In the spring, 1999, edition of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist, DIESEL BALAAM reviewed a book by IAN LUCAS, published in November, 1998.
OutRage! has succeeded in putting lesbian and gay issues on the public agenda as never before, and its impact on gay identities and culture is undeniable. Confrontational, but never violent, they have predictably attracted a great deal of criticism, not least from other campaigning organisations piqued by the success of OutRage! – and on a fraction of their own budgets.
Stylish, audacious, and with a shrewd idea of how the media operate, they have always known when to seize the moment, shaming the rest of us for our sluggishness, apathy and inactivity. Nonetheless, it’s probably still too soon to assess the true impact of OutRage! on gay politics and wider society, so Ian Lucas’s decision to assemble an oral history of this many-headed queer phenomenon seems particularly astute. Many people from inside and outside the gay community have criticised OutRage!, with its most famous member, Peter Tatchell, coming in for some seriously nasty attacks, including from one-time GALHA chairperson Daniel O’Hara.
But as this book shows, the group itself was riven by internal dissent. Two groups in particular seem to have been very big thorns in the side of the OutRage! body politic – a faction of the International Trotskyist Committee for the Political Regeneration of the Fourth International (all three of them), and a clique of post-modern journalists, whose theory may improve on that of obsolete socialist stalwarts, but whose practical contribution to OutRage! seems to have been somewhat negligible. The heated arguments and bitchiness continue to this day, via the personal testimonies that punctuate Lucas’s deliberately cool narrative prose.
For those involved in any way with gay politics during the past decade, landmark protests and events are re-lived and illumined from the “inside” by those directly involved. Many key players, quoted here, will be familiar to members of GALHA – John Jackson and Marina Cronin speak eloquently and well – and more than once Peter Tatchell’s humanity shines through when he is likened, affectionately, to a mother hen protecting and fussing over her chicks.
Judging by this book, many actions fell short of expectations, while others appear cheap and puerile (the “bend over for your member” protest is a case in point, when a line of gay men pulled their trousers down outside the Houses of Parliament). However, most were well-researched, displaying imagination, daring, and panache – the famous “kiss-in” around the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus, to highlight discriminatory laws against public displays of affection being an obvious example, together with the “Turn-Yourself-In” demo at Bow Street Police Station, and the “Queer Weddings” in Trafalgar Square.
They were also present at the near riot outside the Houses of Parliament in 1994, when the House of Commons refused an equal age of consent, despite reformers “winning all the arguments”. While the Stonewall representatives appealed for calm (no doubt anxious that their Labour Party junketings were about to disappear down the pan), OutRage! recognised instantly that at this particular juncture, a riot was the only dignified and appropriate response.
But perhaps the most famous and controversial actions of OutRage! involved the “outing” of allegedly closeted homosexuals. Picking on the harmless Jason Donovan does seem unfair in retrospect, but only the lily-livered could object to the exposing of hypocritical Tories, bishops and Christian pop singers. The history of “outing” in the UK is well-documented here; how it took its early lead from Queer Nation in the US, via the originally serious intention to “out” 200 leading public figures, through to the coincidental death of bigoted Ulster Unionist MP Sir James Kilfedder, who had a heart attack shortly after receiving a letter gently inviting him to “come out”.
Sadly, the opportunity to out the 200 prominent figures (thus changing the parameters of debate in this country forever) was fudged and frittered away, with the feeble claim that it was all just a hoax to expose tabloid hypocrisy. This was a rare instance of OutRage! losing its nerve, but it nonetheless generated useful public debates about the role of homosexuals in public life.
From its inception, OutRage! was on a collision course with the Church, and some of its most colourful, entertaining, and even surreal zaps have taken place in churches. While the Daniel O’Haras of this world are content to muse over which bishops may, or may not, be gay, OutRage! has been laying siege to the pulpits, releasing helium-filled condoms inside Catholic Cathedrals, and wrecking meetings of the “ex-gay” movement. Admittedly, a disproportionate amount of time and energy has been devoted to the increasingly irrelevant Church of England, but as the book makes clear, it is a simple and effective strategy for grabbing publicity, and taking the piss out of Christians is always enormous fun.
OutRage! has also broken new ground by tackling the Moslem menace – the sinister legacy of Britain’s post-war immigration policies – but here the response, to date, has been strangely and unnecessarily reticent.
Terror groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir are quite up-front about their intention to seize power and kill homosexuals, yet the response of some OutRage! members in the face of this threat seems like political correctness gone mad. Take, for example, this limp-wristed response, from one Simon Edge: “Hizb-ut-Tahrir were being vilified in the Press. I thought it was a bit dodgy to say ‘Yeah, yeah, we hate them too’, because we’re gay.”
Tellingly, the book highlights the great emotional toll OutRage! has taken out on its core membership, but in its determination to push the debates forward, and the ability to seize the moment, it has changed the political and cultural landscape of gay identity for good. I think we could all do with taking a leaf out of
this illuminating book.