Profile: To fight the gay fight: One battle may have been lost but the war goes on. Nick Cohen on a radical with a cause / Peter Tatchell

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The Independent Online
TWO DAYS after last week's House of Commons vote on the age of consent for gay men, Peter Tatchell, the tireless leader of 'queer civil disobedience', struck with characteristic ebullience at the heart of the Government.

Tatchell and four other members of OutRage], the gay direct action group, tracked John Major across south London. They intended a confrontation at King's College Hospital, where Major and Virginia Bottomley were opening an operating theatre. Frustrated by security, they moved to a busy main road. As the Prime Minister's Daimler drew level, they leapt in front of it and pressed posters to the window which proclaimed that OutRage] wanted legal gay sex at 16, not 18 as Major, along with a majority of MPs, had voted.

'I was just three feet away from him - he looked stunned,' said Tatchell, still high on adrenaline two hours after the stunt. 'We hoped he would be trapped in the traffic, but his car swerved across the road to avoid us. It looked as if it was going to crash into the bollards on the other side. He dived on the floor for cover and his bum was in the air. We got John Major to bend over for gay men for the first time in his life.'

This is not quite as Downing Street tells it - the Prime Minister 'was reading his papers and was unaware what was happening', according to a spokeswoman. It is hard to know who is right because Tatchell is as adept as Downing Street at public relations. He would not disclose details of the stunt in advance because, he said, his phone is tapped by Special Branch.

'How do you know?'

'Let's just say someone who was a police officer heard it from a friend. I don't mind. Major knows now that we will harry him until the age of consent is reduced.'

OutRage] is a tiny group, but Tatchell, an ex-Labour candidate who lost a parliamentary by-election after a sustained campaign of press abuse, makes all the noise on gay issues. He helped to organise the demonstration outside Parliament on Monday night which turned violent when news of the vote came through. He is planning the continuing battle with relish.

It will be fought, as all the previous battles have been fought, with an almost forgotten late 1960s radical style which drives many in the respectable wing of the gay movement to despair. Peter Tatchell's hallmarks are confrontation politics, flamboyant gestures which often fall flat, a juvenile concentration on sex, and (possibly paranoid) fears of the police state.

He has helped to organise a 'queer crucifixion' of a gay man outside Westminster Roman Catholic cathedral by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (gay male nuns) as a protest against the Vatican's condemnation of homosexuality. There have been queer weddings in Trafalgar Square, 'kiss-ins' and 'cuddle-ins' in Piccadilly Circus, 'frenzied bonking' in a Wendy house outside Parliament and a 'homo promo' of posters featuring naked gay couples outside Conservative Central Office.

It's pointless asking if drafting slogans like 'Drop Your Trousers and Bend Over for Your Member' (for a demonstration outside the Commons) is a suitable occupation for a 42-year-old. Tatchell travels anywhere to a gay meeting, answers hundreds of letters, writes articles for anyone who asks and drives even sympathetic journalists to distraction with dozens of phone calls. MPs nervously await the next stunt. Tatchell hinted last week that his group would consider 'outing' homosexual MPs who failed to vote for 16 as the age of consent. But he has been talking conspiratorially for at least two years of the 40 gay political names he could disclose. It keeps the publicity rolling. This time, perhaps he will brave the libel laws and deliver. 'I will consider anything but violence,' he said last week.

PETER TATCHELL was born to a poor family in 1952 in Melbourne, then a very conservative Australian city. His father was a lathe operator; his mother's asthma needed constant treatment. They were also evangelical Christians. 'You know . . . Pentecostalists, real loonies,' he shouts. 'The beliefs were all narrow and illiberal. Swearing, drinking and pre- marital sex were the most dreadful things in the world.'

He was school captain and had a few chaste relationships with girls. He was known as Peter Pansy, though he had not then 'come out'. He left at 17 and got a job as a window dresser and signwriter in a department store. The shop was a small haven for camp culture. He met gay men and 'realised they weren't monsters'. He moved in with Robert, a 21-year-old from the store.

His parents were let down gently. Hints were dropped, remarks made over the months, until one day his mother wrote to him saying she had seen a programme on the television about 'homosexuals . . . which I assume is what you are'.

By 18, he was already organising gay groups, as well as demonstrations against the Vietnam war. Like an old general he relives longforgotten protests. 'What Robert and I were doing was illegal. The police could burst in at any time with sledgehammers. They beat up homosexuals . . . killed them, no one minded.'

At 21, he emigrated to Britain to avoid the Vietnam call-up. Within five days, he had become a founder member of the British Gay Liberation Front. London gays changed his nickname from Peter Pansy to Peggy Tatchell.

In 1973, he pulled off a stunt that set the style for the rest of his life. At the World Youth Festival in East Berlin, he went to the podium and condemned the persecution of homosexuals in the Soviet bloc. The microphone went dead and when it came back on the translators stopped translating. But he kept talking and was later, he says, 'violently attacked by security police'. He has been attacked many times. He kept a record of the number of assaults and threats he received, but stopped when it topped 300.

Tatchell yawns ostentatiously when you mention the Bermondsey by-election. The story is well known. In 1982 the Bermondsey Labour Party selected Tatchell to fight the seat after Bob Mellish, the right-wing Labour MP, announced he was to retire at the next general election. Furious at the decision, Mellish resigned the Labour whip and then quit Parliament, forcing a by-election in 1983. Michael Foot, then Labour leader, had said he would not endorse Tatchell because of his support for militant extra-parliamentary action. But Tatchell remained the candidate. A rival right-wing 'real Labour' candidate drove around Bermondsey in a horse and cart singing, to the tune of 'My old man's a dustman':

Tatchell is a poppet, as pretty as can be,

But he must be slow if he don't know he won't be your MP

Tatchell is an Aussie, he lives in a council flat,

He wears his trousers back to front 'cos he don't know this from that.

Tatchell lost a hitherto 'safe' Labour seat by nearly 10,000 votes to the Liberals, who have held it ever since. He says he has talked about it too many times, and it has no connection with the main concern of his life. During the campaign he had to keep quiet about homosexual issues and furiously deny he had ever been to a Gay Olympics. Now he can shout his views from the rooftops.

CONVENTIONAL gay lobby groups such as Stonewall, which have worked patiently behind the scenes to convince MPs that anti- homosexual laws should be changed, keep a nervous distance from Tatchell.

'He drives me absolutely wild,' said one campaigner. 'I don't think he realises the damage he does.' Tatchell does not stop at calling for equality before the law, but proclaims the superiority of the gay life, arguing that homosexual relationships are less exploitative than heterosexual relationships. 'Sample a free trial offer of homosexuality,' proclaimed banners outside Tory Central Office in 1992. 'Hear the stories of straights turned queer. Rejoice at being saved from hetero hell.'

But even his fiercest opponents admit to a grudging respect. Not all his work is stunts and gestures. He forced the Home Office to reveal how many gay men are arrested for showing affection in public or cruising for a partner.

He is also completely dedicated to the cause. He lives alone in a one-bedroom council flat in a block behind the Elephant and Castle roundabout - one of the poorest and ugliest areas of London. He exists on social security and earnings from articles. Books and a large cassette collection are the only luxuries.

'Yes, he can be meddlesome, obscene and utterly exasperating,' said one gay activist. 'He is also incredibly kind and committed. He could have got a high-paid job in the public sector as an equal opportunites officer or something. Instead he lives on virtually no money at all and brings homemade sandwiches to meetings because he can't afford to eat out.

'He will go and talk to meetings anywhere in the country or give people money if he has it and they need it. He nearly always forgets to ask for a fee.

'For all the respectable support we are now getting, I don't think that the cause would be where it is now without the likes of him and Derek Jarman. He just won't collude with the establishment, you see.'

(Photograph omitted)