Direct action protest has been crucial for LGBT+ progress

I confronted Mike Tyson & Archbishop of Canterbury – and got results


By Peter Tatchell


London, UK – 19 February 2022

Published in iNews:

The LGBT+ community has made huge progress since the 1990s. We’ve gone from the margins to the mainstream and as we celebrate LGBT+ History Month this year, it’s important to remember how we got to where we are today.

It wasn’t easy. We faced intransigence and roadblocks at every turn. Even just three decades ago, polite lobbying often got us nowhere and homophobia was rife in society and our establishments.

This is why I and others – inspired by the methods and achievements of the US Black civil rights movement in the 1960s – turned to non-violent direct action to tackle it.

In my experience, when confronted face-to-face by the victims they are abusing, people often change tack and will pull back from saying hateful things, which is why direct action is so important and effective. It’s a tactic we can use and learn from today.

In 2002 boxer Mike Tyson had made a notorious homophobic taunt before his world heavyweight title fight against Lennox Lewis in Memphis USA. But no one was calling him out.

I wrote to the British Board of Boxing Control, the fight organisers and the International Boxing Federation, urging them to make it clear that homophobic abuse was just as unacceptable as racist abuse. This lobbying did not work. Since no one else would hold ‘Iron Mike’ to account, I decided to do so myself.

A week before the big fight, I flew to Memphis and, with the support of two local activists, ambushed Tyson as he arrived at the Six50 gym for a pre-fight work out. We surrounded him, brandishing placards with the slogan: “Mike Tyson! Stop your homophobia!”

A startled Tyson raised his hand. I thought he was going to deck me. But he saw the TV cameras and I smiled to defuse the stand-off. He calmed down.

Challenged as to why he used insults like “f*ggot”, Tyson suddenly got defensive and protested: “I might use them but I don’t mean them…I’m not homophobic”. I demanded that he prove it: “Can you say something positive, that you oppose discrimination against gay people?” I asked.

To my amazement, Tyson responded: “I’ve got nothing against gay people…I oppose all discrimination against gay people, OK”.

I was gob smacked. This was the first time Tyson, or any top fighter from the macho world of boxing, had publicly expressed support for LGBT+ equality. But it took our protest to make him realise that his words were offensive to gay people and that he should support our cause.

Church intolerance was another huge obstacle. In the 1990s, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey was vocal about his opposition to lowering the age of consent for homosexual sex, to bring it in line with the law on heterosexual sex. He also lobbied parliament to oppose gay law reform and expressed views against marriage equality.

The Archbishop was not willing to meet and talk with the LGBT+ community. In desperation, on Easter Sunday in 1998, myself and six members of the LGBT+ group OutRage! walked into the pulpit in Canterbury Cathedral mid-service.

In front of the congregation and a large television audience, we held up placards criticising Dr Carey’s support for homophobic discrimination. I delivered an unscheduled alternative sermon on the theme: discrimination is not a Christian value. I was arrested, charged, and later convicted under the 1860 Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act, formerly part of the Brawling Act of 1551.

But four positive outcomes followed. The archbishop dramatically lessened his advocacy and lobbying against gay equality and apologised to LGBT+ Christians for the pain they’d suffered at the hands of the church. Stung by criticism that he had refused dialogue with LGBTs for eight years, Dr Carey met with the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement for the first time. Some bishops, such as Peter Selby, were later moved to speak out for LGBT+ equality. It was a quadruple win for our community.

These two protests proved the power of direct action to win change. They secured media coverage precisely because they were audacious and provocative. This raised public awareness about homophobia, provoked public debate about LGBT+ issues and helped change public attitudes, creating a less hateful atmosphere for LGBT people.

The protests changed Mike Tyson and George Carey for the better too, even if not completely. In 2020, Tyson went on to publicly oppose homophobia and transphobia though he somewhat undermined his good intentions by using an anti-gay slur in the process.

The following year, in the Hating Peter Tatchell Netflix documentary, Carey made a surprise volte face, given my Canterbury Cathedral protest. He generously concluded that I had been “on the right side of history”.

I have learned that direct action can be a catalyst for reform, when other more traditional methods fail. It’s a lesson that applies to all social movements. If those in power rebuff you, don’t feel helpless. Non-violent direct action works. It gets results. And it’s still relevant today as a means to expose and overturn injustice, from LGBT+ rights to #MeToo to the cost-of-living crisis.

Direct action protests by Extinction Rebellion put the climate emergency on the political and public agenda to a degree that had never been achieved by lobbying. Black Lives Matter had the same impact on the social narrative around race and policing, colonialism and statues.

Direct action has been the catalyst for all progressive social change throughout history. Long may it continue.