After 50 years of political activism, veteran human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell tells Cary Gee that there’s still much more work to do.
There is barely room in Peter Tatchell’s south London council flat to swing a proverbial cat, let alone a placard featuring a dragged-up, lipsticked President Putin. Every surface is littered with souvenirs culled from a lifetime’s campaign to achieve LGBT equality.
As my photographer wades through a waist-high archive of banners, newspapers cuttings and theatrical props in search of space to erect his tripod, I look for somewhere to sit. Peter tells me there is a sofa in the corner. I can only take his word for it, and instead settle in one of two straight backed chairs in front of the desk from where Tatchell runs his human rights foundation. A slightly weary Tatchell, fresh from celebrating his 64th birthday, occupies the other one, and tells me how, after nearly 50 years of campaigning, and over 300 arrests later, there is still work to be done.
“I first realised I was gay at the age of 17, in my home town of Melbourne,” he says. “Almost immediately I attempted to campaign for LGBT rights but there was no organisation I could join, and all of my gay friends were too scared. All I could do was write to newspapers, challenging homophobic stories. At the time homosexuality was totally illegal, punishable by several years in prison. Initially I was too frightened to sign my name, or give my address, afraid of a knock at the door, which luckily never came. I moved into an apartment with my then partner. My parents didn’t know I was gay.”
Didn’t his putative campaigning make him rather a difficult person to live with?
“We each had our own separate interests. In his free time he worked as a set-designer, and I used mine to campaign for LGBT and other human rights. I campaigned against the death penalty [something Tatchell remains implacably opposed to up to this day] and against Australia’s involvement in Vietnam.”
Was there even an LGBT community for Tatchell to join in 1960’s Melbourne? “There were no helplines, or advice services at all. A couple of seedy bars but no clubs, or anything like that. The scene was entirely underground.”
So what finally convinced Tatchell to pack his bags and travel to London?
“I objected to the Vietnam war and refused to register for National Service. I arrived in London soon after the formation of the Gay Liberation Front. For me that was a huge personal liberation”
On his second day in London Tatchell saw an advert for a weekly GLF meeting, stuck to a lamp post on Oxford Circus, and “for the first time I was able to organise with other people. We met in Notting Hill, a very eclectic bunch, from counter-culturalists to people involved in mainstream politics. I’d found something personal. Up to that point I’d campaigned mostly for other people’s rights. Gay rights were an add-on, not a replacement, to the campaigning I was already involved with.”
In fact there were few human rights violations Tatchell did not draw attention to; the Troubles in Northern Ireland, General Franco, and fascist Greek colonels were all subjected to his now legendary, terrier-like tenacity.
It’s now widely accepted that homosexuality was legalised, at least up to a point, under then Labour Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, in 1967. But Tatchell is having none of it.
“Homosexuality was not made legal in 1967. The bill passed was a very partial, limited decriminalisation. All other anti-gay laws remained in place and were not repealed until 2003. In fact, in the four years after 1967, convictions for consenting adults involved in homosexual behaviour rocketed by 400%! They gave us an inch and said, ‘Don’t take any more.’ Remaining laws were enforced with ever-greater zeal as a way of reminding the LGBT community that partial decriminalisation was not a green light to acceptance.
“In 2003, under another Labour government, the law forbidding buggery, which had been introduced by Henry VIII, was finally abolished, along with the crime of gross indecency, which sent Oscar Wilde to prison in 1885.
‘The fact that these laws remained on the statute book for so long, under the heading ‘unnatural offences’ is indicative of the deep homophobia of the British political establishment.”
Is this seam of homophobia as deep now as before?
‘Nowhere near as much as then, but there are still residues, as we’ve seen with the passage of same-sex marriage legislation, which does not represent true equality. It has segregated same-sex couples under a separate legislative framework. It’s a legal apartheid. One marriage law for straight couples (the 1949 Marriage Act) and a separate, 2013 Marriage Act for same-sex couples. Separate is not equal.”
But given that same-sex marriage does now exist, something that was unthinkable even to my generation growing up gay, does the existence of a differently worded act that most people will never bother to read, make any difference?
“Symbolically yes,” says Tatchell. “How would you feel if there were different laws for black, Jewish or Muslim people?”
Tatchell is a founder member of the Equal Love campaign, which exists to make civil partnership legislation available to all, gay or straight. But now that we can all choose to get married, wouldn’t it be simpler to abolish civil partnerships altogether, something that the present government is rumoured to be considering before the end of this parliament?
“No. But we do need equality. When it comes to the inheritance of pensions, when one partner in a same-sex partnership or civil marriage dies they have far fewer inheritance rights than their equivalent opposite-sex partners. Many same-sex partners lose out financially on the death of a partner or spouse.”
Even before I ask Tatchell whether he believes that the same-sex marriage bill was the Holy Grail’ sought by LGBT campaigners, I think I know what his answer will be.
“No. I never thought that. The media and some activists made it the big issue. To me it was the last major legal discrimination, but there are still massive issues around the very high levels of homophobic hate crime, bullying in schools, the lack of sex and relationship education inclusive of LGBT kids, the appalling mistreatment of LGBT refugees fleeing persecution. There are loads of issues in addition to same-sex marriage.”
Can you legislate against homophobia?
“No, but you can send a signal. The right legislation is a way for society to say, ‘We believe equality is important for LGBT people, we do not accept discrimination based on sexual orientation.’”
Given that Tatchell would have preferred the government to have repealed the law, passed as recently as 1971, that states marriage must be between people of the opposite sex, rather than introduced new legislation specifically aimed at same-sex couples, how much does he believe in the government’s stated desire for equality. Perhaps the government is simply more interested in turning gays into Conservatives?
“I think there’s probably a bit of both. I think David Cameron saw same-sex marriage as a useful way to de-toxify the Tory brand and project a supposedly liberal caring image, while at the same time imposing swingeing austerity which has had a very negative impact on millions of people.”
Despite his left-wing politics the Daily Mail hailed Tatchell as a hero after his failed attempt to arrest Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. I wonder if this deeply thoughtful campaigner, who carefully considers every utterance before speaking, secretly dons a pair of superhero underpants before taking on African dictators, Russian neo-Nazis, or the occasional ayatollah.
“’No. I’m just one of tens of thousands of activists in Britain. I do my bit, as do many others. I tend to focus on issues that other people aren’t engaging with. Often more difficult, controversial issues, often in response to victims or other human rights campaigners. I can’t do everything. I have to have a focus.”
Of all Peter Tatchell’s campaigns, perhaps none has received as much attention as Outrage! In 1998 Tatchell disrupted Archbishop George Carey’s Easter sermon to denounce the bishop’s opposition to LGBT equality.
Tatchell was prosecuted under a little known ecclesiastical act, introduced in 1860, to prevent public brawling. The judge fined Tatchell the nominal sum of £18.60, a wry allusion to the statute under which he was prosecuted. How much progress does Tatchell believe the church has made since then, in embracing its LGBT congregation?
“Among grassroots Christians, there has been a huge shift. An opinion poll found that 55% of people of faith in Britain supported equal civil marriage. We don’t see the same harsh anti-LGBT language from church leaders that we used to. But clearly we have a long way to go. The second most senior Church of England clergyman, John Sentamu, openly endorses discrimination against LGBT clergy. Given the decline in Christianity it matters much less than it used to, but 26 unelected bishops still sit in the House of Lords and pass laws that affect the LGBT community. Britain is the only country apart from Iran where clergy sit in the legislature!”
As for the Catholic church, long a bastion of men who fancy they look good in a frock, Tatchell expresses disappointment that a “few encouraging statements” from Pope Francis have yet to be backed up by any positive action.
“There is a serious problem of homophobia in all faith communities. This is particularly pronounced in the Muslim community. In other faiths, Christianity and Judaism, there are prominent clerical figures prepared to speak out against homophobia. As far as I know, there are no imams who have done this. Anti-LGBT views are very deeply entrenched within the Muslim community. It’s perfectly possible for Muslims to say, ‘I don’t personally agree with homosexuality but I also don’t agree with LGBT people being discriminated against.’ It’s not ideal but it’s one way to resolve conflict. Outrage! has repeatedly challenged the Muslim Council of Great Britain, but it has opposed every single anti-gay piece of legislation.”
This is clearly a very current campaign, with no resolution in sight. Throughout almost five decades of campaigning is there a period Peter Tatchell has enjoyed more than others, a decade during which he feels he has made a greater difference? As ever, Tatchell takes a long pause before answering the question.
“It’s really hard to say. A lot of my campaigns have been to challenge and change attitudes and values. It’s hard to quantify exactly what contributions I, and the groups I’ve worked with, have made.”
Is there a campaign, a moment even, that he is most proud of?
“The campaign to end police harassment of the LGBT community. Working with Outrage! we invaded and occupied police stations, interrupted press conferences of then Met Police Commissioner Paul Condon and photographed undercover police officers and publicised what they were doing. That campaign resulted very directly in a big change of policing policy. Not because the police wanted to change, but because we embarrassed them. We began the campaign in 1990, and by 1993 we had cut by two thirds the number of gay and bisexual consenting adults convicted of same-sex activities – the biggest and fastest fall ever recorded. We saved literally thousands of men from prison, and the knock-on effects like losing their jobs and the break-up of their marriages.”
Tatchell was present on London’s first Pride march, back in 1972, and has been a mainstay of gay pride, not just in London, but around the world ever since. While many Prides are now a celebration of victories already won, others, such as Moscow Pride, remain fraught affairs, overshadowed by an ever-present threat of intimidation, harassment and violence, and not just from the public. In 2007 while visiting Moscow to protest against a ban on gay Pride Tatchell was attacked by neo-Nazis and punched almost unconscious. Is it worth it? Doesn’t he ever allow himself to just not bother? After all, his legend was assured long ago.”
“No, never. I went to Moscow, under the protection of a British passport, at the request of Russian LGBT activists who wanted support and solidarity. I felt it was my duty to give it.”
Given the opportunity, what would Tatchell say to Putin?
“I would ask him what motivates his homophobia. Why focus on LGBT people given the immense problems Russia faces? We are not responsible. The courage of the LGBT community in Russia, goes far, far beyond anything I’ve ever done.”
I’m not so sure. Peter Tatchell is the personification of the modern LGBT rights movement, a light that never goes out. Indeed many of the rights we have won would probably never have been granted were it not for Tatchell’s indefatigable determination to stand up to tyrants, both at home and abroad.
As we celebrate Pride we should take a moment to reflect on the unique contribution made by this remarkable individual, and to heed Tatchell’s own warning that “history teaches us to never take what freedoms we have for granted. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”