"Our aim is to get lesbian and gay equality onto the general election agenda," says OutRage! activist Beth Lane. "In this crucial period before the country goes to the polls, it's vital to increase our pressure on the political parties to support law reform. This is the moment when politicians are most eager for our votes and therefore most open to influence."
A 54 year old ex-WRAF nurse, Lane is one of the small core of unpaid volunteers who are organising the current OutRage! 'Equality Now!' civil disobedience campaign. "We're calling for the repeal of all homophobic laws and the enactment of legislation for lesbian and gay equality," notes Lane.
Timed to coincide with the general election, the OutRage! campaign is probably the highest-profile civil rights struggle ever mounted by the lesbian and gay community in Britain.
Already, it has generated masses of positive media coverage in unlikely places which rarely report lesbian and gay issues: Woman's Hour, British Forces Broadcasting Service, and MTV (where a programme about the campaign was seen by an estimated 50 million people worldwide).
The 'Equality Now!' campaign is also breaking new ground as one of the rare occasions the lesbian and gay movement has gone on the political offensive and set its own agenda.
"Nearly all previous campaigns, such as the fight against Section 28, have been defensive responses to homophobic attacks," observes 24 year old security officer Nick Cave. "In contrast, OutRage! is taking the initiative and organising a pro-active campaign for equal rights."
Nineteen year old student and fellow OutRage! activist, Louis Estevez, adds: "This time we're putting the opponents of homosexual equality on the defensive and forcing them to justify their homophobia. It's us who are setting the agenda and deciding the terms of debate."
John Jackson, an insurance clerk and OutRage! member, aged 22, sees the 'Equality Now!' campaign as one of the most sustained ever mounted by the lesbian and gay community: "It began in early February and will continue at least until May. As well as influencing the parties before the election, we also want to pressure the in-coming government."
Modelled on a Suffragette-style strategy, OutRage!'s campaign involves seven major civil disobedience actions, each of which challenge the law. The first resulted in 45 arrests when OutRage! attempted to 'March On Parliament To Reclaim Lesbian & Gay Human Rights', in defiance of a law forbidding demonstrations near the House of Commons while MPs are sitting.
"When the legal system actively discriminates against us, we have a duty to break the law," according to Martin Harrington, a 45 year old retailer. "Sometimes, as the Suffragettes proved, it's the only way to win social justice."
The 'Equality Now!' campaign is focusing on six key aspects of legal inequality: military homophobia, the soliciting laws, partnership rights, job discrimination, the age of consent, and Section 28.
"Many people wrongly assume that it's only gay men who are victimised by the law," says 22 year old student Sarah Graham.
"However, lesbians are also adversely affected by the lack of legal rights in areas such as partnership recognition and employment discrimination."
While the Stonewall group does valuable work lobbying the Government and MPs, OutRage! emphasises the importance of simultaneously persuading public opinion.
"As well as influencing decision-makers and changing the law, we need to change people's attitudes," argues Daniel Currie, a press officer and OutRage! member, aged 23. "This campaign is about creating a visibility for lesbian and gay issues in the pre-election period."
In the words of one of OutRage!'s oldest activists, John Beeson, who's in his 60s: "We're trying to promote public awareness and debate about homophobic discrimination and to carry public opinion with us. That way, we can make antigay prejudice an electoral liability and help force homophobic MPs out of office.
"The media is the main way of communicating ideas in society," adds Dave Arnold. A 34 year old English language teacher, he recently joined OutRage! inspired by the 'Equality Now!' campaign. Arnold says: "We're using the media to get our demands across to a wider audience. By getting coverage on peak-time television and in the national press, OutRage! is communicating its ideas to millions - thereby helping to build a popular momentum for law reform."
What's the secret of OutRage!'s media success? "To be effective, campaigning needs to be both educative and entertaining," says David Allison, aged 56. A Post Office computer manager, he reflects: "OutRage! actions involve wit, style and imagination. Projecting political demands with creativity and humour is a good way to defuse hostility, ovecome apathy, and make radical ideas more accessible and attractive to a wider audience."
"We hope a lot more people will join our future actions,"
adds Lynn Sutcliffe, a 25 year old theatre worker.
"We aim to make sure that all candidates acknowledge
lesbian and gay equality as an important human rights issue."
Sessional Orders, 23-October-1996
PROCESSIONS PROHIBITED DURING THE SITTING OF PARLIAMENT
The Sessional Orders, issued since this article was first written, now permit peaceful demonstrations.
By virtue of the powers conferred upon me by Section 52 of the Metropolitan Police Act 1839 and in furtherance of the following Sessional Orders:-
House of Lords
"ORDERED, by the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, in Parliament assembled, That the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis do take care that during the Session of Parliament the passages through the streets leading to this House be kept free and open; and that no obstruction be permitted to hinder the passage of the Lords to and from this House; and that no disorder be allowed in Westminster Hall, or in the passages leading to this House during the sitting of Parliament; and that there be no annoyance therein or thereabouts; and that the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod attending this House do communicate this Order to the Commissioner aforesaid."
House of Commons
"ORDERED, That the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis do take care that during the Session of Parliament the passages through the streets leading to this House be kept free and open and that no obstruction be permitted to hinder the passage of Members to and from this House, and that no disorder be allowed in Westminster Hall, or in the passages leading to this House, during the sitting of Parliament, and that there be no annoyance therein or thereabouts; and that the Serjeant at Arms attending this House do communicate this Order to the Commissioner aforesaid."
I, the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, do hereby give the following Directions to all Constables:-
(1) That they shall disperse all assemblies or processions of persons causing or likely to cause obstruction or disorder on any day on which Parliament is sitting within the area specified hereunder:-
East side of the River Thames between Waterloo and Vauxhall Bridges, Vauxhall Bridge Road, Victoria Street (between Vauxhall Bridge Road and Buckingham Palace Road), Grosvenor Gardens, Grosvenor Place, Piccadilly, Coventry Street, New Coventry Street, Leicester Square (north side), Cranbourn Street, Long Acre, Bow Street, Wellington Street, crossing Strand and Victoria Embankment to Waterloo Bridge.
Provided that processions may be routed along the thoroughfares named except Victoria Embankment west of Waterloo Bridge.
(2) That they shall prevent or remove any other cause of obstruction within the said area so that every facility shall be afforded for the free passage of Peers and Members to and from the Houses of Parliament on any day on which Parliament is sitting.
(signed) Paul Condon
Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis
Metropolitan Police Office
New Scotland Yard, SW1H 0BG
23rd October 1996
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