You Ask the Questions

The Independent Questionnaire, 27 January 1999


What is your biggest personal achievement to date?

Until OutRage! started its campaign of direct action against police homophobia in 1990, efforts to end anti-gay harassment made no progress. Because dialogue and negotiation were not working, confrontation was the only alternative. We began busting entrapment operations, invading police stations, identifying undercover agents, and warning gay cruisers with leaflets and stickers. Suddenly, the police began to take gay concerns seriously for the first time. The result? Within three years, the number of men convicted of consenting gay behaviour fell by two-thirds – the biggest and fastest drop ever recorded. Our campaigning has, over the years, helped save thousands of gay men from arrest.

When did you first realise you were gay?

Not until I was 17. I was a late developer. The average age at which gay men realise their sexuality is 12-14. But looking back on my childhood, I can see now that I had unconscious, sublimated homoerotic desires from around the age of eight, as reflected in my passion for athletics and surfing.

Are you bothered by OutRage!’s lack of support from the gay press and ‘community’?

There is more support for OutRage! in the gay and straight communities than many people realise. I was voted Man of the Year by Pink Paper readers in 1995. Last July, on the Anglia TV programme Heroes & Villains, a representative cross-section of the local (straight) population voted me a “hero”. Nevertheless, some people – even other gays – do hate me. Many have been influenced adversely by the way I have been demonised by the media. That can be hard to cope with.

How do you feel about William Hague’s support on the age of consent?

I welcome support for equality from people of all parties; having gladly campaigned for lesbian and gay human rights alongside people like Edwina Currie with whom I otherwise disagree politically. But Hague’s claim that he favours a more tolerant, liberal Conservatism is a sham. He didn’t turn up for the age of consent vote last year. He supports the ban on gay marriage and membership of the armed forces, and he refuses to endorse legislation to protect gay people against discrimination in housing and employment.

What is the great attraction about being a ‘martyr’ – something you once said you wanted to be?

I never said any such thing. That fabricated quote was published in The Times, which then refused to carry a letter of correction. It has since been regurgitated by other newspapers, despite my protests. I don’t want to be a martyr because martyrs end up dead!

I once read that friends say you’ve never forgiven your stepfather or the church for refusing to accept your homosexuality. Is that true?

Another journalistic invention. I don’t hold grudges or feel bitterness. These are destructive emotions. Although it is sometimes difficult, I forgive everyone, including the neo-Nazis who tried to kill me, the Liberals for their dirty tricks during the Bermondsey by-election, and the journalists who have misrepresented and vilified my campaigns for gay human rights.

What do you hope to achieve by making sexuality a political issue?

I don’t make sexuality a political issue. Society does that by promoting attitudes and laws that discriminate against lesbian and gay people. If there was no homophobia, there would be no need for campaigning groups like OutRage!. What we want to achieve is very simple: an end to homophobic prejudice, discrimination and violence.

What advice would you offer Peter Mandelson? Were you upset that someone outed him before you?

My advice: come out to end the speculation and innuendo. But ultimately that choice has to be Peter’s. OutRage! was against him being outed. If we wanted to, we could have outed Mandelson years ago. One of our members knows him well. We have lots of information about his private life. I was asked by Mandelson’s biographer, Paul Routledge, to dish the dirt. I refused because I do not support outing unless an MP is acting in a way that is hypocritical and homophobic. Since Peter does not advocate anti-gay policies, there is no ethical justification for him being outed.

Should a prospective MP declare his sexuality?

Hiding one’s homosexuality reinforces the idea that it is shameful to be gay, and leaves the person vulnerable to blackmail and scandal-mongering. Coming out removes the stress of leading a secret double life and ends the possibility of exposure by political opponents and the press. Ideally, candidates should come out, but it is up to them.

Who has had the most influence on your career?

My human rights campaigning is not a “career”. For nine years, I have worked 40-60 hours a week for OutRage!, but I have never been paid a penny. My commitment is to queer emancipation, not careerism. The biggest influence on my activism has been Margaret Thatcher. Her government waged a relentless vendetta against the gay community, refusing to fund AIDS prevention while the epidemic was killing only queers and legislating Section 28 to halt local authority initiatives to combat discrimination against homosexuals. After my defeat in the 1983 Bermondsey by-election, these injustices spurred me to make gay human rights the focus of my life.

What was the last book you read?

The Bible. I was checking Leviticus 20:13 to confirm it says that homosexuals should be put to death. That passage was used by Christians to justify the mass murder of queers. The Bible is to gays what Mein Kampf is to Jews. Previously, the last book was David Leeming’s biography of James Baldwin.

What was your first thought when you woke up this morning?

I feel ill and exhausted. Doctors say I am suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Because of my public stand in defence of gay equality, I’ve been targeted by homophobes. As well as being attacked with iron bars, bottles and knives, my home has been subjected to arson attempts, a bullet through the door, and bricks through the windows. The police tell me I am lucky to be alive. Doctors say that most people in my situation would have committed suicide.

Who is the most interesting person you have met recently?

A gay 1939-45 war veteran. His open homosexuality was totally accepted by the military, which makes a mockery of the current ban on homosexuals in the armed forces. If gays could serve then, why not now?

Isn’t lowering the age of consent to 14 open season to paedophiles? Why 14? Why not 12 or 13?

OutRage! is against the criminalisation of teenagers involved in consenting relationships. Fourteen is the average age at which young people have their first sexual experience. Sex below 16 is illegal. Threatening these young people with arrest is not protection; it’s persecution. The best safeguard against abuse is earlier, better quality sex education to give teenagers the skills and confidence to rebuff the advances of would-be abusers.

Who do you most admire and why?

Anyone with the guts to swim against the tide of injustice and stand up for human rights.

Before your recent trial did the thought of imprisonment frighten you?

Prison is not a pleasant place for anyone, least of all an openly gay man. I was terrified that I might be beaten up or raped.

Do you ever feel guilty being responsible for changing people’s lives as a result of outing them?

OutRage! has never outed anyone. Once, in 1994, we asked 10 Bishops to “Tell the Truth” about their sexuality. They should, we felt, practice the honesty they preach. It was also wrong for them to advocate discrimination against gay people, especially given their own homosexuality. If homophobes don’t want to be outed, all they have to do is stop supporting anti-gay discrimination. Those who persist in wrecking the lives of other gay people deserve to have their hypocrisy exposed.

If you were not involved in campaigning, what career would you have followed?

Art and design. My first job was creating award-winning animated windows for Myer department store in Melbourne. You can see that influence in my OutRage! campaigns, which often fuse activism with art. Our big protest spectacles like the Kiss-In, the Queer Wedding, and the Exorcism of Homophobia have a strong element of visual design. It is “protest as performance”, projecting human rights issues in a way that is creative and entertaining.

Would you like to have children?

Because my mother was often ill, for significant periods from the age of eight I effectively raised my younger brother and sisters. I’ve done my stint of parenthood.

If there’s one thing you could change about your life, what would it be?

I’d like to change four things: receive a modest income for my unpaid 10-hour-a-day campaigning; have office/secretarial help to cope with the huge volume of phone calls, letters, faxes and e-mails; be reported fairly and honestly by the media; and have a house with a garden in a safe neighbourhood.

What is your biggest regret?

My life would be much easier if I had not been subjected to nearly two decades of death threats, hate mail and violent assaults.

Would you describe yourself as an attention seeker?

I want attention for gay issues, not for me personally. OutRage! seeks to transform cultural attitudes towards homosexuality. To achieve that, it is necessary to raise public awareness and provoke media debate. Publicising the issues is a prerequisite for changing attitudes.

Do you have interests outside gay-rights activism? If so, what are they?

Other campaigns: exposing the scientific flaws of animal-based medical research and supporting the people of East Timor and West Papua against Indonesian occupation. Personal pursuits: mountaineering, surfing, movies, architecture and restoring junk.

An edited version of this article was published in the Independent, 27 January 1999