In 1993, while still living in Belfast, I received a phone call from a Member of the UK Parliament, offering to help me with the fact that I was not being offered a student grant as I began my time as an undergraduate. The MP was gracious and helpful, and although he was unable to do anything that changed my financial circumstances, I was grateful for the personal attention he had given my case. I had no further dealings with him, but he was always a highly visible presence in the constituency, frequently seen in town, and in the media.
Two years later, the London-based Gay Rights activist group Outrage!, led by Peter Tatchell, announced that it had written to 20 MPs whom it believed to be closeted gay men, and who also had supported anti-gay political measures. Outrage! threatened the MPs with being publicly outed if they did not acknowledge their sexuality, and, presumably disavow their public homophobia.
Shortly after this announcement, the main local newspaper in Northern Ireland printed a front page story to the effect that they knew that one of the MPs who received Outrage’s letter was a local man. On that day, the MP who had tried to help with my student funding case died of a heart attack on board a train in England. Outrage! never carried out its plan to name the other 19, and I have always assumed that this was a direct result of my MP’s death, although some have suggested that the letters were always an empty threat to gain publicity.
Peter Tatchell has been a human rights activist since he was a teenager, fighting for justice for Aboriginal peoples, and more recently being beaten to the point of brain damage by Robert Mugabe’s bodyguards as he tried to address the horror of that man’s legacy in Zimbabwe. He has opinions with which I strongly disagree, but the personal courage and commitment he has brought to a range of issues has to be acknowledged.
Last week, Kirby Dick’s new polemic film, also called ‘Outrage’, opened in limited release in the US. I haven’t seen it yet, but it is being marketed as the DC version of the 1995 letter campaign – I imagine it may be more nuanced than that, but for the next few days, in hopes of having a discussion here, I’ll post some questions that might be relevant. I’ll see the film as soon as I can.
So, first questions: Is it ever right to expose someone’s consensual private life? What should the public response be to political representatives who endorse homophobic legislation or refuse to challenge homophobia, but who are later found to be involved in same-sex activity? Is this simply hypocrisy, worthy only of condemnation and public ridicule, or could it be more complicated than that?