‘The Gentle Revolutionary’: Peter Tatchell Remembers Derek Jarman

With the BFI's Derek Jarman season currently marking the twentieth anniversary of the artist and filmmaker's death, Joseph Burnett speaks to gay rights activist Peter Tatchell about Jarman's work towards LGBT equality and raising awareness of HIV

Derek Jarman (left) on the OutRage! March on Parliament with Peter Tatchell (right) and Jimmy Somerville. Photograph courtesy of Peter Tatchell

Most of the commemorations in honour of the anniversary of Derek Jarman’s sad passing twenty years ago will be focused on his incredible contribution to the world of cinema. Certainly his body of work is enough to rank him among Britain’s most innovative and talented filmmakers, but to dwell solely on Jarman’s art would be to do the man something of an injustice, because he was also a committed and vocal campaigner for LGBT rights, involving himself heavily with the Gay Liberation Front and later OutRage! With the BFI currently hosting a season devoted to Jarman’s work entitled Queer Pagan Punk, the Quietus caught up with renowned human rights activist Peter Tatchell, ever at the forefront of the fight for LGBT equality, to hear his reminiscences on some of the most significant demonstrations and manifestations of the gay equality movement, and the role Derek Jarman played in bringing us closer to the improved equality LGBT people in Britain enjoy today.

How did you come to know Derek Jarman? How far back did you go?

Peter Tatchell: We probably met in the days of the Gay Liberation Front in 1971, but I can’t remember exactly. Derek thought we met then, and he was probably right, but my memory has no recollection. Derek was involved on the periphery of the Gay Liberation Front in the early 70s, whilst I was very active as one of several key organisers. We only properly connected in 1987, when I was organising the world’s first ever AIDS and Human Rights conference. The world health ministers were due to meet in London for a major AIDS summit in January 1988, so the year previous I began organising a mass candlelit march [to be held] on the eve of the summit, followed by the human rights conference on the day of the summit itself. It was a parallel conference, where we were focusing very much on human rights issues. Derek was one of the keynote speakers. He made a very powerful, moving and dramatic speech about his own HIV status, and the need for governments to switch the focus from repression to education, support and treatment.

Together with the other speakers, his contribution was very effective, and did impact on the world health ministers’ summit. Human rights was not on the official agenda of that summit, but thanks to our march and conference, and my rather impolite interruption of the proceedings [laughs], the ministers did agree a final communiqué that included an appeal to governments worldwide to not discriminate against people with HIV. This was a world first, a real turning point, and without the contribution of Derek and others, I don’t think it would have happened.

Were you already an admirer of his work as a filmmaker?

PT: Absolutely, yes. I can remember as a young man going to see Sebastiane at The Gate Cinema in Notting Hill. I was awestruck by the technical, storyline and erotic beauty of it. The cinematography is really outstanding. The Latin dialogue was beyond me. [laughs] Like so many of his films it was, I suppose, a metaphor for the terrible martyrdom of so many gay and bisexual men throughout most of recorded history. I saw it as a work of art, but also as a political statement. That kind of marriage of art and politics was a constant feature of all of Derek’s films.

Derek was something of a paradox. He was strongly anti-establishment, to the point of making it clear that he would never accept any honour, but he was also in many respects quintessentially English. The artwork that was his garden at Dungeness was a modern reinvention of the traditional English garden. Uniquely, he used lots of flotsam and jetsam to create it. Some of his sculptures echoed the English arts and crafts movement of the 19th century, but with a modern Derek twist. Englishness is so often the subject of his films, such as Jubilee, Last of England and Edward II. And he chose to be buried in an English churchyard.

Although Derek is widely admired as a filmmaker, that political aspect of his films often seems to get slightly overlooked. Would you agree?

PT: I think for many people, they make their estimation of a film as it appears on screen, without necessarily thinking through the context and rationale that motivated Derek to make it. Edward II takes a very ancient play and turns it into a comment on church and state homophobia in modern Britain. I can remember talking to Derek, and he was very clear that this was his intention. He wanted to make a film about Edward II, partly because he saw it as a way of using an historical context to make a statement about the modern day oppression of gay and bisexual men.

What was the extent of Derek’s involvement with organisations such as OutRage! and the wider gay rights movement?

PT: With the formation of the queer rights direct action group OutRage! in 1990, Derek found an organisation that he could very strongly identify with. He used to come to our weekly meetings, which in those days were held in the old London Lesbian and Gay Centre in Cowcross Street. He’d never turn up with an entourage. He’d quietly slip into the meetings and make contributions. He was a regular irregular attendee [laughs], but he participated in some of our best-known protests, such as the march on parliament in February 1992, the demand of which was the repeal of all anti-gay laws. Together with myself, Jimmy Somerville and others, Derek was arrested after the police blocked our passage to the House of Commons. We sat down on the road and demanded our democratic right to go to parliament to make our voice heard. The police responded by piling us into buses and taking us to various police stations, where we spent the next few hours in the cells. Over thirty of us were arrested. Derek very defiantly refused to accept a caution and was eventually released, some hours later, without charge.

Derek was also very prominent at the Bow Street police station turn-in a bit later. A group of us signed statements admitting to breaking discriminatory anti-gay laws, challenging the police to arrest us. The police duly took our names, details and statements and then allowed us to go, promising that they’d be in touch, which they never were. It’s clear that the police, when challenged, didn’t feel comfortable about enforcing laws that were clearly discriminatory against gay and bisexual men. I remember it was a snowy night. We chose Bow Street police station because it was where Oscar Wilde was taken on his arrest in 1895. Indeed, some of us were put in the actual cell where Wilde was reputedly detained.

Another example of Derek’s involvement was the Queer Valentine’s Carnival, in 1993. As part of OutRage!’s cultural offensive, we held a carnival on the eve of Valentine’s Day. The aim was to claim and rename the Compton Street area as "Queertown". We were really lucky – it was an unseasonally warm day, so lots of people turned out in appropriately skimpy carnival costumes. We had a Brazilian samba band, and Derek led the procession using some of the costumes and robes from Edward II. From the open-top lorry where we had the PA, Derek renamed Old Compton Street "Queer Street" and unveiled the new street sign.

It was obviously a difficult time to be gay, with so many discriminatory laws, but do you look back on it with a certain fondness?

PT: The 1980s and 90s were a very heady, intoxicating and exhilarating period of queer activism. This was an era when parliament refused to even debate gay issues, let alone repeal homophobic laws. It was a time when tabloid headlines screamed things like "Poofs in the pulpit!", an attack on gay clergy, and "Poofters on parade", an attack on the campaign to end the ban on gay people serving in the armed forces. Even as late as the early 90s, police repression of the LGBT community was pretty heavy. There were still raids and arrests. We felt like we were taking on the establishment. Derek believed direct action was necessary, because all the previous efforts using polite negotiation had failed. Like many of us, Derek was very impatient for change. For just about all of his gay life, he’d been designated as a criminal. He’d seen the hesitation and excuses offered by successive governments. For him it was time to get uppity and angry. That’s why he loved OutRage! We weren’t defensive or apologetic, we didn’t plead with the powers that be, we took action to shame and embarrass the people who were abusing the LGBT community.

It’s clear that we have come such a long way thanks to what people like Derek Jarman and yourself did.

PT: It has been an incredibly swift and successful campaign. The seeds were planted way back in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, with organisations like the Homosexual Law Reform Society, the Campaign For Homosexual Equality and the Gay Liberation Front, but the real change only came from 1999 onwards. In that year, Britain had by volume the largest number of anti-gay laws of any country on earth, some of them dating back centuries. The 1967 Sexual Offences Act didn’t repeal those laws, it simply stated that in certain circumstances they wouldn’t be enforced. It’s only since 2003 that the criminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales finally ended. Up until that point, all the historical anti-gay laws had remained on the statute books under the title "Unnatural Offences". So, it’s only for just over a decade that we’ve had a criminal code that does not discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Of all Derek’s films, Blue may be the most harrowing, challenging and beautiful. How significant a figure do you think he was in terms of raising HIV and AIDS awareness in this country?

PT: Well, I’m pretty certain he was the first public figure in Britain to come out as HIV-positive. He was very upfront and candid, but also very unapologetic towards those who criticised his sexual lifestyle. The interviews he gave, as an openly gay and HIV-positive man, had a very big impact. They were a great gesture of solidarity with other people living with HIV. For them, through him, they felt a sense of public recognition. It was also a very effective public education for the wider populace, to be able to see someone of considerable social achievement being out about their HIV status. Derek gave HIV a human face. He helped debunk many misconceptions and prejudices.

It was incredibly brave for him to come out as HIV-positive. This was at a time when HIV was being depicted in the mass media as "the gay plague" and there were warnings that millions would die. People with HIV were seen as the enemy within, the carriers of a deadly, threatening disease. Gay people and people with HIV often got abused, threatened and even physically attacked. The then chief-constable of Manchester, Sir James Anderton, talked about gays as "swirling around in a cesspit of their own making". Even liberal papers like The Guardian carried features that made sweeping generalisations about gay men as reckless spreaders of HIV. So it took very considerable courage for Derek to make his public declaration in that lurid, inflammatory atmosphere.

One of the truly sad things about his death is that he died only a short time before life-saving protease inhibitors became available. I feel really angry, because the first generation of protease inhibitors was developed way back in 1988, but the pharmaceutical companies tested them on dogs and rats, which all died. They made the assumption that if these drugs killed dogs and rats, they’d also kill humans. As a result, those new drug developments were halted for four years. We don’t know for certain what effects the first protease inhibitors would have had on people like Derek, but we do know that humans and other species have different physiologies. Often reactions seen in dogs and rats are not replicated in  humans. So maybe, if that 1988 trial drug had not been abandoned, and if it had been used on humans with HIV, Derek’s life might have been saved.

The great tragedy of Derek’s death is that we’ve been robbed of the opportunity to benefit from further decades of creative work that he undoubtedly would have produced. He was constantly evolving artistically. Politically, I’m certain he would have still been very strongly pushing at the boundaries and, for example, challenging religious extremists and reggae and rap artists who put out homophobic music tracks. I suspect he probably would bemoan the demise of radical LGBT politics and activism. Today, the LGBT community has become fairly safe and mainstream. It doesn’t really question what Derek called "heterosoc", or its institutions and values. Derek took a lot of stick for defending his right to go cruising and have sex despite his HIV status. He argued that, so long as he practiced safer sex, there wasn’t any risk of HIV transmission. This was not a message that much of society was ready to accept. The dominant view was that people with HIV were dangerous and should abstain from sex, which played into the historic puritanism of much of British society.

Why do you think it is that there seems to be so few radical queer voices these days?

PT: I think we’re living in more conservative times. Most of the LGBT equality battles have been won, and we seem to have morphed into an era where activism is about writing a cheque to a gay rights organisation or signing an online petition. Now, those things are fine, but not enough. Moreover, all our wonderful equality laws have written into them certain narrow qualified exemptions for religious organisations, not just places of worship but faith-run schools, hospitals, nursing homes and shelters for the homeless. My view, echoing Derek, is: why should religious organisations be above and beyond the law? People of faith have a right to their own beliefs, but they don’t have a right to discriminate. We still have a major problem with homophobic hate preachers, mostly Islamist extremists, but sometimes Christian and Judaist ones as well. Derek would be horrified to know that they often get away with delivering their hate speeches unchallenged, even in universities.

Do you think filmmakers and other artists have a duty to address social and political issues?

PT: I think we all have a duty to address issues of social justice and human rights, and this includes artists. With great influence comes great responsibility, to paraphrase Spiderman [laughs]. Derek argued that artists don’t operate in a vacuum. They exist in a social context. It would be irresponsible for them to ignore what’s going on around them. In many instances throughout history, art has been the great chronicler of people and events. Too often, this has been focused on the "great and the good" such as kings and queens. But there have been examples where art has been an expression of social conscience, like Picasso’s Guernica. Derek always believed that he was first and foremost an artist, but one with a political edge, who wanted to use art as a medium to illuminate social issues. For him, films and paintings can be a way to both entertain and to educate. His series of queer and HIV paintings are good cases in point. In my estimation, they are worthy pieces of art, but they also have a social message which shines a spotlight on issues that need to be exposed to a wider public gaze.

In the context of this more conservative age, encapsulated perhaps here by the Tory-led government disbanding of the British Film Council, do you think a Derek Jarman-like figure could exist today?

PT: I think Derek was pretty unique, but I’m certain that there will be new artists emerging, perhaps in a different genre, who will take forward the radical queer artistry he espoused. We saw a comparable artist in Keith Haring and, to some extent, David Hockney. Their works were also often challenging.

If Derek was still with us, what do you think he’d be optimistic about right now?

PT: I think he would overjoyed at the positive law reforms that have happened in the last decade or so, and the very dramatic shift in public opinion towards understanding LGBT people. Nevertheless, I suspect he’d still be somewhat regretting the demise of the radical queer vision of what society could be. The downside of fighting solely for LGBT equality is that it implicitly assumes that the existing status quo is okay and sufficient. The equality agenda is all about LGBT people getting equal rights within the context of existing laws, institutions and values. Derek, like myself and many others, had a very skeptical and discerning attitude towards mainstream society. He thought some aspects were fine, but others were not. His agenda, like that of the earlier Gay Liberation Front, and more recently OutRage!, was about transforming society for the benefit of everyone, LGBT and straight. He didn’t have the narrow preoccupation with mere equality.

A good example is the way in which he was very critical of the failings of sex and relationship education in schools. He didn’t want gay kids to get the same kind of half-baked sex and relationship education that straight kids got. He wanted better sex and relationship education for all kids, whatever their sexual orientation. In addition, he wasn’t a great fan of marriage, seeing it as an institution with a long sexist and patriarchal history. Of course, he opposed the ban on same-sex marriage, because it was discriminatory and homophobic. However, I don’t think he would have ever wanted to get married himself. He supported the claim of same-sex couples to have proper recognition and rights, but he wanted something better than marriage.

Derek died just a few days before the first ever parliamentary debate on age of consent. For many of us, that night’s protest outside parliament was in part a homage to Derek and the contribution he had made. In the end, MPs voted against equality at 16, but agreed to a compromise of 18. So we still had a discriminatory age of consent. His book, At Your Own Risk, is perhaps his most powerful assertion of his ideas about queer politics. It’s a no holds barred defense of queerness and an assertion that LGBT people have human rights and deserve dignity and respect. He came out with lots of witticisms like "Heterosexuality isn’t normal, it’s just common". I’ve often described Derek as the quiet, gentle queer revolutionary. He held very strong views but always expressed them in the most polite, charming manner. He could make radical ideas sound quite reasonable and legitimate. He was a very effective spokesperson for LGBT freedom. I miss him.

Derek Jarman: Queer Pagan Punk season is currently taking place at the BFI Southbank, and runs until 7th April. For the full list of film screenings and to buy tickets, click here.

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