” – was so amusing and successful that two days later we received a telephone call from a tour company. Their tour group had witnessed our performance and enjoyed it so much that the company wanted to know when we were going to repeat the event, so they could send other groups of tourists to come and watch.
Such interest and enthusiasm is precisely what good activism ought to generate. To grab people’s attention, politics needs to be accessible, entertaining and informative. It is no use having wonderful ideas and not being able to communicate them. In this modern telecommunications age, the media is the main means of disseminating ideas and we have to use it if we want to influence public consciousness and the political process.
4. The politics of pleasure and the pleasuring of politics.
Protests should, wherever possible, be fun as well as serious. That means making them enjoyable for those who take part and witness them. This exaltation of “politics with pleasure” runs against the grain of mainstream political campaigning, which tends to be predicated on duty and sacrifice. Usually involving boring, repetitive methods, conventional politics can also be quite aggressive, with a strong streak of machismo. There is, of course, a legitimate place for anger when faced with monstrous injustices. But sometimes we need to step back from the fray and question whether the battle for public opinion is likely to be won by belligerent posturing and shouting.
OutRage! is convinced that there are often more effective ways of getting across a human rights message, even when it relates to dry, complex and obscure legislation. Section 32 of the 1956 Sexual Offences Act prohibits male soliciting in a public place. The penalty is up to two years jail. This law originated in 1898, at the time of Oscar Wilde. It is used today to harass and arrest gay men for consensual cruising in public places, such as parks, toilets and forests. In extreme cases, gay men have been arrested for merely smiling or winking at each other in the street.
To highlight the absurdity of this outdated Victorian law, OutRage! held a mass ‘Wink-In’ in Piccadilly Circus in 1991. This involved the erection of huge winking eyes and the public exchange of phone numbers on giant calling cards – an act of blatant mass civil disobedience. It was a funny, imaginative, entertaining way of highlighting this antiquated, draconian statute, and pressuring the police to de-prioritise its enforcement (which they subsequently did, saving thousands of gay men from arrest).
5. Claiming queer space.
OutRage! direct actions manifest queer identities and desires in public places from which we are normally excluded. There are still many public domains wholly or partially cordoned off to homosexuals: not just streets and parks where gay men go cruising, but also other public spaces. Two examples of this containment of queer identity and presence are State ceremonials and the education system.
OutRage! fought a long, hard battle to win the right to demonstrate at the State Opening of Parliament. We were fighting not just for the right to demand that gay equality measures are included in the annual Queen’s Speech, but also to secure the basic civil liberty that everyone should have the right to peacefully demonstrate in front of the Head of State.
Our homosexuality and queer agenda were, it seems, major reasons why we were so roughly manhandled by the police and so often arrested. The presence of dykes and fags was, apparently, considered an insult to Parliament and the Monarch. This made our protest at Westminster all the more relevant: it became a symbolic act to establish the political legitimacy of queer people and issues in an official State ceremony at the seat of government.
The other example of our usurping of public spaces and turning them queer was OutRage!’s “Queer Is Cool” schools campaign in 1991, organised by our affinity group ‘Sissy’ (Sex Information for School Students & Youth). The aim was to combat the censorship of lesbian and gay issues in the classroom. We handed pupils leaflets as they went into school. These leaflets included information about gay sexuality, queer history and HIV prevention. They challenged homophobic attitudes and, we hope, helped empower lesbian and gay kids to feel more confident about their sexual orientation.
For this terrible crime, OutRage! was savagely denounced by the media and “family values” politicians. According to them, it is absolutely unacceptable for students to be given upfront, unapologetic information about queer issues. As with every protest, the proof of the pudding is in the eating: our leafleting produced a huge debate among teachers and sex educationists. We put them on the spot: why were these facts not being given to kids in the classroom?
6. Challenging homophobic institutions and laws.
Just prior to the 1992 general election, OutRage! sought to overturn the prohibition on lesbian and gay marriage, as part of our campaign to put same-sex partnership rights on the political agenda. As a radical queer rights group we are, not surprisingly, highly critical of the patriarchal, misogynist institution of marriage. But our aim on that occasion was to take the institution of marriage at face value and challenge the homophobia embodied in the ban on lesbian and gay weddings.
We organised five homosexual couples to file applications for civil marriage at Westminster Registry Office, with the objective of undermining the discriminatory marriage law.
The 1949 Marriage Act does not specify that marriage partners have to be heterosexual, which is a very interesting omission. It illustrates the heterosexist presumptions of the post-war era when that law was passed. Subsequently, however, to remedy this omission, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 explicitly ruled out same-sex marriages for the first time. On the basis of the 1973 Act, the five OutRage! applications were refused. Nevertheless, this protest was significant; it being the first-ever-legal challenge in Britain to the ban on homosexual marriage. And, of course, it was a challenge with panache and pizzazz! The lesbian couples both wore bridal gowns, and the gay male partners were resplendent in tuxedos and top hates. Camp or what! It was a very subversive, effective way of demonstrating the love of queer couples, and of drawing public attention to the homophobic marriage statutes.
On an earlier occasion, in 1991, OutRage! staged a mass “Queer Wedding” in Trafalgar Square. This was also to demand legal rights for same-sex partners, but it had a different twist. In a mischievous ceremony that explicitly rejected the straight model of marriage, hundreds of queer couples – some in matching bridal gear and others in leather or rubber body suits – exchanged alternative vows of commitment. Their pledges expressed a new model of partnership based on the unique experiences, desires and needs of queers, rather than unthinkingly mirroring straight morality, lifestyle and aspirations.
In conclusion: the OutRage! genre of “protest as performance” has involved over 300 direct action zaps in ten years, encompassing a huge variety of camp, innovative, entertaining, audacious, wacky, theatrical, “in-yer-face” protests. We are still learning, evolving and adapting. There is much more we could do, and some things we could do better. But given our limited resources – and the de-politicised cultural climate in which we are now operating – OutRage! is, amazingly and thankfully, still causing trouble, mayhem and confusion.
An expanded version of a lecture given by Peter Tatchell at the “Making a Scene” conference at the University of Central England, 5 June 1999.