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Peter Tatchell at 60: The next 30 years

Peter Tatchell at 60: The next 30 years

Few human rights campaigners can claim to have 45 years of activism, fewer still, at 60, are pledging to go on until their 90s.

But for British-based Peter Tatchell, one of the world’s most famous agitators for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, retirement is not on the cards, despite celebrating his 60th birthday yesterday (25 January).

This week Gay Star News is running a three-part interview, including questions from our readers, on Tatchell. We have already examined his history of activism and looked at the toll his work has taken on him personally. Now, in the final part of our birthday interview, we examine his thoughts for the future of gay activism.

GSN reader Pierre asked about the term ‘gay agenda’. He wanted to know whether you think there is a gay agenda and if so how would you define it?

The gay agenda is usually a term thrown about by right wing homophobes to suggest some kind of sinister, malevolent campaign. So far as the issues that concern LGBT people they are many and varied.

There is no one agenda. Some people believe the legalisation of same-sex marriage is the number one priority. Others argue that homophobic bullying in schools is more important. And others believe the global struggle for LGBT people human rights in repressive homophobic countries is the number one issue for them.

We were tweeted by @Labraitio who asked what you see as the single biggest gay rights issue facing people today? Could you answer that on a global scale for us?

This summer London is hosting World Pride. I proposed the theme should be ‘decriminalize homosexuality worldwide, protect LGBT human rights’. To me ending the criminalization of same-sex behaviour is the number one priority globally.

We know from experiences all over the world that once the legal sanctions against same-sex relations are lifted it frees up the LGBT communities to organize and campaign for their human rights. In many countries, because people are at risk of imprisonment and even execution, most LGBT people are too afraid to campaign. Decriminalization will change that, it’s a real game changer.

The British and US governments have indicated they will switch aid from the state to NGOs for countries with oppressive anti-gay laws. Is that the right approach?

It would be very wrong for western governments to punish poor people because of the homophobic policies of their governments. But I have long argued that governments like Britain and the US should switch aid from homophobic and other human rights abusing regimes to grassroots and community organisations which distribute aid without discriminating.

Denis Facebooked us to say that LGBT African activists are 'wary' of what they see as European style activism. He asks if you have any message for them? What works, what doesn't?

The liberation of LGBT people in Africa, as everywhere, has to be by African LGBT people themselves. It would be very wrong and counterproductive to impose our methods and agenda on other countries. That’s why I’ve always argued the best way to help LGBT people in Africa is by publicizing the abuses and supporting the organisations in those countries.

One practical way to help is for organisations in the west to twin with those in Africa and elsewhere. This twinning can include things like buying them cameras, computers and other campaign equipment, working in partnership with them to publicise the homophobic persecution they are suffering and so on.

Are you worried that parts of Africa and the Middle East are becoming worse for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people? People have said the Arab Spring may actually lead to extremist Islamic governments which might lead to a deteriorating situation. Do you have a view on that?

There is a rising tide of homophobia and transphobia in some parts of Africa and the Middle East. This is manifest in queer bashing attacks, arrests and new legislation to crack down on LGBT communities which we are witnessing in Nigeria and Uganda.

One of the ways to counter this trend is to reconnect with authentic African cultural traditions where homosexuality was often accepted, tolerated and sometimes even ritualized and venerated. There is a huge collective amnesia in Africa. Many people think that homosexuality was imported from the west. In fact the real western import was homophobia.

Nearly all the anti-gay laws that exist in Africa and many countries were originally imposed by the British colonial administration in the 19th century. They have been on the statute books and never repealed despite the fact these countries are now independent nations. Homophobia is mostly not an authentic African value. We need to help LGBT groups in Africa to get that message across.

Katy asks if you have seen any positive or negative changes in LGBTQ activism since the emergence of Twitter and Facebook?

Social media can make it much easier to spread the word about homophobic abuses and to organize protests. When the two young guys were thrown out of the John Snow pub in London last year a protest campaign was very quickly organized on Facebook and Twitter. It lead to a kiss-in outside the pub and got media coverage for the discrimination this young couple experienced.

The downside is that click activism is sometimes a substitute for the longer harder slog. It’s great to sign a petition against Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill. It’s fantastic when people email their MPs but the battle for equality involves much more. It involves lobbying government ministers face to face, organizing protests against the bigots who are persecuting us and so on.

Obviously cyber-bullying is related particularly to Facebook and hate groups have sprung up. So there is dark side to social media. Is that something you have encountered yourself?

Just as the LGBT community can use social media to organize and campaign for human rights so can our critics. There have been a series of organized campaigns to disparage our claims to equality. I have been on the receiving end of lots of hate campaigns and even death threats organized by Facebook and Twitter so it does have its downside. But overall I think it is a positive thing.

GSN reader Melanie wanted us to ask you ‘what is the most important change that needs to occur along the path towards true LGBT equality?’

On a global scale the number one priority is to support and fund LGBT groups in countries that have oppressive homophobic governments. We need to empower people in those countries to fight their own battles. We can’t do it for them. What we can do is support them by backing and financing their campaigns.

Within Britain it’s impossible to identify any single priority. For me education is one of the key areas. If new generations can be educated against prejudice that will produce a much less homophobic society in the future. It should be compulsory for every school to have lessons in challenging homophobia, transphobia and all forms of prejudice. Sex education has got to include sex education for LGBT kids as well.

One of your more controversial campaigns was to equalize an age of consent at 14 and you argued that you best empowered young people to not have sex in a damaging way for them through education. Is there an age where you feel it would be wrong to talk about gay or straight sex with kids?

Education against homophobia and education about LGBT sex and relationships should begin in the first year of primary school in an age appropriate way. There is no reason why five and six-year-old kids shouldn’t know that some people will grow up to fall in love with members of the same sex. It’s a fact of life.

The education system exists to prepare young people for adult life. As well as traditional subjects like English and maths, young people need to be educated that some of them might grow up to be LGBT and even if they are straight they are certainly going to meet LGBT people at work and in their families and social lives.

In the early 1990s I was involved with the queer rights group OutRage! to combat the censorship of LGBT issues in schools. We leafleted lots of schools with a pamphlet called ‘It’s ok to be gay’. It created a huge furore and we were denounced by the tabloid press, conservative politicians and even some parents. But the young people who received the leaflets loved them. They nearly all said: ‘Why aren’t we getting this information from our teachers? Why is this information being denied us?’

And Erica asked ‘What’s your message to upcoming political activists. What baton does your generation have to pass on?’

We need to be forever vigilant. It would be a big mistake to assume the rights we have won are permanent. I can’t foresee them being overturned but who can say what might happen in 30 or 50 years.

If there was a meltdown in the global economy, caused by either economic crisis or climate chaos there is a strong possibility we would experience a revival of the far right. We know that throughout history the far right and ultra nationalism has always targeted minorities. It’s hard to imagine there will ever be a return to the homophobia of the past but it’s not impossible.

We should never forget that Germany, which was one of the great European civilisations descended into the barbarity of Nazism. This is a particularly telling lesson for LGBT communities. In 1930, Berlin was the gay capital of the world. There were gay bars, clubs, newspapers, theatres, cultural organisations and sports clubs. There was the expectation that the German parliament would legislate to end the criminalization of homosexuality. Yet three years later the Nazis came to power and before the year was out they had banned all LGBT organisations, newspapers and bars and the first gay men were being carted off to concentration camps. That shows we can never take our freedom for granted.

We talked about resource before and the Peter Tatchell Foundation obviously helps. How much difference does it make or is it underfunded to the extent that it doesn’t make much difference?

The Peter Tatchell Foundation is a work in progress [laughs]. We haven’t yet got charity status but we hope to get it soon. We have now got a small office but I’ve only got one assistant, I need four – a secretary PA, a caseworker, a researcher and press officer and a campaign organizer. If I had the funding for those four staff it would hugely increase the capacity and effectiveness of my work.

We are appealing for 1,000 people to donate £5 a month to raise £60,000 a year. That’s really tiny. We are not asking for a lot. I would say the Peter Tatchell Foundation is one of the smallest but most effective human rights organization. We punch way above our weight. Our campaigns have a global impact.

You can read the previous two interviews with Peter Tatchell focusing on his past work and the personal toll it has taken on him.

Watch Tatchell’s Gay Star News appeal for funds on video here: