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The Bermondsey by-election was my baptism of fire

Peter Tatchell as the Labour candidate in the Bermondsey by=election, 1983. (adrian arbib / Alamy Stock Photo)

Peter Tatchell

Peter Tatchell

3 min read

This is LGBT+ History Month and the Bermondsey by-election on 24 February 1983 – 40 years ago – made history, mostly for the wrong reasons.

It’s been described as the most dirty, violent and homophobic election in Britain in the 20th century. Some commentators said it was the worst vilification of a gay public figure since Oscar Wilde.

I was the victim: the gay Labour candidate. It was my baptism of fire.

In the run up to, and during, the by-election, I was subjected to 100+ violent assaults, 30 attacks on my flat and a bullet through the letterbox. There were also 30 death threats and hundreds of hate letters and late-night threatening phone calls. It felt like living in a war zone. I suffered PTSD and night terrors.

The anonymous “Which Queen will you vote for?” leaflet, posted across the constituency in the dead of night, listed my phone number and home address. It invited voters to visit me and give me a piece of their minds. Many did.

Despite the threats and violence, I was refused police protection. Left to fend for myself, I boarded up my front door and windows and sealed the letterbox. A rope ladder was installed, so I could escape attackers through my back bedroom window and abseil down the rear side of my block of flats. At night, I slept with a fire extinguisher for company.

During this period, I struggled to maintain and keep secret my relationship with footballer Justin Fashanu, who was not out at the time. If our relationship had been discovered, his football career would have been over. I also had to fend off being repeatedly propositioned by the sitting Labour MP, Bob Mellish.

Hypocritically, he supported the homophobic campaign against me, despite his own bisexuality and attempts to seduce me. Mellish allowed his supporters to chant: “Tatchell is an Aussie. Tatchell is a poof. Let’s go down to Rockingham [where I lived] and throw him off the roof.”

Not a single national newspaper supported my candidacy. Nearly all the media railed against me almost non-stop for the 15 months leading up to the by-election. The tabloids printed fabricated claims that I went to the “Gay Olympics” and doctored photos to make it look like I was wearing make-up. The Press Council refused to intervene.

My campaign policies, which were reviled as “extremist”, have since become mainstream: a national minimum wage, peace settlement in the north of Ireland, LGBT+ equality and comprehensive laws to protect everyone against discrimination.

The tabloids printed fabricated claims that I went to the ‘Gay Olympics’

But my main election policy was to defend Bermondsey’s working class community against property developers who were taking over the riverside for corporate headquarters and luxury flats, squeezing out local people.

My alternative was a green socialist vision: replacing Bermondsey’s brutalist concrete housing estates with an “urban garden city” of houses with gardens, tree-lined streets and pocket parks. It’s an idea that’s still relevant for inner-city Britain.

Ranged against me were a record 15 other candidates, including four fascist and far right contenders. They plastered homophobic graffiti all over the constituency.

I lost the election to Simon Hughes of the Liberal/Alliance, after they ran a nasty homophobic campaign. Simon’s victory remains the biggest swing in UK election history.

On the positive side: the public backlash against the homophobia that I experienced made it easier for subsequent gay MPs to come out and be accepted. Political parties became more wary of exploiting homophobia during elections. And my candidature helped put LGBT+ rights on the mainstream political agenda. No regrets.

The Bermondsey by-election features in the Netflix film, Hating Peter Tatchell

Peter Tatchell is a Human rights campaigner

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