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Why shock tactics and direct action is necessary

Direct action protests have played - and continue to play -  an important role in challenging homophobia, writes Peter Tatchell.

Isn’t it great to see the police marching in the Pride Parade in London nowadays? How times change. A mere 15 years ago the police were at war with the lesbian and gay community.  

Over 30 gay men were murdered between 1986 and 1990, and the police made little effort to bring the killers to justice. Instead of protecting us against queer-bashers, they poured massive resources into raiding parks, toilets, bars and saunas, arresting gay men for victimless behaviour.  

By 1989, the number of convictions for the consenting gay offence of ‘gross indecency’ was greater than in 1966, when male homosexuality was still totally illegal in Britain.  

Respectable gay groups like Stonewall met the police and attempted to negotiate an end to the homophobic witch-hunts. The police were absolute charmers. They listened, smiled and nodded. But a few days later the raids and arrests resumed. Lobbying didn’t work.  

Our community was being conned. The police were using their meetings with Stonewall as a PR exercise. OutRage! concluded the only way to get a change of policy was by a carefully planned strategy of confrontation, designed to shame and embarrass the police. 

Beginning in June 1990, we launched wave of hit-and-run, guerrilla-style protests. These included invading police stations that were organising raids on cruising grounds, photographing undercover pretty police, posting warning signs to frustrate police entrapment operations, and disrupting public appearances by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. 

By publicising the huge costs involved in police stake-outs of parks and toilets, and by demanding the police concentrate on serious crimes like assaults and robberies, we won huge public and media sympathy. In contrast, the police were made to look oppressive and sex-obsessed, with a perverse sense of priorities. For them, it was a PR disaster. 

Within three months of OutRage! starting the campaign, the police opened their first serious negotiations with gay community groups. Within a year, they agreed to five of OutRage!’s key demands for a non-homophobic policing policy. Within three years, the number of men convicted of ‘gross indecency’ fell by two-thirds – the biggest, fastest fall ever recorded.

Direct action protests got results when lobbying had failed. As a result, thousands of gay men were saved from arrest and spared a criminal record.  

On nearly every queer civil rights issue the pattern has been the same. Discrimination was largely ignored and unacknowledged until radical protests put it in the headlines. Homophobes refused to relent until they were forced to back down by demos that were deliberately engineered to make them look bigoted and bad. 

The Kiss-In in Piccadilly Circus in 1990 was classic example of this strategy. Fed up with the arrest of same-sex couples for showing affection in public, OutRage! organised 200 queer lovers to defy the law.

We challenged the police to arrest us. Most heteros were aghast to learn that gay couples could be arrested for kissing. We won the battle for hearts and minds. Made to look like heavy-handed kill-joys, the police backed down and agreed to halt all arrests for affectionate behaviour.  

The Kiss-In demonstrated the cathartic, catalytic value of confrontation. Shock tactics are sometimes necessary in order to expose injustice and kick-start the process of reform.  

No movement for social justice has secured its goals without resorting to a degree of provocation. If the Suffragettes had confined themselves to writing letters to MPs, votes for women would have been long delayed. It was only when they got uppity and angry that female suffrage became a hot political issue.  

Many of us in OutRage! draw our political inspiration from the Suffragettes. We have attempted to adapt and develop their methods of direct action protest to the contemporary struggle for queer human rights. 

This influence was evident in the 1992 ‘Equality Now!’ campaign - a rolling series of civil disobedience protests that continued non-stop for six months. It began with a ‘March On Parliament for Queer Equality’. Two hundred of us tried to march to the House of Commons in defiance of the Sessional Orders that prohibit demonstrations within a mile of parliament.  

There were mass arrests, including the arrest of OutRage! supporters, the film- director Derek Jarman and the pop star Jimmy Somerville. Our campaign for queer freedom became headline news.  

The discrimination we were fighting against was suddenly the subject of serious public debate. This was at a time when gay civil rights issues rarely rated a mention in news bulletins and current affairs programmes.  

Direct action worked then - and it is still needed now. We’ve made great strides in recent years. But the law continues to treat us as second class citizens, with no legal protection against homophobic discrimination and a ban on same-sex marriage.

Sport, religion, business and education remain bastions of institutional homophobia. Until these last citadels of prejudice are conquered, the need for radical, feisty, irreverent protest will remain undiminished. 

Peter Tatchell has been campaigning for human and queer rights for more than 40 years and is the founder of queer direct action group Outrage!

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