Peter Tatchell: Direct action is sometimes the only option

From the Geraldine Aves Memorial Lecture, delivered by the gay rights activist at the Royal Society of Arts, in London
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What do Mahatma Gandhi, Sylvia Pankhurst and Martin Luther King have in common? The answer: they were all volunteers. They volunteered their time and commitment to struggles for social justice and human rights. Their kind of volunteering is, however, a far cry from the public perception of volunteer endeavour.

Volunteering has a cuddly, kindly image. It is not normally associated with the controversies and confrontations that often characterise political campaigns against oppression and injustice.

In the long battle for queer human rights, with which I have been associated for the past 33 years, the rolling back of prejudice, discrimination and violence has been secured primarily by the self-help initiatives of voluntary associations of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

My experiences in the queer human rights group OutRage! are typical. We are an all-volunteer organisation, with no staff, no office and no formal funding; sustained solely by the voluntary efforts of an idealistic core of activists who are passionate in their quest for queer emancipation.

Most of us have full-time jobs. We sacrifice our spare time to campaign for queer upliftment, sometimes placing ourselves at risk of arrest and assault when confronting the perpetrators of homophobia – who are often very powerful and influential.

Our campaign against church homophobia is a good example of volunteer political activism. For eight years, the Archbishop of Canterbury refused to meet queer rights groups. We had no option. The Archbishop had to be confronted over his support for discrimination against queers. Where could be more appropriate than in his Cathedral on Easter Sunday?

Seven people volunteered to join the protest. I was one. We understood the potentially serious personal consequences, such as arrest and imprisonment. As volunteers in a non-violent war for the liberation of the queer nation these were sacrifices we were prepared to make.

It is true that I interrupted the Archbishop's sermon. I make no apology for that. It was right and necessary to publicly challenge Dr Carey over his opposition to an equal age of consent and legal recognition for same-sex partners. His support for discrimination against homosexuals in the workplace and a ban on the fostering and the adoption of children by lesbian and gay couples had to be exposed.

When black people in South Africa disrupted church services to protest against bigotry disguised as religion they were applauded by most people of conscience and compassion.

In contrast, I was not only widely condemned, but also assaulted and bloodied by church officials, arrested and detained by the police for over six hours, and eventually convicted under the 1860 Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act.

Formerly part of the Brawling Act of 1551, this legislation makes any form of protest in a church illegal – no matter how brief and peaceful. These sweeping restrictions on the right to protest are unique. No other institution – not even Parliament – enjoys such privileged protection against dissent.

The benefits of that protest were swift and tangible. Named and shamed, the Archbishop suddenly curtailed his public advocacy of anti-queer discrimination, and he hastily met the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement for the first time. A while later, the Archbishop abandoned his opposition to queer fostering and to adoption. Voluntary action political protest does work!

Who can blame Greenpeace for wrecking GM crops and hunt saboteurs for saving foxes from being torn to shreds by dogs? Their methods get results, whereas lobbying the Government has failed.

Direct action protest is a form of participatory democracy. Direct action is a vital mechanism for the defence of democracy and liberty.