In the early Eighties, Peter Tatchell was an aspiring Labour MP. Then he abandoned the hustings for the more radical world of gay activism: demonstrating, protesting and, now, `outing' clergy. Is there a secret to this ubiquitous agitator's enduring n
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ONE MORNING a few days ago at Church House in central London, as delegates glided into the second day of the Synod, a vicar stood on the front steps in sandals and fluorescent socks. He carried a placard critical of the arms trade, and wore a long stole heavy with badges of protest. His name was Alfred Willetts, and he argued that to sell arms was to engage in mass murder by proxy. Nobody took the slightest bit of notice of him.

Suddenly, a few feet away, there was an "action" by the gay and lesbian human rights group OutRage!. With the stiff, half-grinning shuffle of shepherds in a school nativity play, youngish men and women secured the Church House steps. One man was dressed as a nun. Suddenly there were photographers taking pictures, and journalists asking questions, and policemen showing polite concern about obstruction. Posters read: "Stop Sacking Gay Clergy", and "Gay Bishops Are Hypocrites", and "Anglican Homophobia Destroys Lives". Ten placards each carried the name of a different Church of England bishop thought by OutRage! to be gay.

Peter Tatchell, now 42 years old, a one- time Labour parliamentary candidate in Bermondsey, and a founder of OutRage! in 1990, has done this kind of thing before. Peter Tatchell's expert propagandist's mind has afforded his tiny group (which has no formal membership, but instead has a body of support defined by who turns up to the weekly meetings held in Central London) an extraordinarily high profile: there was the symbolic burning of "queer martyrs" in Canterbury High Street in 1991 (Tatchell is vigorous in use of the word ``queer''), a gay wedding at Trafalgar Square, the release of helium-filled condoms in Westminster Cathedral, a "queer crucifixion", and - a month ago - disruption of the enthronement of the new Bishop of Durham, a man given a conditional discharge 26 years ago for an act of gross indecency. In Durham, in a routine now familiar to him, Tatchell was arrested but released without charge.

Like that of his organisation, the name Tatchell should probably, as a rule, be attached to an exclamation mark: his handshake is firm, his voice is loud, his eye contact and commitment unswerving. Peter Tatchell! does do some quieter things - he writes books, for instance - but this is currently where he is most likely to be seen: making a noisy, punning, confrontational, media-friendly and rather brave complaint at an event that has some religious or mock-religious content. Rejecting, for the moment, more obvious seats of political power, Peter Tatchell - the martyr of Bermondsey, the unbelieving son of evangelical Christians, the former adolescent Sunday school teacher - has taken his argument to church.

For this most recent action, Tatchell was dressed in clerical black. He wore black jeans and a black leather jacket, and an OutRage! sweatshirt, and complicated versions of Doctor Martens shoes. He waved his arms with authority, telling colleagues - most of whom are younger than he is - where to stand, summoning them into the frames of cameras' lenses. OutRage! is a studiedly democratic organisation, in which Tatchell has no formal position, but he was in charge here, and seemed rather to fit the affectionate description of him once given by Derek Jarman: "a hen with her chicks". When every chick was in place, Tatchell spoke to reporters, making himself heard above a man with a large reverse-action vacuum cleaner, who was blowing leaves into piles on the grass of Dean's Yard.

He did not know, Tatchell said at dictation speed, that the named bishops were gay, but he knew that there were "strong persistent allegations" that they were. "Unlike the tabloids, we are not naming names in order to ridicule or denigrate these people. We see nothing shameful or disgraceful about being gay. We believe that those who are gay have a right to live their lives with pride, dignity and self-respect. We are welcoming them into the gay community in a positive sense." Given enough "out" churchmen, he said, the Church would be forced to change its position, which is to accept its gay laity, but to prohibit clergy from living a ``gay lifestyle".

For a while, the over-excited religious affairs correspondents, given perhaps their first opportunity ever to be curt with an interviewee, asked aggressive questions, and puffed: "That doesn't answer my question!", and "Hypocrite!" As they surrounded Tatchell, the outrage was all theirs. Then a debate of sorts emerged, enlivened on the one hand by Sebastian Sandys, a gay former Anglican Franciscan friar who in October publicly identified three of the 10 bishops named in this action - and on the other by a Synod member, Roger Arguile, who stopped on the steps to have his say. "You've no business being outrageously rude," he said.

The argument slid about. The target of the action became confused. Where exactly was the villainy? If the Church makes discriminatory rules that cause great pain, why this hostility to those who break them, rather than those who make them? Only two of the named bishops are in the Synod, are legislators.

Tatchell might have argued from ends to means, describing the action as a publicity stunt, whose rather casual destructiveness might be defended in the name of a greater political good - the raising of important issues in several national newspapers, eight minutes on Newsnight. But he did not. Tatchell wanted it both ways: to be thought the friend of the bishops, even while acting as their enemy. We were to understand that the bishops were being given a gift of liberation - that is, liberation from the danger of tabloid revelation and the unhappiness of a secret life. So this was not an act of destructiveness. This was a favour.

Such talk added to a vaguely alarming feel about the OutRage! action - and you did not have to be a defender of the Church of England to feel it. There seemed to be no sense of a hierarchy of responsibility. This happens elsewhere: an activist identifies an abuse of power, but then attacks those with very little power, or whose power is pretty irrelevant. A man's employers mistreat animals, so the activist mistreats the man; the Church of England demands hypocrisy, so the activist berates those the Church makes hypocrites, even while smiling at them. It was not hard, the next day, to find gay men speaking of the action with exasperation; the word used of the action by the not-gay Daily Telegraph was "terrorism", and that word was not entirely ill-judged.

Except that there was also a sense that something quite private had taken place, with limited - uncertain - ambitions beyond keeping in touch with outrage and reserving the right to make a scene. No one doubts Peter Tatchell's sincerity, and energy, but one suspected that - leaving aside the good done to young and beleaguered gay men and lesbians who might draw strength from any powerful, unbowed role-model in the newspapers - the main beneficiary of all this was not the cause (gay bishops? Who cares?), but Peter Tatchell himself, and his friends in OutRage!: protest and survive.

Shane Brownie, a young New Zealander six months in OutRage!, was handing out leaflets on the steps of Church House. He described Tatchell as a "brilliant asset, because of his profile. The press latch on to his personality." Brownie said that OutRage! is "about setting our own agenda, and getting equality on our terms. We don't claim to speak on behalf of every member of the lesbian and gay community." He then said: "A lot of members are here for themselves really. It's a kind of group therapy, really."

The Reverend Willetts, the man with the sandals and the objection to the international arms trade, had been rather trumped by OutRage!'s group therapy. "These things happen," he said, without complaint, and he slipped away past the man who was blasting, not raking, the leaves into piles.

PETER TATCHELL! lives alone in a council flat on an estate in Elephant and Castle, south London. The flat is comfortable, but quite small and brown. Badges stuck into notice boards read ``El Salvador Will Win'' and ``Join The Army, Meet Interesting People, And Kill Them''. No-one could accuse Tatchell of selling out. He supports himself, very modestly, on journalism and books (AIDS: A Guide to Survival; Europe in the Pink: Lesbian and Gay Equality in the the New Europe, and others).

There are digestive biscuits, and discussion of the therapy of protest. "I don't know," says Tatchell, speaking with his usual slow attentiveness (he often edits himself mid-flow), "about the term group therapy, but direct action in defence of the gay community is incredibly empowering and uplifting - self-empowering. It gives all of us a real sense of inner strength, and pride. After years of being kicked around by straight society, to have the self-confidence to fight back is tremendously exciting." (Later, he cannot avoid laughing at the recollection of the placard he held outside an Islamic conference in London in August: "Islam Nazis Behead and Burn Queers''.)

Is there a danger of mistaking self-empowerment for a community's empowerment?

"On Saturday night," says Tatchell, "I went to the gay nightclub Heaven [again, a sub-editor's precision]. All night I was approached by dozens of people congratulating me, and OutRage!, on naming the bishops. And almost everybody said: `Get the MPs next.' "

Will he?

"We're considering it."

OutRage! has contributed to great successes in other areas - especially in campaigns against police harassment of those committing sexual crimes that have no victim. But outing (a policy imported from America) is a tricky area, and Tatchell's defence of it never quite seems to stay still. As before, debate about the poor bishops slips around: "Failure to actively campaign against church homophobia," says Tatchell, "is complicity with the suffering of gay and lesbian people." Challenged on the harshness of that, Tatchell takes to history, in an argument that damns the Church, but seems no real defence of outing: "More than any other social institution,'' he starts, "the Church is responsible for 2,000 years of anti-gay persecution." Later, he says: "It's hypocritical for the Church to condemn homosexual acts while tolerating within its most senior ranks active homosexuals..."

Tatchell seems unable to leave the Church alone. Is this, one wonders, something to do with his childhood in Melbourne, Australia, where he was brought up by strict evangelical Christian parents, and where his faith survived to the age of 19? Tatchell denies that he is punishing the Church for a youth distracted by the God who now irritates him; rather, the Church set an example. "From a very early age," he says, "my parents instilled in me the importance of standing up for what is right." He talks of the Good Samaritan.

"I was a Sunday school teacher between the ages of about 14 to 16," he says, "with a class of about 10 young children... and the format was to talk about Bible stories and Christian teaching in a way that was intelligible to young kids. I had the most beautiful flip charts with drawings and..."

And exclamation marks! Slogans!

He laughs. "Slogans. And I used to recite the books of the Bible by rote."

He had girlfriends, but no desire to have sex with them. At 17, having already left school, he first had gay sex. "My immediate reaction was: this is what I am, and it is wonderful." From then, he had no doubt that he was gay, but for two years, during which he worked as a window and logo designer in a department store, he gamely sought to accommodate his sexuality - and his radical, anti-war politics - into a private, customised "liberation theology". He finally failed, and had to present himself as a double disappointment to his parents.

Avoiding the National Service that would have led to a Vietnam draft, Tatchell came to London in 1971, aged 19. He worked, again, in shop design and display, and was active in the Gay Liberation Front - where they knew him as "Action Man". He took A-levels at night school, and studied, from 1974-77, for a Social Services degree at the then North London Polytechnic. He then became a freelance researcher and journalist. In 1978, he joined the Labour Party; he was elected secretary of the local party in Bermondsey, where he had found a hard-to- let council flat. In 1983, despite the dismay of Michael Foot, Tatchell contested the Bermondsey by-election, in an atmosphere that persuaded Tatchell that the battle against homophobia was very far from won. Dogged by the tabloid press, far-right groups, and a "real Labour" candidate singing "Tatchell is a pop-pet, as pretty as can be" from a horse and cart, Tatchell lost by nearly 10,000 votes in a previously safe Labour seat. He returned to writing, and he returned to gay activism: Tatchell has lobbied and demonstrated and denounced tirelessly. He was a founder of the UK Aids Vigil organisation in 1987, of London Act Up (the Aids Co- alition to Unleash Power) in 1989, and of OutRage! in 1990.

"Looking back, perhaps it is just as well I wasn't elected an MP. I probably would have been bogged down with consti- tuency casework, and a fairly ineffectual role on the back benches. I could never have been so high-profile on lesbian and gay issues." Tatchell remains an "uninspired" member of the Labour Party.

ON THE mantelpiece above Peter Tatchell's gas fire there is a postcard that represents, in close-up, an act of anal sex; and, on a chair nearby, there is a copy of Tatchell's new book, Safer Sexy, which also covers this ground: it is a sex guide for gay men that has erotic as well as life-saving ambitions. Tatchell's publishers, Cassell, have placed it in an entirely new imprint, Freedom Editions. Although this wasn't exactly the intention, Cassell insists, this arrangement puts a helpful editorial distance between the new Catholic catechism, just out, and photographs of, say, "fisting".

Safer Sexy shows Tatchell's propagandising instinct at its most cheery and useful, although, as with any OutRage! action, some readers may find Tatchell's addiction to poor wordplay and shop-window sloganeering as maddening as the coyness it replaces. Instead of captions, the photographs of men having sex are overlaid with type: "Queer to Eternity"; "If He Hasn't Got It On, Don't Let Him Get It Off"; and so on. HIV is sent on its way as if an outmanoeuv-red political opponent.

"Like my work with OutRage!," says Tatchell, "my aim in this book has been to help, inspire and empower gay people, give gay men the confidence that they can be in charge of their lives, and they don't have to be cowed by the fear of HIV or homophobia."

He accepts that the exclamation marks and slang and relentless grooviness might irritate some. "But the book is aimed at young gay men, who are coming to their sexuality for the first time..." Tatchell took soundings, and found "the one thing that would make them sit up and take notice of HIV prevention material was if it was sexy and glamorous. The universal request was, you know, `more dicks and arseholes'." He laughs, throwing himself back in the chair.

More dicks and arseholes: Peter Tatchell's gay detractors speak of his ego, his childishness, his undiscriminating access to outrage in any situation, his "moral superiority", his "implied claim to speak for the gay community", and his downright "offensiveness" (Tatchell has not yet won his argument about the annexation of "queer", for example). But the same people (who perhaps support the gentler tactics of Sir Ian McKellen's Stonewall) recognise Tatchell's virtues - he keeps the agenda moving, he makes stuff happen, he makes people feel better about themselves. And it is Tatchell's very maddeningness that may serve the general cause. The only reason John Major takes tea with Ian McKellen, one argument runs, is so he does not have to take tea - please, God, no - with Peter Tatchell. Good cop, bad cop.

And if there is a selfish, therapeutic, element in an OutRage! protest, and if Tatchell's life of protest sometimes seems like an ancient addiction never thrown off, there is also something very selfless about Tatchell. His personal discomfort may be tinged with martyrdom, but is no less real for that. He has no money ("My one dream is to have a house with a garden in a quiet street in a safe neighbourhood") and he suffers almost constant intimidation - on the phone, through the post, in person. "A few years ago, I'd just started dating a new boyfriend. We were sitting down for a nice romantic dinner here in my flat. The next thing that happens, a half brick came smashing through the window across the table sending glass flying everywhere. He just went into hysterics." The boyfriend couldn't take it, and they split up.

AT THE end of our interview, on the brown sofa, in a flat almost all of whose windows have at one time been deliberately smashed, I ask Peter Tatchell if his campaign, his life's work, does not overstate the notion - the construct - of homosexuality. And he says yes. It is an odd paradox that Peter Tatchell - who has given up a lot to champion gay culture and gay rights - does not actually believe in homosexuality.

"Society marks homosexuals out as separate people deserving of differential, discriminatory treatment. We have to respond to that by defending our right to be gay and to be treated with dignity - we have to defend homosexuality in order, ultimately, to abolish it. Everybody's got an element of both hetero and homo desire. I doubt if there's any person on the planet who is 100 per cent of one orientation or another - we're a mixture of conflicting desires. Some of which we express, some of which we repress."

He pauses. "I'm happy to come out..." - he pauses again - "... about the heterosexual fragment that is part of my personality. You know, a few months ago I had a very vivid and enjoyable wet dream involving a woman partner."

Tatchell won't tell me who the woman was, but he seems glad to have got this off his chest. !