Preview: First Rumours

Peter Tatchell stood in the notorious 1983 Bermondsey by-election in the face of homophobia that makes for dramatic viewing three decades on

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The 1983 Bermondsey by-election was a particularly nasty affair. It was held when the sitting Labour MP announced his retirement and Peter Tatchell, then in his late twenties, was selected by his local Labour party to campaign for the seat. The politically contentious and homophobic events that followed are the subject of a new one-act play by Stephen M Hornby, playwright in residence at Manchester’s People’s History Museum.

Presented as part of Outing the Past, the national festival for LGBT History Month, First Rumours, which gets its first rehearsed read-through in February, also forms part of the museum’s own programme, which focuses on the past, present and future of protest and activism to commemorate the 200-year anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre.

The play looks at the run-up to the Bermondsey by-election. Tatchell, now a prominent human rights and LGBT campaigner, was considered a left-wing candidate at a time when the Labour Party was battling with the rise of the Militant Tendency in the party.

Tatchell had written an article in the left-wing magazine London Labour Briefing, in which he’d supported direct action. This wasn’t, Hornby contests, “violent, illegal action”, rather “some level of civil disobedience, but nothing that wouldn’t have been associated with mainstream political activity.” The article was, however, used as a “stick to beat him with”, says Hornby and he was denounced by the Labour leader Michael Foot in parliament.

The resonance with contemporary debates about the direction of the Labour Party was one thing that drew Hornby to this story. But what really captivated him was the focus on Tatchell’s sexuality and the resulting homophobia in the press, in the campaign waged against him by the Liberal Democrats – who went on to win the seat – and within the Labour Party itself.

“The level of abuse and violence against him is truly shocking,” says Hornby, who visited Tatchell in his London flat to interview him as part of the script’s development. “Most of these events now would be seen as very serious, but at the time they are really minimalised and he’s given very little police support.”

Before a press conference, for example, someone posted a live sniper’s bullet through Tatchell’s letterbox. “This is only five years after Harvey Milk [an openly gay elected official in California] was assassinated so this isn’t some abstract threat. People are gunning down the gay men who come out in political life.”

In fact, on the advice of the party at the time, Tatchell never publicly came out during the by-election, but he has insisted to Hornby that he was out to his constituents and never lied about his sexuality to voters. But it was impossible to keep his sexuality out of the press and out of the campaign. Letters to Foot, held at the People’s History Museum, express outrage that Tatchell isn’t keeping his sexuality a secret.

The attitude of high-ranking Labour party members at the time is shocking to a 2019 audience. The then shadow education secretary, Neil Kinnock, who voted against Tatchell’s nomination to stand in the by-election, is quoted in one paper as saying: “I’m not in favour of witch hunts, but I do not mistake bloody witches for fairies!”

And, following lacklustre campaign support, Roy Hattersley is heard, according to Tatchell, to say during a later campaign in Darlington: “Thank god there are no poofs in this by-election.”

Tatchell will be present at the reading in February and taking part in a question and answer session afterwards. While nervous about presenting a play about a living person who will be watching from the audience, Hornby has been clear that the play is not a “docudrama”.

Hornby, who is the middle of a PhD in playwriting from archives, says he’s striving for “something that shows I’ve done my homework, and that I’ve taken a view on what I think is the important part of the story or the essence of the facts that I’m presenting dramatically. I’ve taken a few liberties, but not crass liberties, and the decision I’ve made to alter things are done for a reasonable dramatic reason.”

The rehearsed reading of First Rumours will be performed at the People’s History Museum on 10 February. Tickets are free but must be booked in advance (phm.org.uk). For more information about LGBT history month, visit outingthepast.org.uk

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