Interview: Peter Tatchell on a lifetime of campaigning

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

Peter Tachell is a name synonymous with the struggle for gay rights. He’s got 40 years of campaigning behind him and even his critics admire his tireless zeal for equality.

I caught up with him to discuss some of the highs and lows of a life that has been lived fighting for the rights many gay British men and women now take for granted.

Born in Australia, he came to London as a young man in 1971 to avoid the draft for Vietnam.

The plan was to return to Australia two or three years later but by then he had a nice flat, a good job and had fallen in love. He had also become heavily involved in the Gay Liberation Front.

In 1972 he was one of 40 people that organised Britain’s first Gay Pride March. Ten years later he stood in the now-infamous Bermondsey by-election, an experience which prompted him to devote his energies to campaigning for LGBT rights, full-time and with no pay.

He has been doing as much ever since. I ask him how he makes it work financially.

He says: “Well, in addition to the 70 hours a week I do on human rights campaigning I put in 20-25 hours a week on journalism and speaking engagements. I live on about £8,000 a year. It’s not easy, but I get my rewards in other ways. No amount of money could replace the emotional and psychological rewards I get from the campaigns I do.”

You don’t need to do the sums to work out that had he devoted nearly thirty years working 90-hour weeks to his own business, he’d probably be a millionaire by now.

“That has crossed my mind, but it holds no interest. Though there are moments when I hunger for a bit more money and a comfortable life.”

Honours hold little interest for him either. I tell him I’m perplexed I’m not interviewing Sir Peter Tatchell.

“I’ve turned those things down,” he tells me. “Over the years I’ve been contacted by a number of people who’ve said they’re in a position to make recommendation for honours: would I be mindful to accept (in turn) an OBE, a Knighthood and a Peerage. I’ve said no to all of them. I’ve got big problems with the honours system. It’s highly corrupt.”

He’s a seasoned campaigner and his methods are controversial, not least among those who favour behind-the-scenes diplomacy. I ask him about an age-old debate: does he believe the insider or outsider strategy works best?

“Both,” he answers. “On many occasions I’ve advised governments, parliamentary committees, police chiefs and senior church people, but often that’s only been as a result of confrontational protests, which have forced them to address an issue.”

“I dislike a lot of the way in which many campaigners are anti this and anti that. To win and have credibility you’ve got to have solutions. In all the campaigns I’ve done with the GLF through to Outrage it’s always been premised on ‘these are the solutions’.”

Readers may think of Stonewall here; Tatchell strongly criticised the group last year for not supporting marriage equality.

Speaking about why he set up OutRage, he says: “It was partly in reaction to the formation of Stonewall, which was set up in a very non-democratic way: a self-selected group of people set it up with no membership so there was no way to influence Stonewall’s policies.”

“We opted for an open accessible structure where the people who came along and gave their commitment were the ones who decided everything. That meant it was easy to get involved and we could react very quickly. You’d often find Stonewall sitting in committees for days or weeks discussing their stand on an issue while we’d already done three protests.”

These highly-publicised protests included the 1999 citizen’s arrest of Robert Mugabe and 1998’s hijack of Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey’s Easter sermon.

Tatchell was fined £18.60 for the stunt for breaking the 1860 Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act: proof that magistrates are not devoid of humour.

“It’s my only conviction,” he says. Not a bad result when you consider he’s been arrested over 300 times.

“The positive outcome was that from that moment onwards, George Carey hardly ever again spoke out publicly against gay equality. He also finally met with the Lesbian and Gay and Christian Movement.”

During the next’s year’s stunt involving Mugabe, Tatchell was beaten by the Zimbabwean leader’s bodyguards – not the last time he was injured during a protest.

I put it to him that Mugabe’s bodyguards could have been carrying guns and mistaken him for an assassin.

Is he prepared to die for the causes he fights for?

“No,” he tells me. “I don’t want to be injured. I’m not out to take needless risks. But the history of every successful social struggle is that sometimes you have to put your neck out in order to secure change. By comparison to democracy activists in Zimbabwe and Iran what I do is insignificant.”

In this case he received a direct request for help. I ask him how many such requests he gets each day.

“I get more than 500 emails a day. That’s not counting Facebook. Every week I get hundreds of requests for help: people suffering homophobic abuse from their neighbours; gay school kids who have been thrown out of their home by their parents; LGBT refugees fleeing persecution in countries like Uganda or Iran; people suffering police harassment or victimisation; prisoners who are being abused… The list is endless.”

Does that mean he has to make difficult decisions about whom he helps?

“I deal with every single request. Eventually. But it’s causing great mental and physical damage to me. Too often I have four or five hours’ sleep and I need eight. For more than 20 years I’ve been permanently tired and exhausted just from the sheer volume of work. I don’t want a medal or anything, but it does anger me the way big organisations like Stonewall with offices, staff and money, refuse to help individuals so they end up coming to me. That’s a great honour and privilege, but it’s also incredibly tiring and wearing.”

The help he needs might now be on the way. His friends are establishing The Peter Tatchell Foundation, which, in addition to funding campaigns, will ensure his work is continued should he be run down by an African dictator’s motorcade.

“The remit of the foundation is to work on both LGBT and non LGBT campaigns and to focus on issues that are perhaps a bit below the radar. I’ve now got an office for the first time in over four decades. We desperately need funding for two or three staff. I have one assistant at the moment, but really I need three.”

Having long fought for the legal rights of gay couples I ask Peter if he’s taking full advantage of the fruits of his labour. Is he seeing anyone?

“Not at the moment, no. The campaigning has taken quite a toll on my relationships. Until recent years I was subjected to a barrage of hate mail and death threats organised by groups like the National Front, the BNP and even Combat 18. A lot of people I’ve begun relationships with have found it very difficult to cope with.

“I remember once inviting someone I was dating for dinner. We were sitting in this room having dinner when a brick came through the window and bounced across the table. The food went everywhere. The upshot was my date saying: “I really admire you, but I can’t cope with this.””

I tell him some would say that’s an argument for leading a normal life.

“If that had been my reaction and if I’d opted for the easy life then the bigots and homophobes would have won,” he replies. “I’m not going to give them that satisfaction.”

He has suffered more than 400 attacks on his home and person in the last 30 years, including three arson attempts. His assailants have come at him with fists, iron bars, hammers, sticks, rocks, bricks and bottles.

“I am amazed I’ve never been seriously injured. It’s usually been because I’m alert and I can run fast.”

I ask him if the multitude of attacks means he’s slowly become desensitized to them.

“To some extent. I don’t even bother reporting threats to the police anymore because they’re hopeless. Apart from once or twice they’ve never arrested or brought the perpetrator to justice.”

“For about 20 years, though less so now, I’ve suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Except that mine was technically ongoing-traumatic stress disorder. I used to have really bad nightmares reliving attacks where I would jump awake in the middle of the night with my heart pounding almost out of my chest.”

In April 2007 he became the Green Party’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Oxford East. He stood down in December 2009 citing ill health. I ask him how bad his injuries are.

“The brain and eye injuries came from the beating by President Mugabe’s bodyguards in Belgium in 2001 when I was knocked unconscious and the beating by Neo Nazis in Moscow in 2007. Before that I had perfect vision in my right eye. Now I can recognise you through it, but you’re very badly blurred. My left eye sort of compensates, but it’s not good. In terms of brain injuries they’re not major, because obviously I’m still functioning, but I’m not as coherent as I used to be and my balance, co-ordination, memory and concentration has been affected.”

Aside from the above, he’s in rude health for a man turning 60 next year. He boasts to me of the 140 sit-ups he did the morning of our interview and of course he still cycles everywhere.

“I have no plans to retire. I would say there’s hopefully another 30 years in me yet. I might think of retirement when I’m 90 or 95. If I’m lucky I have my paternal grandfather’s genes. He lived to be 97.”

Has he considered writing a memoir?

“It’s on my to do list together with thousands of other things.”

I ask if he’s still in favour of reducing the age of consent to 14, a matter on which he was grossly misrepresented by the press and special interest groups, some of which labelled him a paedophile.

“A compromise might be to say that the age of consent should be left at 16, but that sex involving young people under 16 shouldn’t be prosecuted providing both partners consent, there’s no harm, and there’s no more than two years’ difference in their ages. That formulation would end the criminalisation of young people involved in consenting sex with other underage people, while protecting them against manipulation by those much older.

“The fact is that most people, gay and straight, have their first sexual experience at the age of 14 and they’re all currently treated as criminals by the law. I don’t think criminalisation is the appropriate response. I’m not saying young people should be having sex, my own view is it’s best to wait, but if they do they shouldn’t be treated like sex offenders.”

Tatchell has been leading the Equal Love campaign, which seeks full UK marriage equality. Does he think the fight for gay marriage is the last big issue for the British gay rights movement?

“The exclusion of same-sex couples from the right to marry is the last major legal discrimination in the UK, though there are other issues to tackle such as those organisations that have opt outs from equality laws, the ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood and the often unfair treatment of LGBT refugees fleeing homophobic and transphobic persecution.”

I ask him if the whether the Equal Love campaign is necessary given the government’s recent announcement it will consult on the issue of gay-marriage.

“I’m certain the Equal Love campaign prompted the government to say it was prepared to consult on ending the ban on gay civil marriages and straight civil partnerships. They wouldn’t have made that move if it hadn’t been for the fact we’ve filed a case in the European Court of Human Rights.

“By February 2012 the British government will be required to state to the European Court its justification for sexual orientation discrimination in civil marriages and civil partnerships. I think they’re going to find that very difficult.”

He doubts gay marriage will happen this year. “I don’t think the government will move that quickly. Before the election last year we protested against the Conservatives’ lack of gay rights policies. One of the issues we highlighted was the gay marriage ban. As a result I met with George Osborne and Theresa May who promised they would review the ban on same-sex marriage. A month after the election they announced they’d done the review and decided to keep things they way they were.

“I’m sceptical about this latest promise of a consultation. You don’t consult about equality, you do it.”

With my interview coming to an end I ask him what he makes of the progress of gay rights in Britain during the 40 years he’s been campaigning.

“Until the 1990s Britain had more homophobic laws than any other country on Earth. Now within the space of one decade we are among the most progressive nations on the planet when it comes to LGBT human rights. That’s an amazing, rapid pace of change and it’s down to the cumulative collective efforts of tens of thousands of LGBT people and our straight friends and allies.”

Given people born today enjoy the kind of basic rights he could only dream about when young, I ask him if he’d rather been born later than he was.

“I’m really happy that LGBT people have an easier life today, but I’m really glad that I was born when I was. It was incredibly exciting as a teenager to be involved in big historic struggles against the death penalty, for aboriginal rights and against the war in Vietnam. Those were big landmark struggles. Then of course, I got to be involved in the LGBT liberation movement, virtually from the outset. I’ve met so many extraordinary people and with them done so many extraordinary things. That’s been a great blessing.”