Peter Tatchell:‘We Do Now Have the Right to Love Who We Wish But there Are Still Battles to Fight’
The career of the civil rights activist is celebrated in a new Netflix documentary. To mark its release, he spoke to Adrian Goldberg for the Byline Times Podcast
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AG: When did your career in protest start?
PT: Way back in 1967 in my hometown of Melbourne, Australia. I was campaigning against the death penalty for indigenous Aboriginal rights, against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and LGBT+ freedom as well.
It only really became a full-time vocation in 1983, after the ill-fated Bermondsey by-election, when I was the defeated Labour candidate. Commentators described that election as the dirtiest, most violent and most homophobic election in the latter half of the 20th Century in Britain.
That was a period when the right-wing press was in its pomp and you were vilified in the national newspapers
Gay News described what happened to me as the most sustained vilification of any gay public figure since Oscar Wilde. That gives you a flavour of how bad it was. But it wasn’t just over my homosexuality and my support for LGBT+ plus rights, it was also the other things I stood for, which are now mainstream.
I argued for a national minimum wage and that was denounced as extremist. They said, ‘you’ll bankrupt business’. I argued for a negotiated political settlement in the north of Ireland and I was told I was an IRA supporter, but of course the Good Friday Agreement did exactly the same thing. I argued for a comprehensive anti-discrimination law to protect every person against discrimination. That too, was seen as over the top and extreme, but we now have with the Equality Act of 2010.
What happened after you lost to the Liberal candidate Simon Hughes in the Bermondsey by-election?
That experience was so traumatic, it prompted me to think, ‘well, now I am a national name, I have a public profile – I want to use this to champion not just LGBT+ rights, but all human rights’. So I’ve been doing it as a full-time, mostly unpaid, career since 1983.
During that time, I’ve been involved in over 3,000 protests. I’ve been arrested about 100 times and subjected to horrendous levels of death threats and hate mail. And I’ve been physically violently assaulted over 300 times. But I’m still here and I intend to carry on for another 25 years.
To me, human rights are universal. They are for everyone on this planet. All people deserve dignity, respect and equal rights.
Did you ever think of standing for Parliament independently and changing the law that way – rather than putting yourself in situations where you’ve been physically attacked?
I think I’m just is a bit too radical for Labour which is the party I stood for in 1983. Maybe working outside of Parliament I’ve had greater freedom to champion causes and put energy into campaigns that I wouldn’t have time to do if I’d been a member of the House of Commons.
In your lifetime we’ve moved from the legalisation of homosexuality to gay marriage. Should we take pride in how far we have come or is there disappointment at how far we still have to go?
We do now have the right to love who we wish, but there are still battles to fight. There’s still a huge struggle to secure dignity, respect and rights for trans people.
Even today, about a third of all LGBT+ people in Britain have been victims of homophobic, bi-phobic or transphobic hate crime. And in our schools, nearly half of all pupils have been victimised because of their sexuality or their gender identity. So quite clearly, there is progress still to be fought for and won.
The Netflix film Hating Peter Tatchell includes a moment from 1998 when you intervene a service being given by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, calling for gay marriage. In an interview, he has said “Peter Tatchell is a bullying kind of chap who tries to get his own way”…
Well, of course I do when human rights are being challenged, threatened and abused. We have to challenge those who are responsible.
Dr Carey was arguing at the time that LGBT+ people were not entitled to equal human rights, that discrimination against us was justified. For eight years, we had tried to get a meeting with the archbishop – he wouldn’t meet us or anybody from the LGBT+ community.
So that is why I myself, and members of the LGBT direct action group Outrage, went to Canterbury Cathedral and called him out during the service. We made the very simple point that discrimination is not a Christian value.
What I delighted in seeing in the Netflix film was that, when George Carey was interviewed, he’d revised his view. He actually said – which was rather over the top, I think – that I exhibited Christ-like qualities and that history would judge me as being on the right side. Now that’s very generous of him – given that he was somewhat embarrassed, even humiliated, by my intervention in the cathedral back in 1998.
There is one very graphic moment where you get punched in the mouth in Moscow and many more instances like that in your career. What is the most frightened you’ve been?
I’ve never wanted to be violently assaulted but I have been very badly beaten, particularly by President Mugabe’s bodyguards in Brussels in 2001. When I attempted a citizen’s arrest on the Zimbabwean President on charges of torture, I was beaten unconscious in broad daylight in front of the world’s media by his bodyguards.
Then again in 2007 in Moscow, I was very badly beaten by neo-Nazis with the connivance of the police and riot squad. After I was beaten, I was arrested and my perpetrators were allowed to walk free.
But what’s happened to me is nothing by comparison to what has happened to far braver human rights defenders in countries like Russia, China, and many other places around the world today.
And you’ve been mostly unpaid – so how have you survived?
I used to do bits of freelance research and journalism. For about 30 years, I lived on £5,000 to £7,000 a year, which was pretty tough in London.
I can remember in winter not being able to afford to turn on the heating and I’d wander around my flat wearing two pairs of trousers, three pullovers, or woolly hats and gloves. But I loved the work I was doing. My passion for human rights kept me going, despite the difficulties and adversities.
What do you make of the fact that the ban on gay conversion therapy, which has long been promised in England and Wales, hasn’t yet been introduced? And even if it was, it would exclude trans people…
It’s pretty inexplicable at one level as to why the Government won’t do it, as there are lots of other countries and jurisdictions like the state of Victoria in Australia, that have model legislation that could easily be lifted or adapted to the UK.
At another level, the reason for the delay is obvious because the Conservatives have been waging a ‘culture war’ – particularly against trans people – over the last two years, and conversion therapy seems to be a victim of this culture war.
To be publicly, outspokenly, anti-gay is not a position someone can take for very long if they are a public figure – but to be anti-trans (at least as many trans people perceive it) seems to be entirely acceptable?
It is absolutely shocking the way in which trans people are being demonised because it echoes the way in which lesbian, gay and bisexual people were demonised in the 1980s. It is simply not true that trans women are predators and a threat to other women. I think it’s really dishonourable to prey on a small, marginalised, vulnerable and discriminated minority. It’s just not right to treat the victims of prejudice as perpetrators.
Has holding that view led to you losing friends?
It has. I’m very shocked and stunned, to be honest, that I have lost women’s rights campaigners who I counted as friends and even some LGBT people. They seem to buy in to this anti trans agenda in a way that’s completely incompatible with any kind of commitment to human rights. I’m shocked that many of them make generalised statements about trans people that they would never dare say about black people or Muslim people.
It’s a demonisation that has no basis in evidence. It is based upon hypothetical scenarios or maybe one or two incidents. But you cannot base legislation and policy on what a few bad apples may do. Target the bad apples, yes, but don’t demonise and discriminate against the whole community.
And that is what is happening to the trans community. They are being vilified and demonised across the board, even though 99.999% of them are totally blameless.
‘Hating Peter Tatchell’ is on Netflix. Adrian Goldberg is the Editor and Producer of the ‘Byline Times Podcast’ and ‘Byline Radio’