The methods of OutRage! are still necessary, justified and effective, says Peter Tatchell
Last week’s attack on OutRage! by Paul Clements was the type of hate-filled diatribe that we expect from Richard Littlejohn and the Daily Mail.
Not even the worst homophobes – Baroness Young, Ian Paisley and the gay serial killer Colin Ireland – have been attacked in the Pink Paper with such viciousness. Why are those who defend queer human rights vilified more than homophobes who bash the gay community?
Clements rubbished the OutRage! campaign against Michael Portillo in the Kensington & Chelsea by-election. But look at the facts:
Portillo’s election was not a triumph. He received 9,000 votes fewer that his Tory predecessor Alan Clark in 1997. That is a big humiliation for such a major political celebrity.
The OutRage! campaign got results. It put gay equality on the by-election agenda and exposed Portillo’s support for discrimination against homosexuals. Everyone now knows that he voted against an equal age of consent, and that he endorses Section 28 and the ban on gays in the military. Our success in getting that message over to the public contributed to the big drop in the Tory vote.
Without the OutRage! campaign, many people would have been fooled into believing Portillo’s claimed conversion to caring Conservatism. We showed that his much-hyped compassionate Toryism is a fraud.
Contrary to Clements’s suggestion, the main issue in the OutRage! campaign was not Portillo’s “hypocrisy”, but his homophobia. OutRage! does not care whether he is gay, straight, bisexual or celibate. What is objectionable is his endorsement of anti-gay discrimination. The election of a homophobe like Portillo is the moral equivalent of electing a racist. Where is the outcry from the Pink Paper?
The charge against me of “hypocrisy” is nonsense. During the Bermondsey by-election I was open with the voters about my gayness (but not with the press). No other by-election candidate from a major party – before or since – has been so upfront on the doorsteps about their sexuality and their support for gay equality. That is the big difference between Portillo and me: I supported gay rights in Bermondsey, whereas Portillo opposed gay rights in Kensington.
As Defence Secretary, Portillo witch-hunted gays in the military. Hundreds were subjected to abuse, detention and interrogation. They were hounded out of the armed forces. He ruined their careers and wrecked their lives. Yet Clements never once condemned Portillo’s merciless homophobia.
The adjacent Pink Paper editorial was not much better. It accused “extremist gays” of failing to see that attitudes towards homosexuality have “changed” and that this is due to the “quiet, respectful” methods of Stonewall.
OutRage! acknowledges that we live in less homophobic times, and we appreciate the valuable contribution of Stonewall and many other groups. We all work in different ways. It is our diverse, collective effort that has bought us this far along the road to queer freedom.
But the promised land is still a long way off, especially for gays who are not middle class and who live outside big cities. The “gross indecency” law used to prosecute Oscar Wilde in 1895 is still on the statute books, and every year it is used to arrest over 500 men for consenting homosexual behaviour.
Nearly 90 percent of lesbian and gay kids are teased, threatened or assaulted, with one in five attempting suicide. Half of all queers have suffered discrimination or harassment at work. A third report being beaten up by gay-bashers.
Every gay couple in the country is denied the right to marry, and it is lawful to sack us from our jobs and evict us from our homes. If this discrimination happened to black people, it would be denounced as “apartheid”. Well, homophobic discrimination is “sexual apartheid”.
That is why our suffragette-style protests are still necessary and justified. And they are effective too. Three years after OutRage! began its militant campaign against police harassment in 1990, the number of men convicted of gay sex fell by two-thirds. We saved thousands from getting criminal records.
Following the OutRage! protest in Canterbury Cathedral last Easter, Archbishop Carey met the Lesbian & Gay Christian Movement for the first time, beginning a dialogue he had refused for eight years!
What Clements ridicules as “publicity stunts” are, in fact, highly effective ways of drawing public attention to gay issues. They raise awareness, promote debate and change attitudes.
Without our citizen’s arrest of President Mugabe, millions of people would be unaware of his homophobic policies, and gay activists in Zimbabwe would never have been given public platforms to speak out for equality. Direct action works!
An edited version of this article was published in The Pink Paper, 10 December 1999.
Copyright Peter Tatchell 1999. All rights reserved.