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Countering Homophobic Policing in the UK

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When: Late 1980s and early 1990s
Where: London, UK

In the UK in the 1980s, thousands of men were being continually prosecuted for consensual gay behavior — a level of institutionalized police and judicial discrimination greater than any other European Community member at the time. In 1989, convictions for “gross indecency” (a consensual, gay-only offense) were more than three and a half times higher than in 1966, the year before the decriminalization of male homosexuality. Lives and careers were ruined for the very act of flirting or winking. Thousands of serious violent crimes (including gay bashing) were being left unsolved while police resources went to creating a spy-house across from a public park with infrared cameras, a “hide” (a camouflaged shelter), and the installation of “pretty police”: officers posing as gay at public toilets to trap soliciting men. In this environment, angry gay men formed the lobbying group Stonewall and the more direct-action-focused group, OutRage!

OutRage! launched a wave of hit-and-run, guerrilla-style protests: invading police stations, photographing undercover pretty police, posting warning signs to frustrate entrapment operations, destroying hidden cameras, and disrupting public appearances by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. They widely publicized the fact that the costs incurred by police anti-gay shenanigans, and resulting prosecution and imprisonment, were estimated at £13 million, while serious crimes went unpunished (see PRINCIPLE: Do the media’s work for them). The police were made to look mean-spirited and sex-obsessed, with a perverse sense of priorities.

OutRage! organized a “wink-in” to protest against laws that prohibited men from winking, meeting and exchanging numbers. Protesters held aloft giant eyes on pulleys, making the eye wink. Over-sized business cards were exchanged, with names and phone numbers. The phone numbers were actually for Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street.

Within three months of OutRage! starting their campaign, the police opened their first serious negotiations with gay community groups. “We would deliberately look smart, often wearing ties, to confound expectations of what a gay rights campaigner looks like,” leading gay activist Peter Tatchell, one of the leading active campaigners of OutRage!, remembers in an interview with the UK Independent. “We thought it would take years, but we won most of our demands from the police within 12 months. This gave us a real sense that what we were doing was a having a tangible, positive effect.” Within a year, the police agreed to five of OutRage!’s key demands for a non-homophobic policing policy. And within three years, the number of men convicted of gross indecency fell by two-thirds — saving thousands of gay men from arrest and a criminal record.

Tatchell told Beautiful Trouble, “We really shamed and embarrassed the police. They lost the PR battle: the public and the press had turned against them and they pleaded with us for negotiations. They had thought they could massage and fob us off, but we came back with really concrete, practical proposals about what a non-homophobic policing policy would look like.”

Why it worked

The act of public protest stirred public consciousness and created public pressure. Due to bad press and a decaying public image, with growing knowledge of resources squandered to persecute men flirting, performing victimless sex acts, stalking homosexuals with hidden cameras, and so on, the Metropolitan Police were forced to negotiate. New public awareness of this discrimination added momentum to the battle for gay civil rights. Organizing defiant theatrical protests was a massive morale booster for many in the queer community. Instead of seeing themselves as passive victims of prejudice, many were inspired to expect nothing less than total acceptance and full citizenship and protection, rather than prosecution, under the law.

Key Tactic at work

Civil disobedience

By deliberately, publicly, and theatrically breaking an antiquated law, dating from the nineteenth century, that made it an offense for a man to persistently “solicit or importune” in a public place for an “immoral purpose,” OutRage! drew widespread public attention and forced the authorities into a decision dilemma: either they had to enforce the law, thus demonstrating how absurd it was, or they had to stand aside, emboldening those pushing for its removal (see PRINCIPLE: Put your target in a decision dilemma). Mocking and flouting such a law on the streets of London won OutRage! lots of new friends and participants for their fun actions, which included a public “kiss-in” at Piccadilly Circus and “queer weddings” in Trafalgar Square. By targeting antiquated laws on London street behavior in a loud and demonstrative way they also helped make the invisible visible (see PRINCIPLE).

Key Principle at work

Kill them with kindness

In his interview with the Independent, Tatchell stated “We would deliberately smile at the police and be ultra courteous. We would go up to them and shake their hands. It completely messed with their heads.” He told Beautiful Trouble, “I recently did a lecture at the police headquarters and the older officers came up to me afterwards, saying, ‘We remember those protests very well. We thought they were great fun.’ That was partly the reason why the police weren’t as heavy with us as they could have been. We presented well, very professionally, suit and tie (see PRINCIPLE Don’t dress like a protester) — we were very chummy, and the humor made it hard for them to hate us.”

Embrace the pleasure principle

Isn’t the emotional buzz of a protest a legitimate part of the attraction?—Peter Tatchell

Demonstrations are sexy and fun. There’s nothing like the rush of standing up strong for something you believe in — surrounded by others who feel the same. Making signs, decorating outfits and generating slogans are all bonding and greatly enjoyable activities. Engaging theatre, puppetry, music and personal poetry are all tools of the trade, and your cleverly worded protest sign could go viral. While the other side might not join you for a rousing chorus of “we are a gentle, angry people,” there is definitely something infectious about a gathering of like-minded individuals who can turn a demonstration into the party that everyone wants to join in. So whether you’re feeling the moral high ground, or just on the right side of history, remember the pleasure to be found in what you’re doing and let your creativity and joy guide you forward to achieve your long-term goals. As in the sentiment commonly attributed to Emma Goldman, “A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having.”

Define victory

The first stage of George Lakey’s Five Stage Revolutionary Movement Framework is cultural preparation. According to Lakey, the “primary task of every revolutionary movement is to create a vision of what activists want instead of the status quo.” Lakey gives examples of activists caught in sudden success with unrealized opportunities due to a lack of visioning homework. With OutRage!, Tatchell and his colleagues created a clear plan of what they wanted from the police. Commit to your outcome. Knowing what victory would look like in concrete, specific terms prepares you well to make it happen.

Key Theory at work

Ethical spectacle

The truth does not reveal itself by virtue of being the truth: it must be told, and told well. According to Tatchell, OutRage! was always searching for new, original methods of challenging the injustices of the status quo. OutRage! (like its American cousin and counterpart Queer Nation) used participatory spectacle to make visible the queer minority. Tatchell outlines his strategy in his article “The Art of Activism”: “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 . . . Queers are everywhere and, what is more, we have a right to be everywhere, without deference or apology.”


Federico Hewson has been an activist, actor, performance artist, dancer, educator and social entrepreneur. He's not quite sure what that all adds up to, but at the moment he's happily getting a Masters in Art Education at NYU with an emphasis in activism. He's glad to live in a time where gay people can come out of the shadows and make a visible and recognized contribution to society.


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