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UK News: Peter Tatchell at 70: why the fight goes on – after Netflix stardom and 30 years of gay rights victories

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Peter Tatchell . Quite the same Wikipedia. At PNL he was a member of the National Union of Students Gay Rights Campaign. Tatchell argued for withdrawal from NATO and for the establishment of a European Self-Defence Organisation, independent of both the United States and

Perhaps that is why the mainstream media are saying little, because they are collecting government money for ads? Joe was a corporate executive in Hong Kong for a decade and has years of experience in finance, IT, operations and auditing around the world. The knowledge gained in his career provide him with a unique perspective of current events in the US and globally. He has ten degrees or designations and is the author of three books.

On a gloweringly grey January afternoon, Peter Tatchell arrives on time, bearing gifts.

“Happy New Year!” he says, and hands me the latest issue of the New Humanist magazine (“a rational approach to the modern world”) and a copy of the 2022 Attitude calendar (on the cover: a swarthy hunk/gardener in a pair of Speedos, two sizes too small, pushing a wheelbarrow); perhaps it’ll remind me to go to the gym or do some gardening.

I make us cups of tea and cut a couple of slices of cake.

He wolfs his down. He doesn’t have to worry. He still looks like a whippet. But he’s in good health (mostly – more of that later); the hair’s thinning a little, and it’s grey – but why wouldn’t it be? He’s going to be 70 next week. 70!

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I was shocked when he told me. He seems younger than that. Perhaps it’s the restless energy he radiates.

In addition, it’s the 10th anniversary this year of his human rights campaign group the Peter Tatchell Foundation.

Has there ever been a transformation of public image like it? Peter Tatchell, the tabloid hate figure (“public enemy one” as one newspaper described him) who threatened civilisation as we knew it, is now courted by politicians and celebrities, having made our society more civil.

He’s a national treasure: Graham Norton with a sociology degree but without the lamé. He’s even has his own Netflix documentary, Hating Peter Tatchell.

“How does it feel finally being appreciated?”

“It’s good, but not for its own sake. It is very nice not to have bricks flying through my window or being beaten up in the street.”

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Tatchell was born in Australia but fled to Britain in 1971 to avoid his country’s Vietnam draft. He didn’t approve of Nixon/Kissinger’s carpet bombing of south-east Asia and when it became clear that street protests in Melbourne weren’t going to cut it, he packed his bags for London and that year joined the nascent Gay Liberation Front.

Tatchell really entered the public consciousness – and the bricks really began flying through his windows – 12 years later, however, in the historic and hate-filled 1993 Bermondsey by-election.

Labour parliamentary candidate Tatchell was a gay-rights campaigner at a time when gay men were “poofs” to be ridiculed on the television.

He was also a foreigner and a radical leftist. The response in the media was vitriolic. The lies, slurs and nonsense were endless.

He recalls the piquant details.

“The News of the World doctored a photograph of me to make it look like I was wearing lipstick and eyeliner. When I complained to the Press Complaints Commission the paper said the [photo] definition got damaged when it was wired to them.”

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He laughs now but says that the by-election was “like living through a low-level civil war”. Certainly, it felt like it went on that long.

He was assaulted more than 100 times in the street and while canvassing. There were 30 attacks on his flat, two drivers tried to run him over. “I often feared for my life.”

You can hardly blame him for affecting that dubious cockney accent (check out the Netflix documentary) on the doorstep in hard-as-nails Bermondsey. He denies he tried sounding like a working-class Londoner – it was just “tiredness”. Of course, he was tired. Being that courageous must be exhausting.

He lost the safe Labour seat. The victorious Liberal Party had joined in the homophobic slurs. It promoted its candidate Simon Hughes as “the STRAIGHT choice”, although he later revealed that he had had relationships with men. He has since apologised to Tatchell.

Watching (later) TV encounters between Tatchell and Hughes, I’m struck by how calm and magnanimous Tatchell seems. Does he feel bitterness about how he was treated?

“Not really, because being bitter is an incredibly destructive, corrosive emotion. It doesn’t get you anywhere. I acknowledge what was happening, and then go on with the next thing.”

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While Tatchell’s chatting there’s a permanent hint of a smile on his lips. He maintains constant eye contact and gives the impression he’s more interested in what you have to say, than the other way round.

His response to any question is carefully considered and arrives as a formal comment, as if prepared for a press release – which isn’t surprising. Tatchell has spent much of the past five decades providing press statements on human rights abuses for anyone who will listen.

During the Bermondsey horror he was also disowned by the national Labour Party, over his commitment to “extra-parliamentary” action against the Thatcher government. Was he simply too far left for a conservative with a small “c” Britain?

“I called for a tent city of the jobless and homeless in Parliament’s Square. I wasn’t calling for the storming of the barricades and smashing of the windows. In those days, you weren’t allowed to protest in Parliament Square.

“Anyway, many of the things I was calling for – LGBT rights, a minimum wage, a negotiated settlement to Northern Ireland – are now considered mainstream.”

Britain never had Peter Tatchell MP, but instead Peter Tatchell, activist. In retrospect, has he achieved more with direct action that he would have as an MP – and therefore part of the establishment?

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“You can’t say for sure, but yeah, if I had been elected… I would have been weighed down with constituency work and Parliamentary procedure. Whereas on the outside, I’ve had the freedom to focus on the campaigns.”

He says the experience of Bemondsey made him prioritise his work on the rights of on LGBT+ people. And boy – in the 80s and 90s – were those campaigns needed.

In 1988, the Thatcher government produced Section 28, which prevented local authorities from “promoting homosexuality”.

These were the Before Times: before the word “homophobic” was in common parlance; before there were civil partnerships, let alone gay marriage; before there were employment rights or much concern about queer bashing.

The first time I saw Tatchell was in 1990. I don’t recall the exact date – but it was at one of the early Outrage! meetings in the old Lesbian and Gay Centre in Farringdon.

The group was formed in response to the homophobic (and still unsolved) murder of actor Michael Boothe, who was kicked to death by a group of six young men on 30 April 30, 1990 in Hanwell in West London. As we slouched in bomber jackets and dungarees (…it was 1990), Tatchell stood up and talked in a sensible shirt, jacket and trousers. He took notes from his briefcase and looked like a geography teacher.

Some of us grumbled – he was pushy, overbearing. But he was also energetic and formidably well organised. With Tatchell its most prominent figure, Outrage! morphed into an astonishingly effective directive action group, propelled by its audacious and witty stunts.

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Among them, the 1992 “Turn in”, in which several male couples handed themselves into Bow Street Police Station for the crime of “kissing in public”.

Outrage! was largely responsible for sea-change in police priorities, from persecuting gay men for victimless crimes to protecting them from violence.

Some of Tatchell’s Outrage! stunts remain controversial to this day, however, particularly the campaign he led in 1994 -1995 to out church figures deemed hypocritical for concealing their sexuality while espousing conservative doctrine.

Tatchell received some of his harshest criticism from pundits, TV audiences and even some in the LGBT community, in this period. He stands by what he did, “exposing the homophobia and hypocrisy of bishops who were privately gay but who publicly condemned homosexuality”.

In Hating Peter Tatchell, George Carey, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury in the outing period, initially has some harsh words. But by the end of the film, Carey seems to have, like much of Britain, had a rethink. He starts by decrying Tatchell as a bully – and by the end of the documentary is comparing him to Jesus.

But it was the Robert Mugabe incident that changed the public’s attitudes to Tatchell. On 5 March 2001, Tatchell attempted a citizen’s arrest in Brussels on the Zimbabwean freedom fighter-turned-human-rights abuser. He was knocked unconscious by the dictator’s bodyguards.

It was hard to watch on the TV news. What did it feel like?

“It hurt horribly. There were seven or eight blows to the head. It was like a bolt of lightning throughout my head and body. It was excruciatingly painful. But I just focused, mentally I just blocked all that out and just focused on what had to be done to try and get Mugabe arrested.”

There was never any chance of Mugabe being arrested despite the tens of thousands lying in mass, unmarked graves in Matabeleland. But the altercation raised headlines around the world on Zimbabwe’s human rights abuses.

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 Chosen (Netflix): What is its common point with the Rain series? © Last Trier Mørk / Netflix Chosen (Netflix): What is your in common with the Rain series? Netflix provides its subscribers the season 1 of the Danish Chosen series from this Thursday, January 27th.

It was at this point the Daily Mail agreed with the Pink Paper that Tatchell was a human rights campaigner, asking “Is Peter Tatchell the bravest man in Britain?”.

It was probably “foolhardiness” he admits, not going straight to hospital in Brussels.

“But my intention was to go to the hospital as soon as I got back to Britain the next day, which I did. The doctor said I had very severe concussion. I asked to have an MRI done of my brain. But they refused, saying it wasn’t bad enough. I said: ‘Look, I’m paralysed from the top of my head, down my left side to my upper thigh. I can’t feel anything.’ I still didn’t get one.”

This and a subsequent beating in 2007 by neo-Nazis in Russia has left Tatchell with permanent injuries. These include diminished co-ordination, memory, eye-sight and concentration.

“Campaigning is a bit more difficult but I can still carry on. No regrets. Compared to the jailing and torturing of human rights defenders in Russia, Iran, and Uganda, I have got off lightly.”

Oppression in Russia, Chechnya, and Africa and the Middle East continue to provide the focus for his campaigning on LGTB rights.

There are still around 70 countries that criminalise same-sex relations. And 10, he notes, continue to have the death penalty.

But Tatchell has never been a single-issue campaigner – unless that issue is the whole gamut of human rights. As a teenager he was drawn to civil rights campaigning by the struggle for racial equality in the US.

He credits the Black Panthers with inspiring some of his campaign methods. He works on everything from the plight of people devastated by the gas leak incident in December 1984 at the Union Carbide India Limited pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, to the exploitation of migrant workers in places such as Qatar.

The squalor underpinning this year’s Fifa world cup in Qatar is very much on his mind, as are the high-profile celebrities making a killing from it.

He is scathing of David Beckham’s decision to be the face of the 2022 World Cup in what’s alleged to be a £150m deal in the country, where gay people can go to prison for three years or be publicly lashed.

“It’s a huge mistake. He’s just burnishing the public image of a profoundly despotic regime that denies rights to women, LGBTs and migrant workers. David Beckham may argue that he will use his leverage to improve things. But lots of people have tried that and failed.

“It’s shameful. The number of pop stars and YouTube influencers who go on expensive paid trips, or do big concerts in countries like Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. You know they are doing it out of pure greed. And in the process, helping to whitewash the rights abuses of these countries.”

Notably, Tatchell has always insisted that freedom of speech is one of the most fundamental human rights.

And he’s stuck to this mantra, regardless of whether it’s brought him into conflict with prevailing views on the left.

I quote back at him a comment from five or so years ago. “Mired in the immoral morass of cultural relativism, they [the far left] no longer endorse Enlightenment values and universal human rights. Their support for free speech is now qualified by so many ifs and buts. When push comes to shove, it is more or less worthless.”

Does he stand by that?

“Of course.”

He says we should be free to insult the Queen and religions; the term Islamophobia is a “de facto threat to free speech and liberal values”.

We should not, he says, place emphasis on protecting the religion of Islam but the rights of Muslims, not all of whom are religious and some of whose rights might be threatened by the religion.

He’s averse to cancel-culture and no-platforming people, and contemptuous of the notion that people should be “cancelled for something they said on Twitter years ago at the age of 18’”.

Even the toxic debate surrounding trans-rights holds no fear for him.

Last year he was due to debate the Sussex University academic Kathleen Stock, who asserts that biological sex is a fact of nature that cannot be superseded by claims of gender identity.

“My intention was to show why her views are wrong. Anyway, I was denounced not only by trans people, but by most other LGBTs. It’s so very childish. but I had to reluctantly withdraw.”

For Tatchell it’s crucial to engage people with whom you disagree in debate. People should only be cancelled “if they make false or damaging allegations, engage in threats, menaces or harassment, or if they incite violence”.

He’s critical, too, of the excesses in identity politics, which some see morphing into something shrill and solipsistic.

“Look, identity politics was very necessary. Given the mainstream politics, for decades, ignoring the legitimate claims of women, black people, LGBT and others, we had to assert our identity, and demand dignity and rights.

Gay rights

1967 – Sex “in private” between two men over 21 is decriminalised (sex between women had never been illegal). But restrictions remain on what is considered private, and the Act only applies to England and Wales. Scotland follows in 1981 and Northern Ireland does so in 1982.

2001 – The age of consent for gay men – lowered to 18 in 1994 – is made 16, finally equal to the law for heterosexuals.

2003 – Section 28, banning schools and councils from “promoting” homosexuality, is repealed in England and Wales, three years after Scotland.

2014 – Same-sex marriages are able to take place for the first time in the UK, thanks to laws passed the previous year.

“But some forms of identity politics lose the plot, in that they forget our common humanity. There’s a lot of silo politics, Where each different community is in its own little silo, biding its own cause, often with very little regard to other people are also excluded and disadvantaged. And what we’re going to do is find a way of bringing people together, despite our diversity. If you have this silo politics, it’s one of the reasons why the left is so weak.”

Nothing appears to deter his campaigning, But I wonder whether he ever treats himself to some well-earned time off. He was going to allow himself a big 70th birthday bash this month.

The Omicron variant means that the event has been postponed, though, for fear there would be too many no-shows at the (very) big London venue.

It would have been a star-studded event. Elton and David Furnish, and Stephen Fry, would have been there.

How does Peter Tatchell, the ascetic human rights campaigner, get on with the rich and famous? He’s too discreet to tell me. A number of celebrities donate to his foundation, after all. I try a different tack. Who’s the nicest celebrity?

“Ian McKellan,” he answers instantly. “Only two days ago I went around to his house in east London. I was going to stop for just 10 to 15 ­minutes to give him new year presents and a card. And we ended up chatting for five hours. He is very down to earth. Very sweet. very genuine.”

If Peter Tatchell, the national treasure, was offered a gong like Sir Gandalf would he take it?

“No, though I think I might have been sort of offered something. On three occasions – between 2005 and 2015 – I’ve been phoned up by a middle-aged sounding man with a cut-glass accent, who asked if I would be minded to accept a knighthood if it was offered. I said: ‘Who are you and in what capacity are you calling?’

“The man said at this stage, ‘we just want to sound you out’.”

He admits it could have been someone from the Cabinet Office or simply a tabloid wind up.

“I’ll never know. But just the demeanour and the tone and the wording sounded very plausible, very, very official and plausible. And in the end I said: ‘No, thank you.’”

He thinks the honours system is corrupt and should be replaced “with the Order of Britain awards” whose recipients would be restricted to “outstanding achievers and people who do selfless unpaid voluntary work to benefit”.

Anyway, gongs are less important than the ongoing fight for justice.

When he says he’d better be going, I show him to the door and ask him what he’s got planned for the weekend. “Oh, I’ve got some work to do. There’s always work to do.”

And not just his weekend.

“I’ve no plans to retire. Like a Duracell bunny, I intend to go on and on, hopefully for another 25 years. But even after 95 I expect I’ll still be doing the occasional protest.”

Chosen (Netflix): What is its common point with the Rain series? .
© Last Trier Mørk / Netflix Chosen (Netflix): What is your in common with the Rain series? Netflix provides its subscribers the season 1 of the Danish Chosen series from this Thursday, January 27th.

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