‘Be sceptical and daring’: Peter Tatchell’s honorary doctorate acceptance speech

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Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was awarded an honorary doctorate for his human rights work by Sussex University last week.

This is the full text of his acceptance speech on receipt of his Honorary Doctorate of Letters, conferred by Sussex University and presented by the university’s Chancellor, Sanjeev Bhaskar, in a ceremony at Brighton Dome last Friday.

Chancellor, vice-chancellor, members of faculty, family and friends, and fellow graduands, to whom I offer my congratulations. Congratulations on your hard work – and success.

My gratitude to Prof Morely for her most generous oration, and to the University of Sussex for conferring on me such a high award.

I was hesitant about accepting this honour. After all, my doctorate has not been earned by academic study, and my contribution to human rights is very modest. Many others are much more deserving than me.

Nevertheless, after so many years of demonisation by the tabloid press, right-wingers, homophobes and even by some people on the left and in the LGBT community, this recognition is much appreciated.

In accepting this award, I pay tribute to the heroic, inspirational activists I have worked alongside, including activists in Uganda, Somaliland, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Baluchistan, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Western Sahara, Iraq, Palestine and West Papua.

The greatest honour I’ve had in my life is the privilege to know and support so many amazing, courageous human rights defenders around the world. I walk in their shadow, humbled by their bravery and sacrifice.

I dedicate my acceptance of this honorary doctorate to the people of Iran who are struggling against clerical dictatorship, for democracy and freedom.

In particular, Mansour Osanloo, the jailed Iranian trade union leader, and Sakineh Ashtiani, who has been sentenced to be stoned to death, along with more than 20 other Iranians.

I express my solidarity with Iran’s persecuted Sunni Muslims and its oppressed national minorities: including the Arab, Kurdish and Baluch peoples.

I’m not special or unique. I do my bit for social justice, but so do many others. Together, through our collective efforts, we are slowly, but surely, helping make a better world – a world more just and free.

My key political inspirations are Mohandas Gandhi, Sylvia Pankhurst, Martin Luther King and, to some extent, Malcolm X and Rosa Luxemburg. I’ve adapted many of their ideas and methods to the contemporary struggle for human rights – and invented a few of my own.

I began campaigning in my home town of Melbourne, Australia, in 1967, aged 15.

My first human rights campaign was against the death penalty, followed by campaigns in support of Aboriginal rights and in opposition to conscription and the Australian and US war against the people of Vietnam.

In 1969, on realising that I was gay, the struggle for queer freedom became an increasing focus of my activism.

After moving to London in 1971, I became an activist in the Gay Liberation Front; organising sit-ins at pubs that refused to serve queers, and organising protests against police harassment and the medical classification of homosexuality as an illness.

I was roughed up and forcibly ejected when I challenged the world-famous psychologist, Professor Hans Eysenck, during a lecture in 1972, where he advocated electric shock aversion therapy to supposedly ‘cure’ homosexuality.

The following year, in East Berlin, I was arrested and interrogated by the secret police – the Stasi – after staging the first gay rights protest in a communist country.

I have continued in the same vein for four decades, with many controversial protests: such as taking over the pulpit and condemning the Archbishop of Canterbury on Easter Sunday 1998, two attempted citizen’s arrests of President Mugabe of Zimbabwe, confronting Mike Tyson over his homophobia, and outing ten Church of England Bishops in 1994.

The bishops were outed, not because they were gay but because they were hypocrites. They colluded with the church’s anti-gay stance in public but were gay in private. They were outed because of their homophobia and hypocrisy, not because of their homosexuality.

I was widely criticised at the time. Critics said I had no real evidence that the bishops were gay. Not true. I had the evidence. I was gratified some years later when a doctor approached me to confirm that he knew one of the bishops was definitely gay. He told me that the unnamed bishop was a patient and once came to his surgery with a rectal problem. The doctor asked the bishop to show him where the problem was. Dropping his trousers and pointing to his bottom the bishop said: “It’s here, just by the entrance.” To which the doctor replied: “Excuse me bishop, most us call it the exit.”

Looking back on my 43 years of human rights campaigning, my advice, for what it’s worth, is this:

Be sceptical, question authority, be a rebel. Do not conform and don’t be ordinary.

Remember, all human progress is the result of far-sighted people challenging orthodoxy, tradition and rich, powerful, vested interests.

Be daring, show imagination, take risks.

Fight against the greatest human rights violation of all: free market capitalism, which has created a world divided into rich and poor, where hundreds of millions of people are malnourished, homeless, without clean drinking water and dying from hunger and preventable diseases.

Don’t accept the world as it is. Dream about what the world could be – then help make it happen.

In whatever field of endeavour you work, be a change-maker for the upliftment of humanity.

To quote my fellow sodomite and socialist Oscar Wilde:

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”