Martin Corbett & Gay News

Martin Corbett at his canonisation by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, 26-November-1994: OutRage! archives

Twenty years and more ago Susan Jeffers wrote a famous self-help book called “Feel The Fear & Do It Anyway.”  It’s one of the few catchphrases from that era which still makes sense to me.

Stuff all those homilies about being tough, confident and resilient: this is the real deal. “Go for it!” or “Just do it!” are fine for the macho men of sport, but  “Feel The Fear & Do It Anyway.” will do me fine.

The launch of Gay News was endlessly delayed through fear. Time and again, as we tried to get the paper off the ground, the Editorial Collective became paralysed with indecision.

Should we include personal ads, or not?  The law had just prosecuted and shut down International Times for running gay personals: wouldn’t it be tempting fate to run them from issue one?

But wasn’t this just the sort of issue a campaigning gay newspaper ought to take up? Yes, but surely not at the expense of its own existence – and our own personal liberty?

What about other sorts of advertising? Most gay pubs, clubs and saunas were still run by people – to put it politely –  on the fringes of the law. They made their money by overcharging and exploiting us. Their money was tainted.

[There was a brick wall between “commercial” and “community” gay ventures, with commercial operations banned from early British Pride marches. As were leather guys – “It gives the wrong impression”.]

But then again, wasn’t the paper meant to radicalise these self-oppressed homosexuals? So we need the paper to be in the pubs and clubs. But we can’t ask them to keep us on their premises, or allow us to sell there, if we won’t touch their money, or worse, if we campaign against them.

[The stiffest opposition – pun intended – came from the scene queens. “You’re ruining it for us, telling everyone here we are!” The paper was initially banned from most gay bars, and when one of us stood outside selling copies, the cops were often called.]

What about outing people? Ought we to do that, especially where they are actively working against the community?

[We resolved that one by running a quarter-page photo of someone closeted every issue, under the heading HET OF THE MONTH]

Ought we to have a paper at all? Didn’t we risk drawing attention to ourselves and inviting the attention of the police, queerbashers and so forth?

For weeks and months the arguments raged back and forth. The main factions seemed to coalesce around Andrew Lumsden, who wanted absolutely everything absolutely politically correct before he would agree to a launch, and Denis Lemon, who busied himself looking for sponsors and backers and took a more pragmatic approach. Both were apt to blow up, resign, and storm off in a huff, only to return a week or two later.

But in the end it was neither of them who got the paper off the ground, but one of the forgotten heroes of the British gay movement, Martin Corbett, with the support of David Seligman, Sue Pitcher, and myself.

“Feel the fear and do it anyway” might have been coined for Martin. Except I don’t think he ever felt fear. Martin always took the bull by the horns.

It was Martin who had simply walked into the basement of Westminster Central Hall during the Festival of Light (a forerunner of today’s Christian Lobby) the previous year, ordered the staff to leave with an assumed authority, and brought the Festival to a close by disconnecting the electrical and broadcasting cables.

With his no-nonsense cheery cockney accent, he led a team dressed like council workmen, complete with toolboxes, and just acted as if they had every right to be there.

Martin was the first truly liberated gay man I ever met. He had a cheerful disposition and an unshakeable commitment to direct action. Martin did not mess around. And having embraced the notion of coming out, Martin did it with a vengeance.

[During our brief liaison he thought nothing of cuddling up and snogging as we rode the bus to his house, or holding hands as we walked down the street. And I got the shock of my life the first morning I woke up in his arms, to find his mother saying a cheery hello and putting a tray of tea and toast down on the bedside table. He was truly happy in his own skin: something it took me years to learn. But I digress.]

We were still no nearer launching Gay News when Martin said, in the wake of yet another of Denis’sstormy resignations, “Let’s stop all this faffing about and just do it.”

But what about Denis? What about Andrew? What about . . . . ?

“Well fuck ‘em,” said Martin, with a big grin. “You watch. As soon as we start, they’ll be back.”

And so we announced a launch date, took a deep breath, started work – and then Denis, as predicted, turned up, saying he couldn’t allow the paper to go ahead without him. He had raised most of the money and we’d be letting down the people he had made all sorts of promises to if he wasn’t there to make sure it was a quality effort.

We had a couple more go-rounds with Denis – more than once he grabbed the bank books and records and hid them in order to force a decision his way – before the paper finally hit the streets. We were nominally a collective, but there was never any doubt that Denis was the boss – a situation that eventually led to Martin’s departure, and my own.

But his differences with Denis didn’t stop him leading the campaign against the prosecution of the paper and its editor for blasphemous libel in 1977.

Martin worked alongside David Seligman in establishing London Switchboard, and continued to lead from the front in a variety of direct action gay organisations right up until his death from AIDS related illness in 1996.

From Martin I learned that we should never shy away from taking action. The bad consequences will be far less than we fear, and the gains far greater.

When he was vilified by almost everyone for daring to point out that the Church of England was stuffed with gay bishops preaching against homosexuality (and naming names), he was unfazed.

Mrs. Pankhurst didn’t panic and neither should we,” he said.

Amen to that.

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)