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!
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Sir Ian McKellen unveiled a blue plaque honouring Peter Tatchell, campaigner for human rights, gay freedom and social justice. The ceremony took place on Wednesday 29 September 2010 at 11am outside Peter’s block of flats in Southwark, London.
Photo credit: Chris Houston
© OutRage! 1990-2010. You are free to use these images to illustrate news stories, with the above credit. For all other uses, please inquire.
Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell will receive an Honorary Doctorate for services to human rights, this Friday, 23 July.
The award from Sussex University will be made by the Chancellor, Sanjeev Bhaskar, at the graduation ceremony at Brighton Dome.
It is in recognition of Mr Tatchell’s 43 years of campaigning for human rights, democracy, global justice and LGBT freedom.
Commenting on his Hon D.Litt (Sussex), Mr Tatchell said:
“I was hesitant about accepting this honour. After all, my contribution to human rights is very modest. I am a long way from being a brave and effective campaigner. Many others are much more deserving than me.
“I would never agree to a royal honour but this award is different.
“My decision to accept was partly because the initiative for this honorary doctorate was a grassroots one, from the staff and students. I am honoured by their recognition of my human rights work.
“I accept this award in solidarity with the many heroic, inspirational activists who I support in countries like Uganda, Somaliland, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Baluchistan, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Western Sahara, Iraq, Palestine and West Papua.
“The message I will deliver in my acceptance speech is this: Be sceptical, question authority, be a rebel. All human progress is the result of far-sighted people challenging orthodoxy, tradition and powerful, vested interests. Don’t accept the world as it is. Dream about what the world could be – then help make it happen. In whatever field of endeavour you work, be a change-maker for the upliftment of humanity.
“I do my bit for social justice, but so do many others. Together, through our collective efforts, we are helping make a better world – a world more just and free. .
“My key political inspirations are Mohandas Gandhi, Sylvia Pankhurst, Martin Luther King and, to some extent, Malcolm X. I’ve adapted many of their ideas and methods to the contemporary struggle for human rights – and invented a few of my own.
“I began campaigning in my home town of Melbourne, Australia, in 1967, aged 15.
“My first campaign was against the death penalty, followed by campaigns in support of Aboriginal rights and in opposition to conscription and the Australian and US war against the people of Vietnam.
“In 1969, on realising that I was gay, the struggle for queer freedom became an increasing focus of my activism.
“After moving to London in 1971, I became an activist in the Gay Liberation Front, organising sit-ins at pubs that refused to serve ‘poofs’, and protests against police harassment and the medical classification of homosexuality as an illness.
“I was roughed up and evicted when I disrupted Professor Hans Eysenck’s 1972 lecture which advocated electric shock aversion therapy to ‘cure’ homosexuality.
“The following year, in East Berlin, I was arrested and interrogated by the secret police – the Stasi – after staging the first gay rights protest in a communist country,” said Peter Tatchell.
Read more about Peter Tatchell’s four decades of human rights campaigning here.
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From our archives: A selection of photos from OutRage! campaigns in the early and mid 1990s
© OutRage! 1990-2010. You are free to use this photo to illustrate news stories and articles about OutRage!, the lesbian and gay human rights group, with credit to the group and photographer. For all other uses, please inquire. Photos: Steve Mayes, OutRage! (unless indicated otherwise)
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.
Peter Tatchell talks about queer rights and the philosophy of OutRage!’s direct action. He also talks about Iraq and religious fundamentalism.
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© OutRage! 1990-2010. You are free to use this photo to illustrate news stories and articles about OutRage!, the lesbian and gay human rights group, with credit to the group and photographer. For all other uses, please inquire. Photos: Chris Houston, OutRage!
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).
Elton John’s plans to duet with Eminem at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles are being criticised as “misguided” by the British gay rights group OutRage!.
“This duet should only go ahead on the condition that Eminem make a clear public statement condemning homophobic discrimination and violence”, said OutRage!’s Peter Tatchell.
“If Eminem cannot express support for gay human rights, Elton should call off the collaboration”.
“Elton says he wants to break down barriers. That’s fine. But breaking down barriers is a two way process. So far, Elton is willing to to give Eminem the benefit of the doubt, but Eminem is not reciprocating”.
“Eminem has declined to distance himself from his violently anti-gay lyrics. He will not say anything supportive of the gay community. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that Eminem is homophobic. Elton should have nothing to do with him”.
“It is a curious alliance – a bit like a Jewish performer doing a duet with an avowed Nazi”.
“I doubt Elton would do a concert with a singer who advocated raping and lynching black people. Why, then, is he consorting with a rap artist who fantasises about raping women and killing gay people?”, queried Tatchell.
12 noon on Saturday, 25th November 2000
Junction of Highbury Corner and Highbury Place, London N1
Invited guests include the Culture Secretary Chris Smith MP, local MP Jeremy Corbyn, the Mayor of Islington, and veterans from the Gay Liberation Front (GLF).
The solid bronze, triangular-shaped plaque commemorates the 30th anniversary of the first-ever gay rights demonstration in Britain, which took place in Highbury Fields on the 27th November, 1970.
The original demonstration was a torchlight rally by about 150 members of the newly-founded Gay Liberation Front in protest against police harassment and intimidation.
It had been provoked by the arrest of a prominent Young Liberal, Louis Eakes, during a police entrapment operation. Officers alleged that Eakes had cruised several men. He claimed he merely asked them for a light.
The erection of the commemorative plaque has been organised by OutRage! and made possible by a generous donation from GLF veteran Andrew Lumsden, who will unveil it on the day.
The plaque reads: “The first gay rights demonstration in Britain took place here, in Highbury Fields, on 27th November 1970, when 150 members of the Gay Liberation Front held a torchlight rally against police harassment”.
It is being mounted on the public toilet in Highbury Fields, near where Louis Eakes was arrested and where GLF staged its torchlight rally in 1970.
The erection of the plaque will take place with the help and permission of Councillors and Officers of the London Borough of Islington.
“The GLF protest in November 1970 was a milestone in gay history”, said Peter Tatchell of OutRage!, who was himself a prominent campaigner in the GLF in the early 1970s.
“For the first time in Britain, gay people demonstrated to demand human rights. Before this protest, the police harassed the gay community with impunity. The 27th November 1970 was the moment that lesbians and gay men got up off their knees. It ended forever the era of queers as passive victims of injustice. From that date onwards, the fear that had cowed gay people into submission was gone. Instead of fear, we felt pride and defiance.”
FURTHER INFORMATION: Peter Tatchell 020-7403 1790