Matters that once seemed urgent, important and all-encompassing are now long forgotten, while the sense of hope and optimism that ran through a movement with a united goal can seem quaint today in light of a group of lesbians being removed from Cardiff Pride over allegations of transphobia.
Of course, there will always be factions when it comes to a large movement. But there has to be some common ground and some clearly defined ideas, otherwise the movement becomes an amorphous blob that means well but is susceptible to outside influence and ever shifting public opinion. A bit like Sinn Fein.
Published in 1998, this book is a neat little time capsule. Depicting a scrappy upstart organisation (founded by Peter Tatchell, Simon Watney and Chris Woods) who punched well above their weight in the early days (attacking the police for arresting gay men when a record number of them were being attacked, staging ‘kiss-ins’ to protest about laws around kissing in public, protesting against Benneton over their hugely misunderstood advert) before descending into a peer pressure group for Tatchell.
Somewhat scattershot in terms of narrative (there are numerous quotes from people where they speak about events in such a way that implies that the reader is familiar with every aspect of what is being discussed), it’s still easy enough to follow and enjoy, especially whenever the various disagreements emerge. Nothing like left wing in-fighting: issues that are the minutiae of an overall movement lead to splits and denunciations!
Of particular interest is the story about ‘outing’ various members of the Church of England and the Houses of Parliament. While it’s made clear that this tactic was hotly debated within Outrage!, it is deemed a partial success whenever Bishop Hope (London Bishop for the Church of England) admitted that his sexuality was something of a “grey area”.
However, the Belfast Telegraph picked up a rumour that an Ulster MP was on the list to be outed (which was blamed by some on Tatchell teasing the press with tidbits) and said MP (Ulster Popular Unionist Party MP James Kilfedder, whose order to remove the tricolour from Divis Street in 1966 inadvertently became one of the milestones that would lead to conflict) was subsequently named by the paper. The same day, Kilfedder died of a heart attack en route to London. Although it’s tricky to say for definite that the two events are linked, it does bring home that ‘outing’ people can have consequences.
Something that should be considered by gossip columnists and bored Twitter users.
Closing with the election of the Blair government, and the gradual winding down of the campaign in favour of a shift towards a general LGBT outlook (meaning that the various communities were grouped together in favour of a ‘united we stand’ approach), various members reflect on their time in Outrage!: most feel that they did make a change and that the direct action meant that they had to be taken seriously, as opposed to the likes of Stonewall (who are derided by various commentators throughout the book as an ineffective, milktoast organisation). A smaller amount suggests that the focus on gay culture and lifestyle ended up being part of the problem as it led to a segregationist attitude among some. It’s a shame this angle wasn’t explored in further detail as it is an accusation that has been levelled at several LGBT groups over the last ten years and a contemporaneous discussion of the matter would be fascinating.
A relic of a different time, certainly. But one that should still be read to not only remember what those who came before us had to go through, but also as a reminder of how once potent organisations have the potential to be derailed through in-fighting and impotent actions.
Ian Lucas, 1998, Outrage!: An Oral History. Cassell. ISBN-13: 978-0304333585
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.