Peter Tatchell interview: On love and freedom
Reform - Magazine of the United Reformed Church
My motto: Don’t accept the world as it is
Reform - The magazine of the United Reformed Church
November 2012: http://bit.ly/S7B709
Symon Hill meets veteran human rights campaigner, Peter Tatchell:
For someone who has often been vilified as an aggressive extremist, Peter Tatchell is disarmingly mild-mannered in person. It’s not the first time I’ve met him, but it’s the first time I’ve done so while covered in mud – we were at the Greenbelt (Christian) arts, faith and justice festival at its wettest, and I had few dry clothes by the third day. Fortunately, Peter Tatchell is just about the last person to care about an interviewer’s trousers. He recently said that the most expensive item he has ever bought is a £300 bicycle.
Tatchell made his name campaigning for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. But he has worked tirelessly to progress a vast number of other causes – from challenging government cuts to supporting the rights of Sunni Muslims in Iran. While he may share the anti-consumerist instincts of many Christians, he still draws criticism and even anger in certain Christian circles. When he spoke at Greenbelt in 2010 – on “the global struggle for queer freedom” – the socially conservative group Anglican Mainstream called for a boycott of the festival. Many remember his protests in 1998, when he interrupted the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter sermon.
Tatchell speaks passionately about religious liberty and recently defended the rights of Christians who object to same-sex relationships to express their views in public. He has also criticised his fellow left-wingers for failing to condemn the persecution of Christians in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as much as they condemn the persecution of Muslims elsewhere. At Greenbelt this year, he spoke about same-sex marriage alongside Sharon Ferguson, director of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement.
Symon: You say your human rights campaigning is motivated by love. What does love mean to you?
Peter: Love to me is a sense of respect, affection, care and compassion towards other human beings. Too often, it’s privatised within the family realm. One of the true measures of love is our ability to extend it to a wider humanity, to recognise people beyond our own family, community, culture and nation as being part of the human family. If we are able to love in this broader sense, we will never tolerate the kinds of deprivations and injustices that blight the lives of millions of people around the world.
Do you think there’s any link between the power of love and what Christians call the power of God?
For me, love is a non-religious emotion and principle, although I understand and accept that it can be religiously motivated and interpreted as well. Whatever the motivation or inspiration, the important thing is that we have love in our hearts for other human beings, a love that transcends our own immediate family and friends to a wider humanity. Love is a universal principle that ought to guide all aspects of human endeavour.
The term “human rights” comes in for a lot of criticism. What do human rights mean to you?
I take my understanding of human rights from the agreed conventions such as the Universal Declaration of Human rights. They set out principles by which we (and the state) should treat other people and ensure their protection against tyranny and persecution.
What do you think stops people acting on the basis of love?
Too many people see love within a narrow framework of either purely romantic love or solely love for their immediate family members. This lack of an expansive love inhibits their ability to act consistently in loving a way towards others - especially towards people who are different or far away.
What do you mean when you say that you support the human rights of Christians who are being persecuted?
One aspect of my various human rights campaigns is to oppose the persecution of religious minorities, including the persecution of Sunni Muslims in Shia-dominated Iran, and the persecution of Christians in countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. It's truly shocking the way in which the churches and homes of Christians have been burned down in parts of Pakistan with the apparent connivance of the authorities. Perpetrators are rarely if ever brought to justice. There've also been instances of Christians being sacked from their jobs and even murdered. This persecution of Christians in Pakistan is much worse than the undoubted Islamophobia that exists in parts of Britain. I find it curious that many people on the left will rightly defend Muslims against persecution but never say a word about the persecution of Christians, Jews, Baha'is and other minority faiths.
You're particularly known for campaigning on LGBT rights. In the decades you've been working on it, what do you think those campaigns have achieved? What have been the biggest achievements of those campaigns?
When I was a teenager, homosexuality was almost universally regarded as sinful, immoral, criminal, abnormal, unnatural, deviant and sick. The medical profession regarded homosexuality as a form of either physical or mental illness. Most aspects of gay life and love were criminalised. There was widespread blackmail. Queer-bashing violence was routine and the police did very little to stop it. Gay people could be sacked from their jobs or evicted from their tenancy with no legal redress. Many of those injustices remained in Britain right up until the late 1990s. It's only in the last decade or so that public opinion has become more accepting and most anti-gay laws have finally been repealed. It took until 2003 for us to secure a penal code that does not discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation. It wasn't until that year that Parliament finally repealed the law against anal sex which was passed in the reign of King Henry VIII in 1533. Likewise, it was only in 2003 that the gay consensual offence of 'gross indecency' was abolished. This was the law that sent Oscar Wilde to prison in 1895. So during my lifetime, and particularly since the start of the twenty-first century, I have witnessed momentous changes in terms of public acceptance and legal equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
How do you feel about that? That must be an immense change to have witnessed and been part of.
It has been one of the biggest, fastest and most successful law reform campaigns in British history. Laws that had existed for centuries have finally gone from the statute books. A longstanding, deep-seated social homophobia has finally been turned into a notably minority perspective.
And what do you think is still to be achieved?
Although we have some fantastic equality laws that protect LGBT people against discrimination in employment and housing, all these laws have qualified exemptions for religious organisations. I think it's very wrong that faith bodies should seek and secure exemptions from the laws that apply to everyone else. No one is requiring them to approve of homosexuality or practise it but they shouldn't' be allowed to discriminate. The last of the major legal discriminations is the ban on same-sex civil marriage.
As well as same-sex civil marriage, you're also supporting religious groups who want to carry out same-sex marriages themselves, who want a right to same-sex religious marriage.
I'm co-ordinating the Equal Love campaign which, as well as pressing for marriage equality, is also calling for an end to the ban on heterosexual couples having a civil partnership and for the right of religious organisations to conduct same-sex marriages if they wish to do so.
But not if they don't wish to?
No. Neither the gay community nor the government is proposing that any religious organisation should be compelled to conduct same-sex marriages. In our view, it should be a matter of free choice. But what's very wrong about the current law is that by banning religious same-sex marriages, the government is forcing religious organisations to discriminate, even if they don’t want to. That's not only homophobic, it's also an attack on religious freedom: the right of religious organisations to minister to same-sex couples in exactly the same way as they do to heterosexual couples.
You've worked with Christians, some Christians, quite a bit, whether that be campaigns on LGBT rights or any other issues, human rights, the arms trade, etc. How has working alongside Christians affected your perceptions of Christianity or your views on Christianity. Have your feelings about Christianity changed over time?
Well, I've never taken a black and white view of Christians and LGBT rights or any other human rights issue. In may late teens, when I was still religious, I founded and was elected secretary of Christians for Peace, which was the main interdenominational anti-war campaign group in my home town of Melbourne, Australia. It was specifically set up to lobby against Australia's role in the Vietnam war and against the draft of young men to fight in that war. So right from an early age, I've been working alongside Christians on these social justice and human rights issues. For every homophobic, bigoted Christian, there are other iconic Christians who've stood up and spoken out for LGBT equality, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He has likened homophobia to racism, saying that when he fought against apartheid, it was for the liberation of all South Africans, including those who are LGB or T.
Some Christians remember your protests in the 1990s, when there was footage and images of you protesting in churches, and that may not always have been presented fairly in the media. What would you say now those protests were mainly about? And how do you feel about them? Do you have any regrets? Do you feel worthwhile and achieved something?
In the 1990s, we were campaigning against quite extreme homophobia, as manifested by many social institutions, from Parliament to the police, judiciary, media and churches. All attempts at dialogue had failed, so we had no alternative but to challenge homophobes within the church, modelled on the nonviolent tactics of people like Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Indeed, much of our inspiration came from the black civil rights movement. It was in many instances led by Christians. Looking back on our protests, I don't have any regrets. They were all morally and ethically justified. In 1994, the LGBT direct action group OutRage!, of which I was a member, named ten Anglican bishops. We didn't name them because they were in the closet and wanted to keep their sexuality private. It was because they were colluding with a church that was actively condemning gay people and whose leaders were advocating legal discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.
So, just to clarify, if those bishops had spoken out against homophobia, without necessarily disclosing their sexuality, you wouldn't have had a problem with their sexuality being private?
No. No. We called on the bishops to 'tell the truth'. They preached that we should all be honest, truthful and not bear false witness. Yet they were doing the exact opposite. Either explicitly or implicitly, they were colluding with a church that was publicly anti-gay, while privately, they themselves were homosexual and in many instances having gay relationships. The issue for us was hypocrisy and homophobia.
With my OutRage! colleagues, I went into the pulpit of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, on Easter Sunday 1998 and criticised his advocacy that the law should discriminate against LGBT people. He was on record as saying that homophobic discrimination in employment was justified in certain circumstances, that there should be no legal recognition of people in loving long-term same-sex relationships, that gay couples are unfit to foster or adopt children, that the age of consent should not be equalised, and so on. We tried for eight years to meet him to discuss our concerns. He refused. Faced with this intransigence, with his unwillingness to dialogue, we felt we had no option but to confront him in his cathedral. We did not insult him or the Christian religion. We simply criticised his support for homophobic discrimination. People say it was shocking that we interrupted a church service, but we didn't interrupt any of the sacred parts. We made an intervention when Dr Carey was beginning his political sermon. To us, far more shocking than interrupting a church service, was the fact that a so-called Christian leader was saying that the full force of the law should be used to deny equal rights to people who happen to be LGB or T.
What's changed? Why are you, or why do you think other people, are not using similar sorts of tactics now, given that in many ways the Church of England is as homophobic as they were before?
I think overall church homophobia has declined. It hasn't gone away, but I don't think it is as bad or strident as it once was. At some point in the future, if it is warranted, I'd be prepared to do similar protests again. If church leaders continue to misrepresent the campaign for marriage equality and stir up public hostility towards gay people, then similar forms of direct action protest may be morally and ethically justified.
Just sticking with issues of Christianity for the moment. You've spoken about how Jesus didn't say anything against homosexuality. What's your view on Jesus generally?
I'm no longer religious. In all probability Jesus did exist and most of the biblical accounts are probably broadly true. I see the recorded life of Jesus as being one of a Jewish prophet who articulated many admirable humanitarian ideals: blessed are the peacemakers, the poor shall inherit the earth, and so on. In many ways, the Gospels are a theology of human liberation. They motivate many Christians to be not obsessed about sex but to work for social and global justice. These are admirable expressions of Christian faith.
On a completely different issue, you've been speaking about economic democracy and alternatives to cuts at Greenbelt. Can you explain what you mean by economic democracy and why you think that's a big issue for us now?
Everyone expects political democracy. Why can't we also have economic democracy? In the political system, whether we are rich or poor, we all have one vote. In the economic system, it's only the rich and powerful who have votes. The vast majority of employees and consumers have no votes at all. All the key economic decisions are taken by directors acting on behalf of major shareholders. The employees who work in public or private institutions have little or no say in how those institutions operate. We are in effect living under an economic dictatorship. I'd like to see a democracy of economy to make it more democratic, transparent and accountable. That's vital if we're to have an economy that serves that people rather than big business.
You've been speaking about a wealth tax at Greenbelt.
The richest ten per cent of the British population have a combined personal wealth of four trillion pounds. That's a million pounds multiplied four million times. This is astonishing, fabulous, excessive wealth. I'm proposing the idea of a one-off, 20% graduated tax on this richest 10%, which would raise a phenomenal 800 billion pounds. This would still leave intact the vast bulk of rich people's assets, but they'd probably have to sell off one of their six homes, or maybe a luxury car or a yacht. They can afford it. It's their patriotic duty to make sacrifices to help save the economy. £800bn could be used either to pay off most of the national debt, which is currently crippling the economy with interest payments in excess of £43bn a year. Even better, we could use that money to fund the green new deal, which would create new green jobs in renewable energy and energy conservation; simultaneously helping solve unemployment and tackling climate change.
You're supporting calls for a reduction in the age of consent to 14. Would you like to explain why that's something you support and how that would work?
I've argued that the age of consent should be reduced to 14. I don't encourage young people to have sex at an early age. It's preferable if they delay their first sexual experience. But if they do have sex that is consensual, I don't believe they should be criminalised and put on the sex offenders register. The reality is, whether we like it or not, that most young people are having various forms of sex below the age of 16 - not necessarily full sexual intercourse. Under the current law, any form of sexual contact with a person under 16, even mere kissing and caressing, is regarded as a serious criminal offence and can render that person to be labelled as a child sex offender - in effect destroying their future life prospects.
So you're talking about, say, a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old, rather than a 14-year-old and an adult?
Yes. My concern is to stop the criminalisation of young people of similar ages. Another variation would be to keep the age of consent at 16, but have a policy of not prosecuting sex involving young people under 16 providing there's no more than two or three years' difference in their ages.
So it would still be illegal for, say, a 40-year-old to have sex with a 14-year-old?
Yes. But the best protection against child sex abuse is not the law. We already have prohibitions and they're routinely violated by paedophiles. Child sex abusers do not take any notice of the law. The best way to protect young people is to empower them with the knowledge, skills and confidence to say no to unwanted sex and if they are pestered to report sex pests. That's the best protection by far.
And finally, just to ask you about your own life. You've, as you say, seen a lot of changes in terms of LGBT rights. You've campaigned on all sorts of issues, you've been beaten up by Robert Mugabe's bodyguards, but you're still going around speaking and campaigning. Do you ever long for a quieter life or will this pace continue?
I'm sixty now but retirement isn't even on the horizon. I'm in it for the long haul, hopefully, if my health holds out, for another thirty years. There are so many injustices that need to be challenged. For me it is an incredible honour and privilege to be part of a human rights movement that is slowly, gradually, surely making a positive difference to many people's lives. I am an unreconstructed 1960s idealist. My motto is 'Don't accept the world as it is. Dream of what the world could be and then help make it happen'.
Published in a slightly edited form in Reform magazine, November 2012
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