Peter Tatchell outlines the political philosophy of the queer rights group OutRage!
Interview with Peter Tatchell by Ian Lucas, first published in:
Outrage! – An Oral History, Cassell, London, 1998, ISBN 0-304-333581
London, February 1997
Ian Lucas: One of OutRage!’s founders, Simon Watney, is credited with saying that OutRage! was like a machine, into which you put in homosexuals and get out lesbians and gay men. Many of the people I interviewed saw OutRage! as a process, a form of group therapy. Is that a view you would share?
Peter Tatchell: OutRage! doesn’t have an agenda about changing the people who get involved. It’s about providing the space for queers to change themselves. One of the many great strengths of OutRage! is its grass roots democracy. Unlike Stonewall, which is a self-selected organisation that no ordinary lesbian or gay person can join, OutRage! is totally open and accessible. To get involved, you don’t have to sign a membership form or pay a subscription. All you have to do is turn up at the weekly meetings. That gives you the right to speak and vote in the determination of policy. There’s no ideological test that people have to go through, other than a commitment to fight for the self-determination and human rights of queers. Our openness means that we are by far the most accountable group within the lesbian and gay community. If anybody doesn’t agree with what we’re doing, they’ve got the right to come to a meeting and say so, and they’ve got a right to seek to overturn our policy. No other organisation has that level of openness and accessibility.
OutRage! has always relied on donations from the public to achieve its aims. How has it continued with such tight financial resources?
OutRage! has been incredibly successful, particularly given its small size and lack of budget. On average, our annual budget has been about £6,000 a year. That covers the office, telephones, press liaison and protests. It’s incredible value for money. Everyone in OutRage! is a volunteer. Often, we don’t even get expenses. Many times we pay for things out of our own pocket. Stonewall has an annual budget of over £400, 000 a year, several full time paid staff, a whole range of office facilities and campaign resources that we just don’t have. Some journalists have commented that OutRage!’s profile and effectiveness is comparable to that of an organisation like Greenpeace. But Greenpeace has an annual budget of £2.5 million and over 60 full-time paid staff. For us to have such an impact, given our lack of paid staff and proper campaign resources, is an amazing achievement.
Do you see advantages in the organisation not having paid workers?
We’ve always felt that the voluntary principle is important. Our motivation is idealism, not careerism. Although it’s not impossible to run a group without an element of differentiation between the members, it’s important that the differentiation is based on skills and commitment rather than an imposed hierarchical structure. We’ve never had any officers or leaders, such as a chair or a director. It’s always infuriated me personally, and everyone else in OutRage!, that the press often describe me as a leader of OutRage!. I’m not, and I don’t want to be. I’m no more important than anybody else in the group. I do have a particular adeptness in handling the media, but just because I’m often the spokesperson for the group, that doesn’t make me more important than anyone else. Contrary to the way it’s often portrayed, my view doesn’t always hold sway in OutRage!. I’ve been outvoted on many, many, many issues. In retrospect, sometimes that’s been a good thing.
You say that you are not the leader of OutRage!, but you do often do much of the media work. I know that you drafted many of the press releases issued by OutRage!, for example.
Often I’ve been asked to draft press releases on behalf of OutRage! because I’m a journalist by profession and I’ve got the expertise and know-how to do that job. Most of the time, I’ve made sure that other people from the group are quoted on our press releases. I have tried to include everyone from within the core activist group as an OutRage! spokesperson, on a more or less rotating basis. There’s also an attempt at gender parity wherever possible, so that a press release will often contain a quote from both a lesbian and a gay man in OutRage!
We’ve always attempted to be a democratic, egalitarian, non-hierarchical, grassroots organisation. In that context, singling one person out is counter to the ethos of the group. One of the reasons that has happened is partly because prior to the establishment of OutRage!, I was well known to the media – largely because I stood as a Labour candidate for the Bermondsey by-election and to a lesser extent because of my subsequent writing and activism on gay issues. Even before the establishment of OutRage! everyone in the media knew my name and telephone number. I was easy access.
One of the problems was that many people in OutRage! had full time jobs or studies, so they weren’t readily available to journalists. By and large the media works on a nine-to-five schedule. Because I’m freelance and work from home, I was available. Moreover, on a lot of lesbian and gay rights issues, I’ve done ground-breaking research and investigative journalism, so I have a huge compendium of facts and knowledge at my fingertips. When the media need information, often when they’ve gone to other people in OutRage! they haven’t got it, so they end up coming back to me.
Having said that the media use you for information, much media attention on you personally has been disparaging and critical.
My name has been both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand it’s given the media a readily accessible and knowledgeable contact for the group, but it’s also meant that my profile has superseded that of other members. I’ve always had the view that the media is something to be treated with suspicion and caution, given it’s homophobic record. But it’s also something that can be used beneficially to promote awareness and understanding of lesbian and gay issues. It’s a very dicey game – sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. If OutRage! had adopted a paranoid attitude towards the media, as some other lesbian and gay groups have done, we never would have been so successful in raising public consciousness about key aspects of homophobic discrimination. Sometimes we got our fingers burnt, but overall, on balance, the effect has been very positive.
OutRage! has defined itself as a ‘direct action’ group, but I’ve noticed, especially recently, that much of its work has been along more traditional lines – articles, information, letter-writing campaigns. Do you see this as direct action?
OutRage! has survived three times as long as the Gay Liberation Front. We are the oldest, longest established lesbian and gay direct action group in the world. One of the reasons for our longevity is our flexibility and adaptability. We haven’t dogmatically stuck to direct action to the exclusion of everything else. All through OutRage!’s history, direct action has been the core, but there have always been elements of advice, support and counselling, the fighting of individual cases, and a very strong element of letter-writing and negotiating with the authorities as a follow up to direct action. I’d liken OutRage!’s direct action strategy to a form of non-violent guerrilla war. We’re a small organisation confronting immensely powerful homophobic individuals and institutions. We cannot hope to defeat them in a full-frontal assault. What we can do, through a war of attrition, is harass and wear down the supporters of homophobia and the institutions that sustain discrimination.
OutRage! is constantly challenging homophobia. We’re calling the people who perpetuate discrimination to account. Often we confront them personally face-to-face, in a bid to shame, ridicule and embarrass them. Our aim is to destroy their credibility and to make them rethink whether being homophobic is worth all the difficulties we can cause them. It’s very rare that we win a set-piece battle, but the long-term effect of ceaselessly challenging homophobia is to wear down and undermine our enemies.
There have often been tensions between OutRage! as a direct action group and Stonewall as a lobbying organisation. Do you see the two forms of campaigning as incompatible with each other?
OutRage! partly came into existence to fill a gap created by all the things Stonewall that wasn’t. OutRage! has always had an agenda beyond equality. While we accept that equality is an important principle, we also acknowledge that it has its limitations. Equal rights within a straight-dominated society inevitably means equality on heterosexual terms. We conform to their agenda. OutRage! has consistently sought to articulate a post-equality agenda which seeks to renegotiate the values, institutions and laws of straight society – challenging not just homophobia but also the authoritarian and puritanical nature of the dominant social institutions. What we want is a new agenda that will not only safeguard the human and sexual rights of lesbians, gays and bisexuals, but ultimately to do likewise for straight people as well. Our agenda is about transforming society, not conforming to it. Stonewall has always had an assimilationist agenda, it doesn’t question the parameters of heterosexual society. It seeks equality within the status quo.
Most people in OutRage! have always accepted that there is a role for different tactics. Sometimes direct action is the number one priority. At other times negotiation might be important. Lobbying and direct action need not be mutually exclusive. They can often complement each other. We have frequently found that OutRage! direct action protests have pushed lesbian and gay issues into the headlines, thereby promoting public awareness and debate. This has put homophobes under pressure and enabled more orthodox lobbying groups like Stonewall to be invited to the negotiating table.
Although we have different tactics and aims to Stonewall, OutRage! has always tried to work with them and sought to acknowledge their role and contribution. That generosity has often not been reciprocated. Stonewall frequently comes across as attempting to claim the credit for everything that’s ever been achieved by the gay community. They tend not to acknowledge other groups. It is not just OutRage! that gets ignored. The contribution of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, GALOP, Lesbian & Gay Employment Rights and many other organisations are never acknowledged. Stonewall styles itself as “the” lesbian and gay lobbying group – not “a” lesbian and gay lobbying group but “the” lesbian and gay lobbying group. That smacks of arrogance and empire building. It has more than a whiff of an attempt to monopolise the whole agenda and every gain for themselves.
One of the criticisms levelled at direct action groups such as OutRage! is that you are just creating stunts, amateur dramatics. Is OutRage! just a group of publicity seekers?
The people who criticise OutRage!’s actions as mere stunts are by and large living in the past. They are wedded to an old-style leftist idea that the way to protest is by organising a march and a rally. That has been done to death. It’s become predictable, routine, boring and no longer newsworthy – unless, of course, you get half a million people. OutRage! has had the sense to recognise that we live in a modern telecommunications era where the main means of social communication is through newspapers, television and radio. A march through a major city can reach maybe a few thousand people who might happen to witness it passing, whereas a creative, exciting direct action stunt can generate news and current affairs coverage that will result in the issues getting out to a wider audience of millions. The OutRage! agenda is, at least partly, about promoting public awareness and debate concerning homophobic discrimination. The most effective way to achieve that is to do something that gets the issue reported.
None of us in OutRage! are interested in getting publicity for ourselves. Many times we’ve been approached by newspapers and television programme makers for personal profiles about people within the group. Every time we’ve turned down those proposals. We’re not interested in speaking to the media except to articulate the ideas and issues that OutRage! is fighting for.
If I was interested in personal publicity I would have accepted some of the suggested offers that I take up a career in television. Over the years it’s been suggested to me several times that I apply for certain jobs presenting television programmes or doing research and news reporting.
The BBC wanted to do a major television programme, possibly a series, on the people behind OutRage! but we turned it down because we felt it would focus on personalities to the exclusion of the lesbian and gay equality agenda. In recent years, OutRage! has fed hundreds and hundreds of gay stories to TV and radio programme makers and the press. Often we haven’t featured in those programmes and articles ourselves, but we’ve got positive coverage for same-sex couples seeking to adopt children, for gay people experiencing discrimination in employment and so on.
Even negative publicity isn’t always as bad as it seems. Although there may be some short-term damage, the longer-term effect is to help normalise homosexuality. In a society that wants to keep homosexuality invisible, anything that can help create visibility for queer issues has a beneficial long-term effect. A lot of the fears and phobias around gay sexuality arise because straight people are scared, either of the unknown or of things they regard as unusual or odd. Over time, our effort to put the queer agenda into the public domain has resulted in homosexuality, gradually but surely, becoming normalised. This normalisation is part of the process of undermining people’s fears and anxieties.
In 1992, when the focus groups were abolished, OutRage! was accused of being a white, male, middle class club, that it didn’t represent the views of other groups within the queer community. Do you accept that criticism?
The caucus groups had become monopolised by people who were hostile to the aims and objectives of OutRage! Their first loyalty was not to fighting homophobia but other political agendas, even to other political groups. They were coming to OutRage! on behalf of revolutionary socialist sects in a bid to take over the group. Most of the women in OutRage! were not involved in LABIA. Most of the working class people did not participate in the working class caucus. Most of the black people in OutRage! were not in ETHNIC. When the vote to disband the caucus groups was taken, there were about 60 people at the meeting. From my recollection only three people voted against disbanding the groups. None of the women in the meeting voted in favour of retaining LABIA, none of the black people wanted to retain the black group.
OutRage! doesn’t have the same profile it did a few years ago. Do you think, given the current political climate, that as an organisation it has a future?
Every organisation has its birth, life and death. No group goes on forever – just think of the Whigs and Independent Labour Party, now consigned to history. There may well come a time when OutRage! is no longer necessary or justified, but that time is not yet. Over recent months and years OutRage! has kept the queer banner flying. We are still doing direct action and still helping to set the lesbian and gay civil rights agenda.
Copyright Ian Lucas and Peter Tatchell 1998
To connect to the OutRage! website, click here: www.OutRage.org.uk