Obituary: Martin Corbett

Martin Corbett was one of the great unsung heroes of the struggle for homosexual human rights. Although rarely taking the limelight himself, his behind-the-scenes organisational skills played a crucial role in every gay rights campaign over the last 25 years. No one else can claim such a distinguished and unbroken record of commitment.

Corbett's activism began in 1971, when he joined the newly-formed Gay Liberation Front. This was the first movement of openly gay people and the first to demand nothing less than total acceptance and full equality.

Having witnessed the failure of polite lobbying to win the repeal of anti-gay laws, Corbett enthusastically embraced GLF's unapologetic, assertive direct action. This idea that homophobia had to be confronted and challenged - not appeased - remained the lodestar of his activism for the rest of his life.

Drawing on the queer tradition of camp, GLF invented a whole new style of political campaigning, "protest as perfor-mance", where the claim for human rights was projected with imagination, daring and wit (in-stead of the usual boring leftist format of the march and rally).

With the creativity of a stage designer and the technical know-how of a structural engineer, Corbett was the quartermaster and prop-maker for many of GLF's zany zaps.

One of his masterpieces was a giant 12ft cucumber, which he delivered to the managing director of Pan Books. This was GLF's irreverent reponse to the Dr David Reuben's homophobic tome, Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex (1971), which suggested that gay men were obsessed with shoving vegetables up their backsides.

As well as wacky theatricals, GLF also conducted serious civil disobedience campaigns. Corbett was one of the orchestrators of the freedom rides and sit-ins that ended the refusal by west London pubs to serve "poofs", and was delighted that the police sent the heavies of the Flying Squad to deal with a non-violent pub occupation.

Along with the other GLFers, Corbett founded ground- breaking community institutions, like Gay Switchboard in 1974 (the first major gay information and advice service) and Gay News in 1972 (the first gay community newspaper). After the demise of GLF in 1973, he was prominent in the Gay Activists' Alliance, and in the campaign to defend Gay News in 1977 when it was prosecuted by Mary Whitehouse for blasphemy.

In the Eighties, he helped to convene the important (but regrettably fractious) Legislation for Lesbian and Gay Rights Conference which led to the formation of the Organisation for Lesbian & Gay Action. It was OLGA, with Corbett's crucial input, that spearheaded the fight against the notorious Section 28, which banned the so-called "promotion" of homosexuality by local authorities.

Galvanised by a spate of horrific queer-bashing murders and apparent police indifference, Corbett co-founded the direct action group OutRage!, in 1990. Incensed to discover that more men had been arres-ted for victimless homosexual behaviour (mostly cottaging and cruising) in 1989 than in 1966 (the year before the ostensible decriminalisation of male homosexuality), he eagerly joined the invasion of police stations and the busting of police entrapment operations in parks and toilets.

While years of negotiations by respectable gay lobbyists had done little to diminish police homophobia, this campaign helped produce dramatic results: from 1990 to 1994 the number of men convicted of consensual gay acts fell by two-thirds. As Corbett was fond of reminding the critics of direct action, this turnaround in policing policy has saved thousands of gay men from being dragged before the courts.

When in 1994 OutRage! decided to expose hypocrites and homophobes in the Church of England, calling on them to "Tell The Truth" about their sexuality, Corbett was one of the first to offer to name names. "If Bishops bash the gay community, we've got every right to bash them back," he argued.

Corbett's last activism was eight months ago when, despite illness, he joined the OutRage! zap of the Buckingham Palace Christmas Staff Ball, in protest at the Queen's decree that gay male employees were forbidden to bring their partners. With typical humour, Corbett turned up waving a pennant: "What's a ball without fairies!"

In appreciation of his quarter of a century commitment to gay liberation, Corbett was canonised as a Living Saint by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence on his 50th birthday. He took the title, Saint Martin of the Million Meetings.

Peter Tatchell

Martin Roger Corbett, lesbian and gay activist: born London 27 November 1944; died London 11 July 1996.