The start of a three-part interview with gay activist Peter Tatchell, who is 60 tomorrow; including the moment he tried to arrest President Mugabe
Gay activist and human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell turns 60 tomorrow (25 January). It’s a day that will also mark roughly 45 years of campaigning for a better world and the 10th anniversary of the Peter Tatchell Fund that was latterly set up to support his efforts.
His biography is enormous. From organizing for Aborigine rights to fighting an election in one of the poorest parts of South London and from embarrassing the police into stopping their persecution of same-sex couples to trying to secure the independence of countries like Western Sahara, Palestine, Baluchistan and West Papua, he frequently bites off more than it seems anyone could chew.
He’s constantly divided opinion – even in the same publications. In 1995 the notoriously homophobic and equally inconsistent British tabloid, The Daily Mail dubbed him a ‘homosexual terrorist’. In 2001 the paper described him as ‘heroic… an example to us all’.
He’s literally too much to sum up in one feature. So Gay Star News is giving him three. And there is more to ask him than just one person can think up, so we’ve also put questions from GSN readers to him. Over the next three days, our in-depth interview will try to paint a picture of one of the world’s most famous and extraordinary campaigners for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender – and simply human – rights.
You were born in Australia and did your first campaigning there at just 15. What first excited you about it and kept you going? Because a lot of people do stuff at 15, most aren’t still doing it at 60…
I never intended to be a full-time, lifetime human rights campaigner. My passion was art and design. My first campaign was against the death penalty in my home town of Melbourne. Ronald Ryan, an escaped prisoner was due to be hanged for allegedly shooting dead a prison warder during an escape. At the age of 15 I worked out that the trajectory of the bullet through the warder’s body made it almost impossible for Ryan to have shot the fatal bullet. I also heard so much contradictory evidence and the possibility that one of the other warders had actually mistakenly killed the officer who died.
Ryan was hanged anyway. That really shocked me. How can you hang a man with dubious conflicting evidence? That hanging destroyed my trust and confidence in the government, police and courts. It provoked my lifetime of skepticism towards authority.
Could you choose a most successful campaign?
It is hard to choose any single campaign but one that I am very proud of is the OutRage! [an LGBT rights group formed in London in 1990] campaign against the police harassment of the LGBT community. In 1990 thousands of gay and bisexual men and most of them convicted for consenting victimless behaviour that was not even a crime between heterosexual men and women. It was absolutely outrageous that this was happening in the late 20th century.
We tried to negotiate with the police but they just used the negotiations as a PR window-dressing exercise, the raids and arrests continued. So OutRage! walked out of those negotiations and began a very high profile direct action campaign. We invaded and occupied police stations that were organizing the arrests of gay men, interrupted the press conferences of the then Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Paul Condon and exposed and publicized the ‘pretty police’ who were being used to entrap gay and bisexual men into committing offences and then arresting them.
Within three months of starting that campaign the police were pleading with us to come back and negotiate. Soon afterwards we did on the condition they would take meaningful steps to change the way they policed our community. Within a year had agreed to most of our demands for a non-homophobic policing policy. Within three years the number of gay and bisexual men convicted for consenting, non-victimless behaviour fell by two-thirds, the biggest, fastest fall ever recorded. Our campaign literally saved thousands of gay and bisexual men from arrest and conviction.
If that was the most successful is there one you feel backfired?
The stickiest campaign for us was outing the 10 Church of England Bishops in 1994. We always made it clear we were naming and shaming them because of their hypocrisy and homophobia. They were colluding with the church’s anti-gay policies despite their own secret homosexuality. They were being dishonest and two-faced. Their actions were harming the LGBT community. They had to be exposed.
But the way it was portrayed in much of the media is that we were outing these innocent, harmless bishops who just simply wanted to keep their sexuality private. That misrepresentation resulted in a big backlash against OutRage! and myself personally. I was inundated with hate mail and death threats.
But I have got no regrets because outing worked. None of those bishops, as far as I know, ever again made homophobic public statements. Second, it prompted the Anglican church to begin its first serious dialogue with the LGBT community and third, in response to our criticism of the homophobia of these bishops and the wider church, the House of Bishops issued one of its strongest ever declarations against homophobia.
Incidentally GSN reader Uli wanted us to ask you: ‘Can organized religion and LGBT equality truly co-exist?’
Organised religion has historically been the single greatest oppressor of LGBT people. There are people in all faiths who support our community and human rights but the leaderships of most religions do not.
Nevertheless I’m hopeful for the future. The Christian churches used to support slavery and the denial of votes for women. Now they’ve ditched those oppressive policies which is evidence they can change.
A campaign like that one against the homophobic bishops implies that you are very strong in your convictions. But do you find it hard to compromise? Would you have gone for the compromise of civil partnership rather than marriage? Can compromise be useful?
I’ve always been prepared to compromise if it ultimately leads to some greater better good.
I was initially opposed to civil partnerships as they were quite clearly an attempt to stave off demands for LGBT marriage. Obviously to segregate same-sex couples in a separate legal system, civil partnerships, is deeply offensive, it underscores our second-class status. However, once civil partnerships became inevitable, of course, I supported them in the sense they gave same-sex couples rights they did not previously have.
Although I have very strong, deeply held convictions that motivate my campaigns I’m always open to criticism and reconsideration of my views. In many ways I’m my own harshest critic.
I don’t think I’ve ever done a campaign I’ve been completely happy with. I’ve always thought afterwards ‘I wish I’d done it this way’ or ‘Why the hell didn’t I say that?’ I never have done any interview, including this one, where I’ve felt totally happy with what I’ve said. I’ve always thought I could have said it better.
On a lot of issues, I’ve changed my mind. Initially I was against outing in all circumstances but in the course of debate and discussion with my OutRage! colleagues I eventually became persuaded that outing homophobes and hypocrites was morally justified.
I used to support the criminalization of homophobic hatred, now I am much more skeptical. How do you define hatred? Who decides? Criminalizing hatred is open to abuse. It can mean legitimate opinions, satire or ridicule can become criminal. For me the red line is incitement to violence. Anyone who incites or threatens violence against any other person for any reason should be prosecuted.
Another GSN reader, Rob, recalled your by-election fight to become MP of Bermondsey, south London in 1983 against Simon Hughes, who remains the Liberal Democrat MP there. He remembers Simon won with ‘gay bashing’ even though he finally came out as gay and asks what you think about him these days?
The Liberal Democrats used very dirty tactics to win the Bermondsey by-election. They went around on the doorsteps, deliberately drawing attention to the fact that I was gay and supported gay rights, clearly in a bid to win the homophobic vote.
There was a notorious leaflet, circulated in the by-election called ‘which queen will you vote for?’ It had a picture of Queen Elizabeth and myself and the text said that I was a left-wing extremist, against the monarchy, a traitor to my country and that people should let me know what they thought of me and below it gave my home address and phone number.
I was deluged with attacks on my home and hate phone calls. At the time it was thought the National Front or some other neo-Nazi organization was behind the leaflet but some years later a guilty Liberal Democrat contacted me to say his party was behind it. By the way that leaflet was illegal and a violation of election law which could call into question the validity of Simon Hughes’ election as it did not identify who produced it.
Anyway that was a long time ago. I’m not one to hold grudges. We can’t undo what’s been done. It’s time to move on. Within a few years of the by-election I was working with Simon Hughes on HIV and LGBT issues. Although he is a Liberal Democrat he’s quite good on a lot of issues. Eventually he apologized to me personally which I accepted, my view is let bygones be bygones.
Is it a regret of yours that you didn’t end up in parliament?
It’s hard to know how I would have turned out as an MP. Obviously I thought that being in parliament would give me a platform to campaign for LGBT issues and other human rights concerns. I think I could have been quite effective. But on the other hand I might have got caught up in the parliamentary process and ended up being a rather isolated backbench MP. Not being in parliament has given me the freedom to say exactly what I believe and enabled me to do some incredible direct action protests that have helped change hearts and minds.
Like an MP you have done your own constituency work, helping ordinary people…
Except I don’t have a paid constituency caseworker and all the resources that come with being an MP.
So there must have been times you couldn’t help. How do you balance your constituency work and campaigning?
Although I love doing it and helping people I find the casework very distracting from the campaigning. It’s very time consuming and that means I have less time available to write articles, speak at meetings and organize protests.
You say you have tried to turn protest into an art form. Why have you done that and how has it helped?
My first passion as a teenager was art and design. You can see that passion in my political activism. Most protests [in London] involve a march from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square. It’s worthy but boring and been done to death.
My activism has been about inventing new ways of projecting LGBT issues to the wider public such as the kiss-in in Piccadilly Circus, the mass queer wedding in Trafalgar Square, the queer Valentines carnival in Soho and the turn-in at Bow Street police station. Those were all novel ways of highlighting different aspects of discrimination.
It was astonishing to think that until 1990 same-sex couples were being arrested and prosecuted in London for merely cuddling and kissing. To challenge this abuse of police power myself and OutRage! organized a mass kiss-in in Piccadilly Circus [central London]. In advance we challenged the police either to change their policy or come and arrest us all. On the night about 250 lesbian and gay couples turned up.
One hour before the protest was due to start we got a message from the Metropolitan Police commissioner that henceforth, no same-sex couple would be arrested for merely kissing or cuddling in public. We won, even before the protest took place. We still went ahead with the protest. It attracted a crowd of thousands and got massive media coverage. We won the battle of hearts and minds. The police were shamed into changing their policy.
You have covered so many issues. Do you feel you have stretched yourself too far and would have been more effective by concentrating on just a few?
Possibly [laughs]. All my campaigns are a response to appeals for help and assistance from people whether in this country or abroad. I take up issues because people come to me and ask me to do something.
In the mid-1990s human rights campaigners and LGBT activists in Zimbabwe asked me to do something to highlight the abuses of the Mugabe regime. That’s how I ended up doing two attempted citizens arrests of the Zimbabwean dictator, one in London in 1999 and the other in Brussels in 2001.
You were actually once thanked by Mugabe for opposing the white supremacist government in Rhodesia, as it was before it became Zimbabwe. So when did you start to realize that things were going wrong with Mugabe.
President Mugabe was a keynote speaker at a conference in London in the late 1990s to celebrate 40 years since the first African country became independent from Britain. I decided to go along and challenge Mugabe on his homophobia and human rights abuses.
During the lunchtime break I tagged along with a TV crew and managed to get into the VIP area where Mugabe was having tea. I approached him and introduced myself, explained that as a student I had helped campaign against the white minority regime in Rhodesia and had supported the Zimbabwean freedom struggle. Mugabe beamed with approval, shook my hand and personally thanked me.
Then he asked ‘what do you do now?’ I replied ‘I campaign for lesbian and gay human rights.’ At that moment he was sipping a cup of tea and spluttered in shock. Suprisingly he then tried to claim that LGBT people were not persecuted in Zimbabwe which was obvious nonsense. At that point I was spotted by Special Branch detectives and hauled out of the room.
Your second attempt to perform a citizens' arrest on Mugabe in 2001 resulted, very famously, in you being beaten badly by his security guards. Can you tell us what was going through your mind that day in Brussels?
With all my protests, I’m always incredibly nervous. Nervous about being spotted and foiled and nervous about being arrested and beaten up. While I was waiting in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel Brussels to try and arrest Mugabe I was shaking with nerves, my stomach was churning over, I felt sick and nauseous, my body temperature plummeted. It was an awful experience but I felt I had to do it for the sake of the people in Zimbabwe who were being arrested, tortured and even killed. That’s what made me go through with it.
In part two tomorrow (25 January) read about how the beating at the hands of Mugabe has left Tatchell with permanent injuries and about the personal toll his human rights work has taken on him. Plus how the Gay Star News reporting team ended up punching him too!