The homophobic onslaught suffered by Peter Tatchell when he stood for parliament in the 1983 Bermondsey by-election – and the lessons he learned from the most homophobic election in British history.
“How many aspirant MPs got a bullet through the post, or retired to bed on the eve of polling with a fire extinguisher and rope ladder for company?”
With these words, the Sunday Times columnist Hugo Young summed up the violent hate campaign against me when I stood as the pro-gay rights Labour candidate in the Bermondsey by-election.
That election, which took place ten years ago this week, is generally credited with being the dirtiest in British history. It certainly was unparalleled in its homophobia.
According to the veteran homosexual law reform campaigner, Antony Grey, the way I was vilified by the tabloid press amounted to the “most outrageous character assassination” ever experienced by a political candidate.
In the run-up to the poll on 24 February 1983, my advocacy of “homosexual equality” led to me being constantly ridiculed by the tabloids as a “militant gay rights extremist”, and to the publication of retouched photographs which made it appear that I was wearing lipstick and eye-liner. It also resulted in ten major press fabrications. These included the fictions that I had deserted my constituents to attend the Gay Olympics in San Francisco and had “burst into tears” after being beaten up while staging a gay rights protest in East Berlin.
My political opponents stooped just as low. The graffiti, “Tatchell is a communist poof”, appeared all over the constituency. Thousands of anonymous leaflets were circulated bearing impressions of myself and the Queen, with the headline “Which Queen Will You Vote For?”.
Male canvassers for the Liberals sported lapel stickers, “I’ve been kissed by Peter Tatchell”, in a blatant bid for the homophobic vote. Not surprisingly, I was deluged with thousands of abusive telephone calls and hate letters, more than 30 death threats, and over a hundred violent assaults. My flat had to be boarded up against threatened gun and arson attacks (hence the fire extinguisher and rope ladder). I lived in permanent fear of my life. Indeed, police officers later told me that I was lucky not to have been seriously injured or even killed.
I remember at times being very frightened. Perhaps I even had an unconscious fear of death. Once or twice, it did cross my mind that I should get moving fast to complete my goals in life, in case I was murdered. May be this worry about the possibility of being killed was one of the things that subsequently drove me to frantic, intense writing and activism in the years following my Bermondsey defeat?
In many respects, the by-election was a set back for lesbian and gay rights. A candidate advocating homosexual equality was, to quote The Guardian, “smeared to defeat”. There was, however, also a positive side. What happened to me was a catalyst for debates about lesbian and gay equality in many Labour Party and trade union branches – something which had rarely occurred before.
Two years later, partly in revulsion at the homophobia of my by-election, the Labour Party and Trades Union Congress adopted their first comprehensive lesbian and gay rights policies.
The unprecedented level of press fabrication and vilification that I experienced also gave new momentum to calls for ‘right of reply’ legislation to require the media to correct factual inaccuracies. This has led to several Private Member’s Bills, including the one proposed by Clive Soley MP, which is currently before parliament.
Newspaper coverage of the by-election demonstrated the immense power of the press to influence public opinion (I was by far the most popular candidate at the start of the election campaign, yet lost heavily on polling day).
Bermondsey was proof that the media can be incredibly destructive, but it also made me realise that it has the potential to be used in a constructive way to communicate progressive ideas.
It is this insight which has guided much of my subsequent media-oriented activism via groups like ACT UP and OutRage. ‘Media stunts’ are a conscious attempt to use the press to promote lesbian and gay visibility, and to encourage public awareness and debate about homophobia.
The recent shift of opinion in favour of equality coincides with an upsurge in activism, which suggests that working with the media can help effect change.
Finally, the Bermondsey saga bought home to me the limitations of political parties and the vagaries of their commitment to homosexual equality (none came out wholeheartedly in support of equal rights during the by-election).
This led directly to my renewed recognition of the importance of an influential and independent lesbian and gay movement, and to my reinvolvement in that movement.
While I remain committed to the value of political parties pushing for legislative reform, I am also convinced it is only when challenged by a troublesome and demanding lesbian and gay movement that those parties will effectively address our concerns.
Published in a slightly edited form in Capital Gay, 26 February 1993
Copyright Peter Tatchell 1993. All rights reserved.