Monday, 30 November 2009

329: Peter Tatchell

Peter Tatchell has been doing things in the Uk for about the last four decades, and is famous/notorious as the nation’s leading gay rights campaigner. At times this has brought him great opprobrium, although as the principles of gay rights have been legally instituted, he no longer seems such a strident figure. Also his attempt to perform a citizen’s arrest on Robert Mugabe probably did a lot to endear him to many.

Tatchell first came to national attention when he stood as the Labour candidate in the 1983 Bermondsey byelection.,_1983 should probably give you all the context for what follows.
It was infighting in the Labour Party at the highest levels about the appropriateness of Tatchell’s selection which made for such good copy in the newspapers. And therefore made him and his homosexuality a matter of national discussion.

Here we have cartoons and gags about an out gay figure (although it was confused at the time by Tatchell’s attempts to “in” himself somewhat for electability). There were an awful lot of snide gags made about him at the time. But we shall discounting all the obvious homophobic abuse, (presumably thought to be killingly witty at the time by its perpetrators), and instead focus on how humorists and cartoonists portrayed Tatchell.

How is Tatchell as a gay man portrayed, and what use is made of his homosexuality as a club to beat the Labour party.

from “Private Eye”, 18 December 1981

On 7 November 1981, Bermondsey Labour Party selected Peter Tatchell. Labour Party leader Michael Foot declared "the individual concerned is not an endorsed member of the Labour Party and as far as I'm concerned never will be". Foot’s outburst was prompted by suspicions that Tatchell was of the hard Left, a part of the Trotskyist Militant Tendency, But then the Labour party’s objections all got confused in the public consciousness with revelations about Tatchell’s homosexuality.
So this column from Adrian Spart – an ad hoc adaptation of “Private Eye”’s usual left-wing activist Dave Spart. Spart’s typical contradictory and illogical ranting are employed to present a touchy homosexual who will take anything as opportunity for offense, rejoicing in his victimisation.

The controversy over Tatchell’s candidacy was largely played out in the press as a conflict between Michael Foot and Tatchell, so as to undermine Foot’s leadership
Such was the obvious conflict between the two that gags about gay coupledom were pretty much impossible.
This cartoon by MAC is the only I can find that makes an attempt. MAC presents Foot and Tactchell as a couple. Not only are they holding hands but the caption refers to Deidre and Ken from the soap opera “Coronation Street”, two characters then going through a tempestuous romantic reconciliation, a storyline making national headlines.

by MAC in “Daily Mail” 21 February 1983

The following three cartoons are all about the difficulties between Foot and Tachell. Whatever the point of each cartoon, the cartoonist employs certain elements from gay stereotypes to depict Peter Tatchell. Overly detailed eyebrows and eyes with large, pursed lips, and often stood in a fey stance. It contributes nothing to the gag but it lets you know that Tatchell is a gay man

by Keith Waite in “Daily Mirror”, 16 February 1983

by Nicholas Garland in “The Spectator”, 19 February 1983

by Michael Cummings in “The Sunday Express”, 20 February 1983

from “Private Eye” 25 February 1983
Another of the editorials by “Private Eye”’s fictional proprietor Lord Gnome is fairly accurate summation of the hypocritical conflation of politics with homophobia enjoyed by Tatchell’s opponents that marked the Bermondsey by-election.

Cover to “Private Eye” 25 February 1983
This however is just a cheap gibe. The tendency Foot referring to being The Militant Tendency. Hmmm, “Ducky”, is not advanced.

by Marc Boxer in “Private Eye” 25 February 1983
The embarrassed father's slightly posh son looks as though he’s an extra from “Brideshead Revisited” but as per usual, note the prominent almost rouged lips.

by Michael Heath in “The Spectator” 3 April 1983

from "Private Eye", 16 December 1983
And this refers to Tatchell’s book “The Battle for Bermondsey” at the end of 1983

So as you can see, in most of the above, outright homophobic jokes are usually outside the discourse of political comedy, but even caricaturists find it tempting to include some allusion or other to Tatchell’s homosexuality no matter how irrelevant. Although this si somewhat understandable since homosexuality was then unknown in public politics.
It would be profitable to compare this approach to Peter Mandelson’s treatment by the press. Coded phrases, double entendres, fussy descriptions of his clothes and manner, and allusions to Larry Grayson and “Are You being served” are all employed by cartoonists, impressionists and humorous political journalists. Mandelson’s homosexuality makes for a vulnerable point. Is it expressly homophobic? Well, the fact that Mandelson’s outing was handled so badly made him seem embarrassed and so a characteristic for mockery like boggle-eyes, corpulence, speech impediments or any other mockable trait.

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