Protest as Performance

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:

  1. macho militarism and military homophobia,
  2. the ban on lesbians and gay men serving in the armed forces,
  3. historical revisionism, as promoted by writers such as William Shirer, who ignore or censor the homo-holocaust of Nazism,
  4. the Royal British Legion’s refusal to acknowledge the contribution of queers to the fight against Nazism, and its condemnation of queer remembrance ceremonies as ‘insulting, offensive and distasteful’.

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.