In Memoriam: Martin Corbett

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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.