Vatican Embassy protest, 1992Stephen Mayes / Outrage!

Best known for his advocacy of LGBT+ rights, Peter Tatchell has been a key figure in queer political activism for more than 50 years. Over this period, what it means to be LGBT+ in Britain has changed dramatically. Working as part of various queer activist organisations, Tatchell has been at the centre of this process of change. One such group was OutRage!, which Tatchell co-founded 30 years ago this month.

It is here that we begin our (Zoom) conversation. Peter explains that, when OutRage! was founded, more than 20 years on from the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, “Britain was still a very oppressive place for LGBT+ people. By the late 1980s, there were rocketing arrests of gay men for victimless behaviour as a result of police raids on gay saunas, bars, public toilets and parks. A young attractive officer would be chosen to dress up in a gay style and go to a gay cruising area and give men the come on. Any man who responded would then be arrested by a nearby concealed police snatch squad.”

But the final straw for the founders of OutRage! was the kicking to death of the gay actor Michael Booth in West London in April 1990. “He was just the latest of dozens of horrific murders of gay and bisexual men often involving frenzied attacks where the victim was stabbed 30 or 50 times,” he tells me. “This sort of queerbashing was rife and the police did only perfunctory investigations. Some officers openly said ‘what do you expect if you’re queer’.”

In response, OutRage! decided to stage bold, attention-grabbing direct action protests to raise public awareness around the scale of homophobic, biphobic and transphobic discrimination. These included occupations of police stations and bars known for homophobic discrimination, holding mass kiss-ins in public squares and interrupting police press conferences and church services. 

I ask why they opted for this approach. “We tried negotiating with the police and government. We got nowhere. Faced with official intransigence, we looked to the history of the suffragettes and the black civil rights movement in America as a model of direct action protest to force LGBT+ issues into the headlines and onto the political agenda. Our rational was to do exciting, daring, imaginative, often spectacular, public protests in order to get media coverage. It generated a huge public and political debate. That in turn put the authorities under pressure to change”. 

Equality Now March on Parliament, February 1992Stephen Mayes / Outrage!

This time, Tatchell says, the police lost the PR battle: “In desperation, they pleaded with us to come back to the negotiating table, which we did. But we didn’t return empty handed. We came back with a dozen concrete, achievable proposals for a non-homophobic policing policy. These included things like appointing an officer to liaise with the LGBT+ community, monitoring homophobic hate crimes and giving gay men cautions rather than arresting them and charging them for victimless offences. Within three years, the number of gay and bisexual convicted for consenting behaviour fell by two-thirds. That’s the biggest, fastest fall ever recorded.”

Whilst OutRage! took inspiration from earlier feminist and African-American civil rights movements, its style was also distinctly queer. Tatchell explains that the group “drew on the LGBT+ traditions of camp and theatricality. The kiss-in in 1990 was a classic example. In this era, same-sex couples could be arrested, convicted and fined for public displays of affection such as kissing or cuddling. To protest this, we organised a mass kiss-in of 200 couples under the statue of eros in Picadilly Circus. One hour before the protest was due to begin, the police announced that from that moment onward no same-sex couples would be arrested for affection in public. We won before the kiss-in even began. It turned into a huge celebration which drew vast crowds of people.” 

Many of OutRage!’s activities were also deeply controversial. The group received criticism for its strategy of outing public figures who were secretly gay but publicly supported homophobic legislation. Reflecting 30 years on, does Tatchell have any regrets around the invasion of privacy that this tactic involved? “Outing was a last, desperate tactic when all reasonable attempts at negotiation had been rebuffed,” he insists. “Our targets were public figures who were homophobic and hypocritical. They were invading our privacy by seeking to criminalise and discriminate against LGBT+ people.” He also stressed that many Tory MPs at the time were being outed for promoting family values while having adulterous affairs, yet “there was never any criticism of them being exposed”.   

As the group’s most high profile activist, Tatchell bore the brunt of the abusive backlash that their activism provoked. “I was physically violently assaulted almost every week”, he tells me. “Nearly all the teeth in my mouth got chipped and cracked. I was assaulted with fists, boots, iron bars, bricks and bottles. All my requests for police protection were turned down.”

I ask about the effect these attacks have had on his mental health. “For many years, I suffered from severe post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It was just constant, week after week, month after month, year after year,” Tatchell says. “I’m quite tough, but I was very frightened. I kept on reassuring myself that at least I wasn’t a human rights defender in Iran or Russia. If I was I’d probably end up imprisoned, tortured or even killed.”

"I was assaulted with fists, boots, iron bars, bricks and bottles. All my requests for police protection were turned down.”

This sort of international perspective has always been a key feature of Tatchell’s activist work. He has been particularly critical of those in the West who, he says, often choose not to campaign against human rights violations in non-Western countries, fearing that their interventions would be denounced as neo-imperialist. He is quick to emphasise, “All my international work has been at the behest of activists in the countries concerned. They’ve approached me to help publicise and amplify the oppression they suffer and their fight-back against it.”

OutRage!’s ‘Stop Murder Music Campaign’, for instance, was an initiative that came from JFLAG, a Jamaican LGBT+ group. They organised a successful international boycott of Jamaican artists who advocated homophobic violence in their lyrics. As Tatchell points out, “OutRage was the only Western queer rights group to respond and support their call. Yet we got attacked for doing what we were asked by the same organisation which refused to step in to help Jamaican LGBT+ people”. He argues that their intervention was necessary because “if JFLAG activists themselves had been the visible leaders of that campaign, they would have been targeted for assassination”. So for Tatchell, “the value and power of international solidarity cannot be underestimated” - a principle that remains at the core of his campaigning work today.

Although groups like OutRage! and the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) have helped to secure huge advances for LGBT+ people in both public attitudes and legal rights and protections, many of their more radical demands have been sidelined. The core ethos of the GLF, for example, was “innovate, don’t assimilate”. Yet the articulation of ‘gay politics’ which seems to have won out today is one which largely advocates for inclusion into established structures, of marriage, the family and the nation.

1967 Act protest, July 1992Stephen Mayes / OutRage!

By contrast, Tatchell explains that “both the Gay Liberation Front and OutRage! took the view that mere equality was not enough. We did not want to be equal within a fundamentally flawed, unjust society. So our agenda was much more than equality. Other LGBT+ groups often say things like ‘we’re just like you’. But that erases queer identity and culture. All the existing laws, institutions and values were devised by and for the heterosexual majority, not by us. So if we seek assimilation and equality within that status quo, we are colluding and conforming to a heterosexist agenda.”

These convictions are clear in his criticism of the commercialisation of events like Pride - which he helped found in 1972. Today, its atmosphere emphasises celebration rather than protest. Corporate sponsorships by the likes of Barclays have garnered significant criticism, with Tatchell describing the event as having “sold out to Rainbow-branded capitalism”. He argues “LGBT rights has been mainstreamed - which in many ways has been very positive. But it has also often been the price of losing our own radical, dissenting queer perspective.”

"We did not want to be equal within a fundamentally flawed, unjust society. So our agenda was much more than equality."

Throughout our conversation, what comes through consistently is Tatchell’s steeliness. He’s a serious man, and seems taken aback when I ask him whether there have been any queer TV shows, films or books that have been particularly important to him. "Next question: favourite colour?” he jokes, clearly preferring to discuss the political over the personal. Towards the end of the interview, he apologises for being so tired, explaining that he has furloughed several of the staff at his foundation. He is attempting to continue operating as normal by taking on much of their work as well as his own. He still gives me an hour and a half of his time. 

The option of taking time and space for himself and allowing some of his advocacy work to take a back seat seems out of the question. I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising. Tatchell is, after all, the man who twice attempted a citizen’s arrest of former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. The man who was attacked by neo-Nazis when protesting Russian homophobia in Moscow, sustaining permanent brain damage in the process. Yet he has always continued undeterred. He seems to be the real deal, someone whose MO genuinely is cause above comfort every time.