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Peter Tatchell at 60: The personal cost

Peter Tatchell at 60: The personal cost

Anyone who has ever been to gay and human rights activist Peter Tatchell’s home in South London can testify that he’s a man who lives with his work. Piles of paperwork cover every surface in the small council flat and banners and posters clutter up all the remaining space.

However intimidated you may be by his reputation as one of the world’s most famous – and occasionally controversial – LGBT campaigners you can’t help notice that he’s surprisingly easy-going, has a good sense of humour and makes a decent cup of tea.

In the first part of our interview (published yesterday) we looked at some of the highlights of his 45 years in campaigning and direct action activism. Today, on his 60th birthday (25 January) we examine the impact that life’s work has had on him personally. Again we’re including more questions from Gay Star News readers.

GSN reader Erica asked: ‘Have your years of tireless campaigning come at any personal cost?’

The personal cost has been very high. Oddly despite my 45 years of campaigning I have never received much in the way of funding, just some donations from well-wishers. I have therefore never been able to have a proper staff support team.

This means I have to work seven days a week, usually 12 to 15 hours a day. I’m doing the work of three people. That’s a big strain on my mental and physical health and it means I’ve got very little private or social life. My Peter Tatchell Foundation is seeking to increase the donations we get to employ some extra staff.

Right now though I work these long hours I’m unsalaried. This means I live on about £8,000 or £9,000 a year, which is quite tough in London. Many people have said that with my skills and talents I could easily get a job and get an income of £100,000 plus a year. While that would be nice [laughs], it’s not my priority. No amount of money could give me the psychological and emotional satisfaction I get from the LGBT and human rights work I do.

The other big adverse consequence of my work is that I have been targeted for nearly 30 years by homophobes, neo-Nazis, Islamists and other hate-mongers. I have been physically assaulted in the streets over 300 times. Most of my teeth are chipped and cracked from these assaults which have involved being punched, kicked and battered with sticks and rocks, iron bars and assorted other weapons. There have even been a couple of attempts to stab me. I’m very, very lucky that I haven’t been seriously injured.

My flat has been attacked well over 100 times including three arson attempts, a bullet through the front door and dozens of bricks through the window. It’s now fortified with iron bars on the windows, a steel frame door and a fireproof letterbox.

As a consequence of all these attacks, for many years I’ve suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Or more accurately ongoing traumatic stress disorder as these attacks haven’t happened once or twice but have been ongoing. They are less frequent today than they were say in the 1980s and 1990s when I was very outspoken and prominent in the campaign for LGBT rights and, of course, society was much more homophobic but nevertheless they still continue from time to time. It’s quite scary.

I have suffered some brain and eye injuries as a result of two very notable assaults. In 2001 I was beaten unconscious by President Mugabe’s bodyguards when I tried to stage a citizen’s arrest. Those injuries were compounded in 2007 when I was bashed by neo-Nazis at the Moscow gay pride parade. I used to have perfect vision but now my right eye is very badly blurred. Fortunately my left eye more-or-less compensates.

The brain injuries don’t stop me but they do slow me. I have got difficulties with concentration, balance, memory and coordination. It makes typing very difficult. I often jumble the letters and words which is quite frustrating for someone who does writing as part of my campaigning.

The people who did all of those things wanted did them from their own hatred and but they also wanted you to stop what you were doing. There must have been times when you thought ‘I should stop’. It must be hard for a lot of people reading this to understand how you can be motivated to keep going…

These attacks have often driven me to depression. There have been times I’ve felt like giving up. But my stubbornness has kept me going. I don’t want to let the bigots win.

When I had all these attacks on my flat, lots of friends said move out. Part of me agreed but the main part said ‘no, I’m not going to be forced by these queer bashers and facists’.

What keeps me going is the love that motivates all my work. I do this campaigning because I love other people and I love justice and equality. I don’t want to see other people suffering.

I’m also sustained by the successes of my campaigns. Over the years I’ve personally helped at least 20,000 LGBT people who have come to me after experiencing employment discrimination, denial of asylum, police harassment, miscarriages of justice and so on. The thanks and gratitude I’ve received from those people has inspired me to keep going. Likewise so many of my campaigns have helped get successful results for the LGBT community, that’s very motivating.

What’s also helped me cope is putting my experience into perspective. Compared to LGBT campaigners in Uganda, Zimbabwe or Russia I’ve got off lightly. I haven’t been put in prison, I’ve never been tortured and I certainly haven’t been killed [laughs]. But that has been the fate of many LGBT activists in other countries.

You mentioned all of that made it very hard to have a social life and personal life. Ironically people’s right to have a relationship is one of the key things you have campaigned on. So is that a regret of yours?

Yeah. It would be great to have a relationship with the right person. To have that love and support would greatly strengthen me as a person and through me my campaigns. However it hasn’t happened. I’m quite independent and put a lot of my emotions into my campaigns so being single isn’t a disaster. I’ve had five major relationships in my life but none for the last few years. Some people have quipped that I’m married to LGBT rights, I guess they’re sort of right.

Might it be very hard for someone to have a relationship with you and feel they have to understand your lifestyle or live by your standards? Has that been a barrier?

Absolutely. There’s the issue of the incredibly long hours. And there’s also the issue of the threats and attacks I face. I can remember in the early 1990s dating a new boyfriend. We were sitting down to dinner when a brick came through the window and landed on the table sending all the food and crockery flying. He was a lovely guy but he said he just couldn’t cope with living with those kinds of risks. That’s happened quite a few times.

Some people also feel overawed by me. They feel they are constantly in my shadow. I don’t see it that way, to me everyone is my equal but for some people they find it awkward that I am so well known and have such a high public profile.

You are not very healthy probably, because you have all these injuries but are fit… You’ve said you have a six-pack…

Yes I do, go on, punch it [making a very reluctant Matthew punch him]

And you, punch it [turning to me]

I don’t want to.

[He grabs my wrist and punches himself hard in the stomach with it. It’s true, he has a six pack.]

So I think there are plenty of people much younger than you who would want to be as fit as you are. What’s your secret?

A positive mental attitude, daily vitamin pills, a very nutritious, non-meat diet, using a bicycle to get around and a mini daily workout.

You have said you want to go for another 30 years because your granddad lived to 97. Don’t you want to retire?

Retirement has never entered my head. It would be boring. I would like to slow down a bit and have a little more personal time and space but campaigning for a better world is something I love doing. Why give it up? Can I quote my motto. I have got several, there is a section on my website. My motto is ‘Don’t accept the world as it is. Dream of what the world could be and then help make it happen.’

In part three tomorrow (26 January) we conclude our interview by asking Tatchell for his priorities for the future of LGBT rights, his controversial campaign about gay sex education in schools and his warning for the next generation of activists.

Here you can see a video of Peter Tatchell being attacked in Russia. You may find some scenes disturbing: