GAY TIMES, June 1998

Whenever Peter Tatchell manages to stage an OutRage! stunt that hits the headlines, people immediately take up their polarised positions. Do his confrontational tactics retard progress or advance it? Does he get issues discussed, or does he just provide a diversion that allows them to be avoided?

Well, now that the dust has settled on the Good Friday pulpit storming, we can look to the reactions for some answers.[Note: Peter Tatchell climbed into the pulpit at Canterbury Cathedral during the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey’sEaster sermon,to protest at the Church’slack of support for gay rights. He was arrestedand charged under the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860.]

It goes without saying that the papers —broadsheet and tabloid alike —remain hostile to Peter’s tactics. Their verdict is clear — Tatchell is a publicity-seeking bully who “outs” people against their will. Or, as Norman Tebbit put it in his column in The Mail on Sunday, “When that repulsive exhibitionist, Mr Peter Tatchell, forced his way into the pulpit during the Easter sermon of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, was I the only one who prayed that just for a moment the Archbishop might forget himself and punch the ghastly creature on the nose? What a wonderful moment it would have been.”

This violent antipathy towards Mr Tatchell was echoed by Richard Littlejohn in The Sun, who wrote: “Peter Tatchell should have been dragged from Canterbury Cathedral and clubbed like a baby seal… I don’t know why television producers give him house room or newspapers publish his views. I’m conscious that, by writing about him myself, I’m adding to the publicity he craves… Tatchell, like all bullies, is a coward. He may think he was being terribly brave storming the pulpit… but jostling Dr Carey is the political equivalent of kicking cripples.”

Mr Littlejohn then suggests that Peter should try handing out leaflets at football grounds or at an IRA jamboree. “If he wanted to be really brave, he could always storm the Regent’s Park Mosque and denounce Islamic teaching on homosexuality.”

Now let’s look at these comments more closely. Both of them were written by men who are not known for their gentle behaviour. Norman Tebbit was famed for his thuggish political activities during the Thatcher era, and was even lauded for them. But that’s the sort of society he moves in: kick them, punch them, hate them, especially if you have power over them.

Tebbit’s loathing of homosexuality is well-known, as is Richard Littlejohn’s. The piece I have quoted was subsidiary to another attack in the same column — this time on George Michael. And yet, Mr Littlejohn claims that he is not homophobic. In an interview with The Guardian, he claimed that he couldn’t understand how people had come to the conclusion that he was “antagonistic” to gays. He dismissed the interviewer’s question about his incitement to murder Peter Tatchell as “over-analysis”. He said: “The whole point of that piece was not to say, literally, that Tatchell should be clubbed. It was about him being a coward and choosing a soft target.”

As The Guardian writer points out: “I wonder how many Sun readers would see it like that?”

The reason Richard Littlejohn writes as he does, without thought for the pain he causes or the damage he does, is that he is well paid for it. And that is the beginning and the end of the explanation. In fact, he is the highest-paid journalist in the country, and he makes a handsome living from harsh opinions. After all, which of his victims has the opportunity to hit back? Are the columns of The Sun open to them to reply to his violent incitements? Of course, not. What does Mr Littlejohn care? He’s safe behind News International’s razor wire. (And, just for the record, Peter Tatchell has challenged Muslim fanatics — at a rally for fundamentalists organised last year. But don’t let the facts get in the way of your spleen, Mr Littlejohn).

Peter Tatchell doesn’t only have to contend with hostility from straight bully boys, there are our traditional liberal supporters, too, as well as other gay people who disapprove. In The Guardian (rapidly becoming a large-size Daily Mail) Ros Coward thought that OutRage!’s stunt was “crass and insensitive” and advised that “if the gay rights movement doesn’t want a reaction to set in, they should distance themselves from the likes of Tatchell once and for all.” (In other words, we bring oppression on ourselves. This opinion is shared by The Daily Mail’s own Glenda Slag figure, Linda Lotta Pee).

Meanwhile, John Lyttle in The Independent said: “I fail to grasp why Peter Tatchell gives a toss about the Church of England and its edicts. The Church of England is about as popular – and influential – as volleyball. Who cares? It’s worse than counter-productive: it allows a dinosaur a new lease of life.”

This is bollocks, pure and simple. The Church of England may only have a negligible number of bums on pews, but its influence on our legislature and institutions is all-embracing. Twenty-six Anglican bishops sit in the House of Lords, altering legislation when they don’t approve (look at the amendment to the Human Rights Bill, carried with the support of the Bishops on a tide of homophobic rhetoric). The opposition to lowering the age of consent is being led by religious people most Anglican bishops included and they have power and influence far in excess of their support in the country. Institutions such as the Armed Forces, schools and Parliament will not change their attitudes until the Church of England does.

Next came Stonewall’s Simon Fanshawe in The Guardian. He asserts that the softly-softly approach works better than the loudly-loudly one. He says that Stonewall’s age of consent campaign has caught on like a “forest fire” and it was achieved with debate and without confrontation. He then asks Tatchell: “Who do you represent? Who asks you to zap Archbishops?”

Well, I have to ask Simon Fanshawe the same question – who elected you? I don’t remember voting on whether Stonewall could make behind-the-scenes deals with the Government on my behalf without consultation. Stonewall may be effective and professional, but it is not democratic, and if it makes a big mistake on our behalf, how do we get to punish it?

So what about the debate? Did Peter Tatchell’s antics get the issue back on to the agenda? Of course they did.

The Bishop of Oxford wrote to The Times: “Peter Tatchell is unfair to accuse the Archbishop of Canterbury of refusing to meet the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement. The Archbishop, through the House of Bishops, has set up a special group, which I chair and which contains three other diocesan bishops, specifically to engage with interested parties and to further the debate on human sexuality. We have twice met a delegation from the LGCM and will be continuing in dialogue with them…”

Such disingenuous double-talk gave an excellent opportunity for Richard Kirker of the LGCM to respond to the Bishop’s “evasions”: “The LGCM has been refused meetings with the Archbishop of Canterbury every year since his enthronement. He routinely meets with a wide range of groups working for change and missions within and outside the Church, not all of whom it could be said he was in agreement with. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that if he had more respect for our members he could have found time to meet us by now.”

And so it seems the polite approach has left the Archbishop of Canterbury unmoved and unwilling to talk or, as Dr Carey might put it: “Meet the poofs? No way, Jose!” In the face of this intransigence, what option is left but a direct approach (even if it was at a moment which might be described as “inconvenient” for our pouting primate)? What a shame it wasn’t Richard Kirker who stepped up into the pulpit, Filofax at the ready, advising the Archbishop that he could fit him in just about any time.

But Christians are nothing if not blinkered. A Mr A. D. Keith of Newcastle wrote to The Daily Express that “Tatchell and his cohorts fail to realise that Christians are not militant people and will be horrified by their hard-line tactics.” I wonder if Mr Keith has met Julian Brazier MP, or Dr Adrian Rodgers of Exeter?

He might also be interested in a letter in The Church Times from Tony Crowe, who wrote about the perils of confrontation, and the danger that it can “polarise deeply-held convictions”. Mr Crowe recalls an incident which took place in 1985 at St Luke’s Church in Charlton. “I celebrated Eucharist in thanksgiving for a friendship between two men that had lasted for 25 years. More than 100 attended, including several clergy and the late Bishop Edmund Capper, to show their support for the couple, who were deeply committed to each other. Before the service, the Thirty-Nine Articles were nailed to the church door. During the sermon, a born-again Christian invaded the pulpit and quoted verses from Romans. Intercessions were also interrupted by fundamentalist protesters. St Luke’s was a first-hand experience of homophobia, which united us in solidarity with those who had been oppressed because of their sexuality down the ages. Sensational press reports resulted in attacks on the rectory. My wife’s car was turned over. There were differences with local churches. There is still on-going dialogue with a neighbouring parish.”

Yes, indeed, Christians are certainly not militant, they’re peace-loving and non-violent.

***

The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) has issued its annual report, and congratulates itself on its efficiency. It reveals that of 2,944 complaints it received, “nine out of ten involving a breach of its Code of Practice were resolved”. Sounds good, doesn’t it? But what exactly does “resolved” mean? Does it mean that they dragged the cases out for so long that the complainants just gave up? Or did they just get them a behind-the-scenes apology from the newspapers concerned? (“Now, let’s forget all about it, OK?”)

You may remember that I made a complaint to the PCC some months ago about a story in The Sun concerning a nurse in the USA who had allegedly killed a hundred of his patients. None of the other papers that reported the story mentioned the man’s sexuality, but The Sun headed its report “Gay nurse in 100 murders”. I complained to the PCC that this breached the discrimination clause of the Code of Practice, which forbids mention of a person’s sexuality unless it is “directly relevant” to the story. In a letter to the PCC, The Sun put up its hands and admitted “It may be we have breached the letter of Clause 13 of the Code of Practice”.

All cut and dried then? Not so. The PCC ruled that my complaint was “third party” in origin, and therefore not admissible. Only a complaint from the nurse himself would be entertained.

There is no appeal against this decision, but I still maintain that the way papers like The Sun abuse gay people is a matter of general concern, not just relevant to one individual.

I suppose my case was “resolved”, so I assume I’m counted as one of the 2,944 satisfied customers.

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