'I want to be a martyr for gay rights cause'

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The Independent Online
NEARLY FOUR years ago, after "outing" the Bishop of London, Peter Tatchell declared that his ambition was to be imprisoned for fighting for homosexual equality. "I want to be a martyr," he said.

Such statements - with their characteristic mix of zealotry and self- aggrandisement - have helped to make Mr Tatchell the most maddening figure in the gay rights movement, a source of irritation even to his fellow campaigners.

The decision to let him off with a fine yesterday means that martyrdom remains a distant prospect.

No matter: he is probably already plotting his next move, another attention- grabbing stunt aimed at embarrassing a hypocritical Establishment.

When it comes to opinions of Mr Tatchell, there is no middle ground. "You either love him or loathe him," said one gay campaigner yesterday. To his opponents, he is an exasperating and egotistical self-publicist, a loose cannon whose actions set back the cause of gay rights and make him an easy target for tabloid newspaper editors. Yet there is no doubting his sincerity and energy, nor, when you meet him, his personal charm. He is articulate, erudite and utterly committed.

He first came to public notice as Labour candidate at the disastrous Bermondsey by-election of 1983, when he lost a previously rock-solid seat after vilification of his hard-left background and, at the time, suspected homosexuality.

In 1990 he was one of the founders of OutRage!, a tiny but noisy group that has been the vehicle for his flamboyant brand of confrontational politics. The group, set up in response to a sharp rise in homophobic murders, has been behind most of the provocative gay protests of recent years, such as "kiss-ins" in Piccadilly Circus, a "wedding" in Trafalgar Square and a "queer crucifixion" outside Westminster Cathedral.

It is for the tactics of "outing" Establishment figures that Mr Tatchell has been most bitterly criticised. In 1994 he and fellow activists named 10 Church of England bishops on banners brandished at a demonstration outside a General Synod meeting. The Bishop of London, the Right Rev David Hope, felt obliged to declare in 1995 that his sexuality was "a grey area" after Mr Tatchell wrote to him urging him to "out" himself. Mr Tatchell defends "outing" on the basis that he selects only those people whose public pronouncements on homosexuality are at odds with their private lives.

Mr Tatchell, born in 1952 in Melbourne, Australia, to evangelical Christian parents, came to England to avoid National Service, which would have led to a Vietnam draft.

He lives in a council flat in south London and survives mainly on income from books and articles.

Fellow campaigners salute his courage while deploring unpopular actions that he has taken, such as handing out leaflets on homosexuality at school gates.

"He is disliked by a lot of gay people because they don't like the image that he projects," said one yesterday. "But he is very likeable, and actually quite shy, when you get to know him, and he has enormous personal integrity."