The Art of Activism
Peter Tatchell outlines the unique style of 'protest as performance' pioneered by the queer rights group OutRage! '
Once upon a time, in the last years of the twentieth century, two dozen extravagantly costumed drag queens from the queer rights group OutRage! - resplendent in sequinned ball gowns and tiaras - besieged the gates of Buckingham Palace to demand entry to the annual Royal Household Christmas Ball.
We were protesting against the decree by Queen Elizabeth II that gay male Palace staff were forbidden to bring their partners to the Ball, whereas no such ban applied to the partners of straight employees.
The OutRage! entourage brandished festive, glitter-studded pennants emblazoned with the inscriptions: "What's a ball without fairies", "Queens demand an entrance", and "HM Queen: Patron of Homophobia".
As guests arrived at the Palace in their shiny limousines, the gatecrashers sang queer versions of traditional Christmas carols, such as "Hark The Herald Fairies Shout".
At a mock Queer People's Tribunal near the Palace gates, "Queen Betty" was denounced as "The Wicked Witch of Windsor". To cheers and hoots of delight, the Lord Queer Protector declared: "Since Queenie has lost her heart, let her also lose her head!".
Creative, witty and entertaining, the OutRage! style of political campaigning is an innovative fusion of art with activism. Much more extravagant and imaginative than the run of-the-mill protest march, it involves "the staging" of "political spectacles", using sets, graphics and props. The aim is to promote thought-provoking ideas through the projection of powerful, arresting imagery. Quasi-situationist, the conceptual-oriented campaign methods of OutRage! appropriate creative processes and techniques for the political purpose of queer emancipation. This cross-over between art and activism prompted the critic, Edward Lucie-Smith, to generously suggest that OutRage! merited a place in the artistic pantheon of New York's Museum of Modern Art!
One protest where art and activism came together, literally and in all senses, was the disruption of the Romanian National Opera's performance of Aida at the Royal Albert Hall. The opera was sponsored by the Romanian government as part of its cultural offensive to woo western investment. Many potential financiers were in the audience. OutRage! saw the opera as an opportunity to draw public attention to Romania's enactment of harsh new anti-gay laws, and to show the Romanian government that its suppression of gay human rights could have deleterious consequences for its economy. In the midst of the first Act, 20 members of OutRage! and the Lesbian Avengers stormed the stage, unfurling a 15 foot banner, "Romania! Stop Jailing Queers!"; meanwhile other activists in the top balconies threw a thousand leaflets onto the audience below. No doubt in part because of its daring and dramatic nature, the disruption was reported all around the world, including in Romania - much to the delight of lesbian and gay activists in Bucharest.
Many of OutRage!'s protests draw on the queer tradition of camp and theatricality, transcending the all-too-serious approach of many earlier (and some present) incarnations of agitprop. This cannot be explained solely in terms of the group attracting a surfeit of out-of-work gay actors, hairdressers, script-writers, graphic designers, stage-managers, musicians and costume-makers. More influential is the fact that OutRage! has made a conscious choice to take previously apolitical and often self-oppressing queer cultural traditions, such as drag, and turn them on their head in the service of sexual emancipation.
Another defining characteristic of the OutRage! style of nouveau activism is the idea of 'protest as performance', combining public spectacle with political message. It's akin to putting on a one-performance play in the street. Visual props, backdrops and costumes have to be made, and a script written. Activist players must rehearse their roles and lines. Someone needs to be designated to arrange transport to the site of the zap, and to set up a public address system. The whole event has to orchestrated on the day by a person behind the scenes who calls cues, and by a MC out front who introduces the various segments of the protest. The aim is to project exciting, challenging ideas and images which convey the queer agenda in a way that's accessible and appealing to the media and, through the media, to the wider public that we want to persuade.
To protest against the ban on lesbian and gay people in the armed forces, OutRage! zapped the statues of famous British military commanders outside the Ministry of Defence. Giant speech bubbles emblazoned with the words, "Can Kill! Can't Love A Man!", were held up to the mouths of these venerated military leaders. Our objective was to highlight the fact that male soldiers were regarded as heroes for killing men but treated as criminals for loving them. At the same zap, four of Britain's best known military chiefs - Admiral Mountbatten and Field Marshalls Kitchener, Haig and Montgomery - were posthumously outed. The statue of Haig in Whitehall was draped with a pink feather boa and that of Mountbatten on Horse Guards Parade had a placard slung around his neck reading: "For Queens & Country!". The sheer cheek and flamboyance of these protests ensured that the campaign against military homophobia received media coverage on a scale that was previously unprecedented. Such coverage would have been most unlikely if the protest had merely replicated the age-old formula of a march followed by speeches.
In many respects, OutRage! is reinventing - with a little more media-wise savvy - the street theatre traditions of the Gay Liberation Front in the early 1970s. GLF put "glam" into politics in ways that made the macho left wince with homophobic-inspired embarrassment.
This penchant for showy, gorgeous, laugh-a-minute, extravagant political activism has been embraced with gusto by OutRage!. Why have a march, we ask, when you can have a spectacle? What's the point boring the pants off passers-by if you can instead give them political entertainment that makes them stop, listen and think?
As OutRage! has shown with its provocative "Exorcism of Homophobia" from the Church of England and its "Queer Remembrance Day" at the Cenotaph, size isn't everything! Effective protests involve imagination, not necessarily numbers. This is something that Greenpeace has also well understood; very effectively publicising threats to the environment through small-scale but highly dramatic photo stunts. What's important is political inventiveness and the communication of ideas in ways that grab people's attention. That's why OutRage! has never been averse to using the tools of advertising agencies and public relations consultancies to popularise its often heretical, dissenting ideas.
The OutRage! theory of protest is also rooted in the 'politics of pleasure': demonstrations should, wherever possible, be fun for the participants and for those who witness them. This exaltation of the pleasure principle contradicts the ethos of most mainstream political campaigns, which seem to be predicated on a notion of duty and sacrifice.
Politics with fun was certainly the emphasis at the "Wink-In" at Piccadilly Circus. Under a law dating from the nineteenth century, it is an offence for a man to persistently "solicit or importune" in a public place for an "immoral purpose". Since homosexuality is still deemed immoral by the law, gay and bisexual men who cruise and chat up each other in the street are committing criminal acts, which remain punishable by up to two years jail (over a hundred men are prosecuted every year for this offence). Since some men have been convicted for merely winking at each other, OutRage! organised the "Wink-In". Protesters held aloft giant winking eyes, and exchanged names and phone numbers on over-sized business cards. Mocking and flouting such a ridiculous law was great fun and won OutRage! lots of new friends and admirers. We even got a call from a Japanese tourist firm who wanted details of our next protest so they could bring a tour party to watch!
In common with the ingenuity of roads protesters, OutRage! is always searching for new, original methods of challenging the injustices of the status quo. Its imaginative, expressive projections of queer visibility and human rights contrast markedly with traditional forms of protest, such as the standard march from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square. Repetitive, predictable and routine, the orthodox demo has been done to death. It's mostly a dull and dour turn-off. Where's the excitement and thrills? Isn't the emotional buzz of a protest a legitimate part of the attraction?
Moreover, what's the point of going on a demonstration if it makes no impact on the nation's consciousness? Whether we like it or not, the media is the main means of social communication and debate in modern societies. To generate awareness and motivate change, it is vital to get issues into the press, and onto radio and television. Nowadays, the customary march format is rarely deemed to merit news coverage unless it involves 100,000 people or ends up as a bloody riot. It shouldn't be like that, but that's the new reality. The only other way of getting onto news bulletins is through OutRage!-style zaps that are creative, daring or quirky.
The OutRage! agenda is as much about changing public attitudes as it is about changing the law. Repealing discriminatory legislation is very important, but a great deal of the victimisation that lesbians and gays experience has nothing to do with the legal system. It's the result of public ignorance and intolerance, which is not unrelated to the traditional invisibility of queer people and queer issues. That's why "queer visibility" is such an important element of OutRage!'s campaigning. What our critics dismiss as "media stunts" is, in fact, a well thought out strategy to bring into social consciousness that which homophobic society has always wanted to keep hidden and suppressed. By helping put queer issues on the mainstream public agenda, OutRage! zaps open minds. We spark the arguments and discussions that are vital preconditions for changing people's understanding and perception of homosexuality.
Throughout OutRage!'s history, claiming "queer space" has always been a campaign focus. We've sought to stake a presence in public domains that were previously off-limits to homosexuals: not just streets, but schools too! Our rationale is that queers are everywhere and, what is more, we have a right to be everywhere, without deference or apology to straight society.
The OutRage! "Kiss-in" at Piccadilly Circus was about taking over a public arena and claiming it for lesbians and gay men. Hundreds of same-sex couples assembled under the statue of Eros, the Greek god of love. We kissed openly and defiantly in protest at the arrest of queer couples for expressing affection in public places. Since those arrested were often charged with breaching the peace, our placards made the simple, obvious point: "Lesbians & gays aren't breaching your peace! We're just kissing!".
This was no angry, po-faced protest. With more of a carnival atmosphere, it was a rebellious, irreverent, joyous, uplifting celebration of homosexuality. It also had the positive spin-off effect of successfully pressuring the police to announce that, in future, officers would no longer arrest queer couples for public affection. Victory!
The "Kiss-In" was a direct challenge to the political settlement of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act - a mean-spirited, illiberal reform that partially decriminalised male homosexuality on the condition that it remained a private affair. The sub-text of this Act was that queers had no legitimate presence in public spaces or in public discourse. Homosexuality was to be tolerated, not accepted; and even then, only tolerated in private and never in public.
What was significant about the "Kiss-In" was the way it blatantly violated the political settlement of 1967, asserting the right of queers to manifest our love and affection, openly and unashamedly, in the centre of the capital.
Transgression wasn't the only virtue of the "Kiss-In". It was also, very importantly, an event with mass participation. Everyone could join in the lip-smacking action. This contrasts with the mostly non-active involvement that characterises the traditional protest format: the march. Although it sometimes has a useful function, the typical demonstration also has its limitations. It is, in most cases, an essentially passive form of protest where 'the masses' follow 'the leaders', listening politely to their speeches and applauding when appropriate. We need to question seriously whether this is the best way to motivate people and promote political ideas.
The OutRage! model, like that of Reclaim The Streets, tries to get away from the leader-led scenario and stresses instead participatory politics, maximising the involvement of everyone present so they each feel a personal stake and make a personal contribution.
Atmosphere and vibe are other key factors that influence the effectiveness of a political campaign. While successful protests are mostly ones that persuade and convince, the often stern, belligerent style of many left-wing demos is usually quite counter-productive. While anger at social injustice is understandable and justified, it regrettably presents a very negative, unattractive image to the broader public who need to be won over, not alienated.
Recognising the pitfalls of aggressive posturing, the OutRage! model of activism is consciously celebratory and intent on garnering the sympathy of potential supporters. We've tried to take on board many of the feminist-informed insights about the value of gentler, welcoming, inclusive, non-threatening forms of protest, as pioneered by the Greenham Common women. With an uplifting, empowering sense of exuberance and enjoyment, there's an infectious, engaging quality about many OutRage! zaps, which makes them all the more likely to generate interest and enthusiasm, and to thereby win over waverers.
The likelihood of persuading the undecided, apolitical, indifferent and sceptical is also maximised by OutRage!'s abundant use of humour and satire. Getting people to laugh is one of the best ways to undermine apathy and hostility, and it helps make radical politics seem less threatening. Equally important, wit can be a very effective way of deflating bigotry. Mocking, embarrassing and ridiculing homophobes is often more subversive than confrontation.
During protests against the unequal age of consent, OutRage! could have easily stuck to the safe, boring tactics of lobbying parliament and marching down Whitehall, shouting our disgust at homophobia and denouncing the advocates of prejudice and discrimination. But who would have taken any notice if we'd done that? Instead, we opted for: "Drop your trousers and bend over for your Member to demand an equal age of consent!" Activists lined up in front of the House of Commons, bent over, pointed their bums in disapproval at parliament, and dropped their trousers to reveal the words "Equality Now!" spelt out on their boxer shorts. A bit racy for sure but, precisely because it was fun and witty, this oddball zap made a big impact.
The deconstruction and appropriation of straight institutions is another favoured OutRage! tactic. It was used to good effect in the campaign for the legal recognition of lesbian and gay partnerships. Instead of a predictable march or picket against the ban on homosexual marriage, we sought to subvert the ban by taking over the traditional wedding ritual and queerifying it.
Accordingly, in 1992, OutRage! organised the first legal challenge in the UK to the prohibition of same-sex marriage. Three lesbian couples in bridal gowns and two gay couples in tuxedos filed applications for civil marriage at Westminster Registry Office in London. Turned down by the registrar, an unofficial ceremony was staged on the pavement outside, where pledges of love and commitment were made under a wedding arch, followed by a champagne reception.
This event sought to undermine the straight monopolisation of marriage by appropriating the entire ceremony and reproducing a queer carbon-copy, calculatedly claiming for lesbians and gays an institution that heterosexuals have hitherto regard as their own exclusive prerogative.
The year previous, however, OutRage! took a very different tack, promoting a queer alternative to straight marriage. The "Queer Wedding" in Trafalgar Square was, in fact, an anti-marriage celebration of lesbian and gay relationships, complete with alternative vows. It rejected marriage in favour of a more egalitarian, flexible, liberating model of love and commitment.
No mimicry of hetero rituals. Just loads of couples - and threesomes! - in lycra one-pieces, rubber body suits and fetish paraphernalia. Pure perversion! But since it was also glorious, unbridled entertainment, the radical message won lots of hearts and minds among the hundreds of passers-by who stopped to watch.
Organising an effective protest is a fine art. There is a constant tension between setting the political agenda by means of audacious, challenging protests, and ensuring that these protests maintain some degree of popular appeal. Being too radical can put people off, and not being radical enough may result in apathy and indifference.
OutRage! hasn't always got the technique of protest right. On the whole, however, it has had remarkable success in profiling lesbian and gay issues and contributing to changes in public opinion. This must, surely, have something to do with the group's style of campaigning? Whatever its shortcomings, the OutRage! 'art of activism' shows that politics doesn't have to be boring, miserablist or unpopular.
An edited version of this article appeared in Thud, 16 May 1997
* Peter Tatchell is the author of Safer Sexy - The Guide To Gay Sex Safely (Freedom Editions), and We Don't Want To March Straight - Masculinity, Queers & The Military (Cassell). He is also a contributor to Anti-Gay (Freedom Editions).
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