Interview: Peter Tatchell’s 40 years of campaigning

PinkNews logo on pink background with rainbow corners.

Peter Tatchell celebrated his fortieth year of campaigning on 10th December, Human Rights Day.

The Australian-born activist began campaigning for human rights, democracy and global justice in 1967, aged 15.

Now, at 55, his eyes still have the vividness and energy of a teenager, and he has no intention to retire, because, he says, there is still much work to do.

Speaking in his home in South London, surrounded by hundreds of documents on human rights issues, books and magazines about LGBT rights, and satirical posters of religious leaders, he talks about his long career and his many experiences.

But the list is so long, including campaigns against apartheid, dictators and torturers, and in favour of green issues, gay marriage and revision of the age of consent, that it is hard to believe he can cope with all that. How can you manage to campaign for all these issues?

Peter Tatchell: With great difficulty. I haven’t got much leisure time, not nearly as much as I would like. I desperately need an office, and a couple of paid staff to work.

Most of my campaigns are in response to appeals for help from individuals and organisations in Britain and around the world, but I get many more questions that I can possibly cope with, so I have to choose.

I tend to focus on issues where there is very little knowledge or coverage. For example?

PT: I helped highlight the loss of benefits to many same-sex couples in civil partnerships, that was an issue that no other organisation was covering.

I have taken up the cause of a number of gay Muslim asylum seekers, who couldn’t get help from other organisations. Until recently, very few Western gay organisations were supporting the campaigns of activists in Zimbabwe, Uganda, Nigeria, Iran, Palestine and Iraq. What about the UK? What do you think about gay rights here?

PT: We have got formal legal equality, but we haven’t got liberation. Even the battle for equal rights is incomplete. We still have a ban on same-sex marriage, which is a form of sexual apartheid.

If the government banned Jewish or black people from getting married and offered civil partnerships instead, people would be on the streets.

But the LGBT community has rolled over and accepted this inferior, second-class legal status. What exactly do you think gay people should aim for?

PT: Equality is not enough. There is little point being equal in a fundamentally unjust society. The idea that straight people live in some kind of paradise is absurd.

We need to transform society, not to conform to it. I advocate civil commitment pacts, in which people can choose their own individualised, tailor-made partnership agreements.

In our society there is a great variety of relationships and the law needs to recognise this diversity. What do you think about the Vatican and its attempts to hamper protection and recognition for gay people?

PT: The sooner someone outs Pope Benedict, the better. His homophobic policies remind me of the Inquisition, and the Hitler Youth, of which he was a member.

All the closeted homophobes in the Vatican should be outed, they are destroying the lives of LGBT people worldwide. A few days ago, the pope said that gay people threaten peace, how would you respond to that?

PT: These are the rantings of a semi-deranged Christian fundamentalist and a theocrat, whose ego is so enormous that he believes he has a hot-line to God.

If any ordinary person in the street did it, they’d probably put them in a mental asylum. It is amazing the indulgences that are allowed for the so-called “men of God.”

Pope Benedict he is the ideological inheritor of the Nazi homophobia. He’d like to eradicate homosexuality, but since he can’t put LGBT people in physical concentration camps, is doing his best to put them in psychological concentration camps. An issue that you are fighting for is the change of the age of consent.

PT: I am astonished by the way so many LGBT organisations are reluctant to challenge the often unrealistic age of consent that exists in Britain.

The age of 16 is totally out of step with young people, as the average age they start having sex is 13 or 14 in the UK.

I’m not saying that they should have sex, but if they do, they shouldn’t be criminalised. Under British law, two young people, gay or straight, under the age of 16, who kiss or cuddle can face a prison sentence up to five years. What is your view of the LGBT organisations in the UK, such as Stonewall?

PT: Stonewall has a very conformist, assimilationist agenda. It doesn’t question the legal status quo, it merely conforms with it.

Obviously equality is better than inequality, but it isn’t sufficient and is not liberation. Let’s talk about yourself. What is the thing you are most proud of?

PT: Many. The citizen’s arrest of Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe in 1999 and 2001, for his crimes against humanity. The ambush of Tony Blair in 2003 to protest against the impending war in Iraq.

The interruption of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1998 during one of his sermons, to condemn his discrimination against gay people. Name a person you admire.

PT: There is more than one. Gandhi, Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Sylvia Pankhurst. OK. To finish, in two words maximum, how would you describe these people or groups?

Pope Benedict XVI: homophobic hypocrite.

Rowan Williams: coward.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad: theocratic fascist.

Russian President Vladimir Putin: Stalin lite.

Stonewall: equality only.

Gordon Brown: new Blair.

Tony Blair: tragedy.

Outrage! (the movement founded by Tatchell in 1990): effective.

Peter Tatchell: crazy!

For more information on Peter Tatchell’s work visit his website.