Biography – 30 years of gay human rights campaigning 1969-1999


  • “Homosexual terrorist” – Daily Mail, 14 March 1995
  • “Public enemy number one” – Sunday Times 19 March 1995
  • “Prize pervert” – Daily Express, 23 March 1995
  • “Fascist” – Daily Telegraph, 15 March 1995
  • “Pure poison” – Evening Standard, 14 March 1995
  • “An enemy of the people” – Daily Express, 23 March 1995
  • “ example to us all”, Daily Mail, 7 March 2001
  • “A national hero”, Sunday Times, 11 March 2001
  • “A civil rights campaigner we can all applaud”, Sunday Telegraph, 11 March 2001

Peter Tatchell has campaigned for sexual freedom and human rights since 1969. His activism mirrors almost exactly the whole history of the modern, post-Stonewall Riot gay liberation movement.

Throughout more than 30 years of political activism and writing, he has helped develop new analyses and theories of queer emancipation, and contributed to changing public opinion and overturning homophobic discrimination.

Thought-provoking and unafraid to ask awkward questions, he is the author of six books and over 3,000 published articles, many of which have presented heretical, innovative ideas on issues of sexuality and sexual human rights.

Rejecting queer conformity to straight institutions and the goal of mere legal equality, he advocates the transformation of society to create a sex-positive and human rights culture that will benefit everyone, both gay and straight.

Although he has originated many imaginative ideas and protests, Peter Tatchell’s achievements cannot be attributed solely to him as an individual. His efforts have always been channelled through campaigning organisations, such as the Gay Liberation Front and OutRage! None of his successes would have been possible without the help and support of others – to whom he owes a great debt of gratitude.

Peter Tatchell was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1952. He first came out as gay in 1969 at the age of 17, inspired by press reports of the early gay liberation protests in New York .

Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, Sylvia Pankurst, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, he has adapted their direct action methods to the contemporary struggle for human rights – and invented a few of his own.

Although he has focused primarily on campaigning for queer emancipation, Peter believes human rights are universal and indivisible. That is why he has been involved in campaigns opposing capital punishment, apartheid, nuclear weapons, environmental degradation, and Britain’s war in Ireland and the US wars in Vietnam and Iraq. He has also campaigned for Aboriginal land rights in his native Australia, independence for the people’s of East Timor, Palestine and West Papua, and for a Global War Against Poverty, to eradicate hunger, disease, illiteracy and homelessness.

GLF was the first political movement of openly gay people, and the first gay movement committed to changing society rather than assimilating into the status quo. Unlike earlier organisations, it rejected defensive pleas for tolerance and demanded nothing less than total acceptance and full equality – but on gay terms. GLF sought to reshape the values, laws and institutions of heterosexual society to end not only homophobia, but also puritanism, misogyny and all authoritarianism.

Peter Tatchell helped organise many of GLF’s daring, irreverent protests – including freedom rides and sit-ins at pubs that refused to serve “poofs” and “lezzies”. These protests overturned discrimination and revolutionised social attitudes, paving the way for many of the gains lesbians and gay men now take for granted.

Involved in the GLF campaign against the classification of homosexuality as a mental illness, in 1972 he was violently manhandled by doctors and psychologists when he disrupted a lecture by one of the world’s leading psychiatrists, Professor Hans Eysenck. The professor had endorsed the use of electric-shock aversion therapy to “cure” homosexuals, dismissively claiming that the treatment was no harsher than “a visit to the dentist”. As a result of this and similar protests in Harley Street, the medical profession eventually abandoned its pejorative designation of homosexuality.

In 1973, Peter Tatchell was the GLF delegate to the World Youth Festival in East Berlin, smuggling thousands of gay rights leaflets into the communist-ruled German Democratic Republic. His speech on gay liberation at the Youth Rights Conference at Humbolt University went ahead, despite efforts by communist officials to drag him off the platform. It was the first time anyone had publicly advocated the ideas of lesbian and gay liberation in a communist country.

An attempt by Peter Tatchell to lay a pink triangle wreath at the site of the former concentration camp at Sachsenhausen – in memory of the gay victims of Nazism – was blocked on the orders of the communist government. Later interrogated by East German secret police – the Stasi – and assaulted by communist officials, he narrowly escaped arrest after marching in Alexanderplatz with a “homosexual liberation” banner – the first gay liberation protest ever staged in the Soviet bloc. These protests helped inspire the establishment of the first gay rights group in the GDR, which was also the first such group in any communist nation.

Peter Tatchell stood unsuccessfully as the Labour candidate in the 1983 Bermondsey by-election. Vilified for his left-wing socialism and advocacy of lesbian and gay human rights, he was initially banned as a candidate for over a year. When the election finally happened, he was subjected to more media smears, dirty tricks and violent assaults than any other political candidate in Britain in the last 100 years. The constituency was flooded with anonymous leaflets denouncing him as a traitor, queer and extremist, listing his home address and phone number and urging the public to “have a go”. His home was attacked and people displaying his posters had their windows smashed. The Bermondsey by-election has gone down in history as a by-word for bigotry.

Having experienced such visceral, violent homophobia, after the election Peter Tatchell resolved to devote himself more-or-less full-time to campaigning for queer human rights.

Given the refusal of the British parliament to even consider homosexual law reform in the 1970s and 1980s, from 1985 onwards he promoted the idea of a European strategy for gay equality: using European institutions to force the British government to end discrimination.

He suggested bringing test cases in the European Court of Human Rights to overturn the unequal age of consent and other discriminatory sexual offences laws, as well as the bans on gay marriage and homosexuals in the armed forces, and the anti-gay bias in housing law and immigration regulations. A decade later, others pursued this strategy and won cases in the ECHR, which forced the UK government to take action to equalise the age of consent and lift the ban on lesbians and gays in the military.

In addition, Peter Tatchell urged campaigns to persuade the European Union (then the European Community) to adopt Europe-wide policies to combat homophobic discrimination, particularly in the workplace. Because such policies would be binding on all member states, he argued that Britain would be forced to ensure equal rights for its lesbian and gay citizens. Setting out a detailed legal case, he demonstrated that discrimination was contrary to the EC’s Treaty of Rome and Single European Act. This eventually helped convince the European Parliament and European Commission to incorporate homosexual equality within its wider equality measures – culminating in Article 13 of the Amsterdam Treaty, with its commitment to eradicate discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Allied to this European gay rights strategy, in a major research project lasting from 1985-1992, Peter Tatchell documented the legal status of lesbians and gay men throughout Europe. He proved that Britain had more anti-gay laws than any other European country, and he publicised concrete, practical examples of successful gay rights legislation in other parts of Europe. This research gave added impetus and weight to the campaign for homosexual law reform in the UK, showing that Britain was out of step with the rest of Europe and demonstrating that lesbian and gay rights legislation was practical and workable.

From the onset of the AIDS epidemic, Peter Tatchell was one of the first people to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy that AIDS=Death. Arguing against despair and defeatism, he urged the empowerment of people with HIV. His trail-blazing self-help book AIDS: A Guide to Survival, published in 1986, offered hope where others counselled only fear and fatalism. Its defiant, fight-back approach has since helped many thousands of people with AIDS live longer, better-quality lives.

In 1987, Peter Tatchell’s lobbying of Thabo Mbeki of the African National Congress of South Africa resulted in the ANC officially renouncing homophobia and making its first public commitment to homosexual equality. Soon afterwards, he submitted to the ANC draft constitutional proposals to protect lesbians and gay men against discrimination. Working clandestinely with gay and anti-apartheid groups inside South Africa, his proposals were eventually accepted, resulting in South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution being the first constitution in the world to explicitly guarantee non-discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Early that same year, Peter Tatchell founded the UK AIDS Vigil Organisation – the first movement in the world to campaign for the civil liberties of people with HIV. Simultaneously, he drafted the world’s first comprehensive “AIDS & Human Rights Charter” to oppose the escalating trend towards government repression.

In January 1988, coinciding with the World Health Minister’s Summit on AIDS in London, he co-ordinated a 12,000-strong candlelight procession to support the human rights of people with HIV. In response, the World Health Ministers amended their final declaration to include a specific commitment to oppose HIV-related discrimination. This marked a turning point in the attitudes of many governments, from panic and repression to education and support.

Peter Tatchell was one of the founding members, in 1989, of the successor to the UK AIDS Vigil Organisation – the AIDS activist organisation ACT UP London (the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power).

Peter Tatchell was one of the 30 people who collectively founded the queers rights direct action group, OutRage!, on 10 May 1990.

With both these movements, as with the GLF previously, he helped create a unique style of political campaigning that combined defiance, imagination, wit, daring and provocation – as evidenced by OutRage!’s spectacular protests, such as the Kiss-In, Queer Wedding, Exorcism of Homophobia, and Valentine’s Eve Carnival. Both educative and entertaining, his brand of “protest as performance” has elevated activism into an art form.

Peter Tatchell’s research in 1990-1992 on the prosecution of gay and bisexual men for consenting homosexual behaviour helped explode the myth that homosexuality had been legalised in 1967. He revealed that prosecutions in 1989 were almost as high as in 1954-55, at the height of the anti-gay witch-hunts, when homosexuality was still totally illegal. This embarrassing evidence was instrumental in helping pressure the police to de-prioritise action against victimless gay behaviour, and greatly strengthened the case for law reform.

Simultaneously, he pressed for tougher police action against rising levels of queer-bashing violence, which had been fuelled by the AIDS panic and the anti-gay sentiments stirred up by the legislation of Section 28. Together with others, he was instrumental in setting up the first liaison forum between the police and the gay community, and the first police monitoring and recording of homophobic attacks.

At around the same time, from 1990 onwards, he co-ordinated OutRage!’s high-profile campaign against police harassment of the gay community, disrupting undercover police entrapment operations, invading police stations and picketing New Scotland Yard. These direct action tactics resulted in convictions for consensual gay behaviour (in particular the gay-only offence of “gross indecency”) falling by two-thirds between 1990-93 – the biggest, fastest fall ever recorded.

Lodging the first ever gay rights complaint against the European Community in 1991, Peter Tatchell argued that by failing to include lesbians and gay men in its anti-discrimination initiatives the EC was violating its Treaty obligations to ensure equality and human rights for all. Following this complaint, the EC conceded for the first time its legal competence to enact policies protecting gay people against discrimination, and introduced its first initiatives to address homophobia in the workplace.

To combat HIV and homophobia, Peter Tatchell has long campaigned for mandatory, explicit, non-judgmental information about homosexuality and HIV prevention in all schools, from primary level upwards. In 1991 and 1992 – and again in 1998 – he was instrumental in OutRage!’s “It’s OK to be Gay” sex education campaign. This involved handing out condoms and leafleting pupils at school gates to combat classroom censorship of the facts about safer sex and lesbian and gay sexuality. Despite denunciation by the media and Tory MPs, pupils snapped up the leaflets with enthusiasm, some schools made positive changes to their curriculum, and others invited OutRage! to address students on gay issues.

Long committed to solidarity with other minorities suffering unequal treatment, and mindful of how difficult it is to persuade politicians to support specifically gay rights legislation, Peter Tatchell has argued that legislative progress for queers can be achieved most rapidly and effectively through “all-inclusive” equality laws. This incorporation of gay equality within a broader equality framework would also avoid the danger inherent in exclusively homosexual rights legislation: the “equal rights for all” approach stops gay equality being marginalised as a fringe issue and prevents gay rights initiatives becoming easy, identifiable targets for homophobic-inspired campaigns.

Accordingly, since the late 1970s he has originated and promoted proposals for a comprehensive, universal anti-discrimination legislation. In 1992, he repopularised this idea with his outline Equal Rights Act to guarantee equality for everyone and to outlaw all forms of discrimination and harassment, including (but not limited to) the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity and medical conditions, such as HIV. To ensure the new legislation is effective, he suggested the creation of a government Department for Equal Rights with powers to promote, monitor and enforce non-discrimination.

The publication in 1994 of Peter Tatchell’s book, Safer Sexy, was a milestone. Not only was it the world’s first truly comprehensive guide to safer sex for gay and bisexual men, it was also the most sexually explicit book ever published in Britain – gay or straight. Driving a coach and horses through traditional interpretations of the anti-pornography laws, it established a precedent that has pushed back the boundaries of censorship and extended freedom of expression.

The same year, Peter Tatchell began campaigning for an age of consent of 14 for everyone – gay and straight – arguing that 14 is now the average age of first sexual experience and that it is wrong to criminalise young people involved in consenting, victimless relationships. Rejecting the idea that there is a single, uniform age at which all young people become mature enough to have sex, he proposed that sex involving young people under 14 should not be prosecuted, providing both partners consent and there is no more than three years difference in their ages. This element of flexibility in the age of consent would acknowledge that young people mature at different ages. It would also provide a measure of protection against abuse and exploitation by those much older, while at the same time guaranteeing the right of young people to make their own decision about when they are ready for sex. The best protection against abusive relationships is not an unrealistically high age of consent, but earlier, better quality sex education to give young people the knowledge, confidence and skills to resist unwanted sex and report abusers.

Also in 1994, just a couple of days after the Conservative majority in the House of Commons voted down the equalisation of the age of consent at 16, OutRage! ambushed the motorcade of the Prime Minister, John Major. The protest took place following Major’s opening of a new casualty unit at King’s College Hospital in south London. As his limousine drove out into Denmark Hill, four members of OutRage! – including Peter Tatchell – leapt in front of the Prime Minister’s car, holding up placards reading “Consent at 16”, forcing the vehicle to brake and swerve into the path of oncoming traffic. The Prime Minister bent forward and ducked his head, adopting an anti-terrorist/anti-crash posture. OutRage! later boasted: “We got John Major to bend over for gay men”.

Peter Tatchell suffered his greatest ever demonisation by the media and the political and religious establishment in 1994 and 1995, when he and his OutRage! colleagues declared their intention to out public figures that attack the gay community. In late 1994, outside the General Synod of the Church of England, OutRage! staged the biggest and most successful outing campaign conducted anywhere in the world. Ten Church of England bishops were named and urged to “Tell the Truth”. All ten were accused of hypocrisy and collusion with homophobic policies. But the media turned on Peter Tatchell instead, subjecting him to a vilification campaign worse than anything experienced by most child murderers and terrorist bombers.

Nevertheless, naming the Bishops proved to be a catalyst for significant, sympathetic changes in Church attitudes. Within two weeks of the Bishop’s being named, the Anglican hierarchy began its first serious dialogue with the lesbian and gay community, and within a month the Church leadership issued one of its strongest ever condemnations of anti-gay discrimination.

In 1996, when the Romanian government legislated a crackdown on the lesbian and gay rights movement, Peter Tatchell helped organise the OutRage! zap of the Romanian National Opera’s performance of Aida at the Royal Albert Hall. In the middle of the first Act, he and 20 other activists stormed the stage, unfurling a giant banner emblazoned with the words: “Romania! Stop Jailing Queers!”. Four campaigners in the top galleries showered the audience below with thousands of leaflets that condemned Romania’s harsh homophobic laws and urged a boycott of Romanian products. The protest made headlines in Bucharest and around the world, putting gay human rights on the political agenda in Romania and pressuring the Romanian government to call a moratorium on its anti-gay plans.

Peter Tatchell’s commitment to a transformative queer agenda has led him to pioneer radical legislative proposals that would change society and liberate people of all sexualities – both homo and hetero.

Critical of the heterosexual institution of marriage – and its gay equivalent, Danish-style registered partnerships – he argues that most effective way to give recognition and rights to same-sex couples is by creating an entirely new legal framework that also simultaneously addresses the lack of rights for cohabiting heterosexual lovers.

In 1996, Peter Tatchell unveiled his proposed Unmarried Partners Act. Offering the same legal rights as marriage to all unwed gay and straight couples, it has the unique advantage of allowing partners to choose from a menu of rights and responsibilities. They can pick-and-mix, selecting which rights they want and deleting those they don’t want; thereby enabling couples to create their own tailor-made partnership agreements, individualised to suit their own particular needs. This flexible, optional system of legal rights accords with the diversity of modern moralities, lifestyles and relationships.

In November 1997, and again in November 1999, Peter Tatchell was the prime mover in OutRage!’s Queer Remembrance Day ceremony at the Cenotaph, the national war memorial. Immediately after the official service attended by the Queen and Prime Minister, OutRage! held an Act of Remembrance for queers murdered by the Nazis and those who died fighting fascism.

This ceremony directly challenged the way the gay holocaust and the gay contribution to the defeat of Nazism have been written out of history and excluded from official commemorations. It also highlighted the refusal of military chiefs, war veteran’s associations and the Royal British Legion to acknowledge that an estimated 500,000 queers served in Britain’s armed forces during World War II. Despite its dignity and reverence, Queer Remembrance Day was condemned by the British Legion and tabloid press as “an insult to the war dead”, but in 1999 thousands of people lining Whitehall applauded the OutRage! ceremony.

For eight years, following his enthronement as Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey had refused to meet with lesbian and gay organisations and had publicly opposed homosexual human rights. Given his unwillingness to engage in dialogue, Peter Tatchell persuaded OutRage! that the Archbishop had to be confronted. On Easter Sunday 1998, Peter Tatchell and six other OutRage! members interrupted the Archbishop’s Easter Sermon, walking into the pulpit and unfurling placards highlighting Dr Carey’s support for homophobic discrimination with regard to employment, partnerships, the age of consent and fostering and adoption. Peter Tatchell spoke from the pulpit to the 2,000-strong congregation and to a television audience of millions, criticising the Archbishop’s opposition to gay equality. He was arrested and later charged and convicted under the Ecclesiastical Court’s Jurisdiction Act 1860, which forbids any form of dissent within a church.

This exposure and shaming of the Archbishop had two valuable consequences. Soon afterwards, Dr Carey agreed to meet the Lesbian & Gay Christian Movement for the first time, and he subsequently toned down his public advocacy of discrimination against homosexuals.

In protest at President Robert Mugabe’s homophobic policies and other human rights abuses, Peter Tatchell and three OutRage! activists ambushed his motorcade in central London in late 1999, attempting a citizen’s arrest. Running out into the road, they forced the President’s limousine to halt. Peter Tatchell opened the car door and grabbed Mugabe, declaring that he was under arrest on charges of torture under the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture. When he summoned the police to formally arrest the President, officers knocked aside his Amnesty International dossier on human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. Peter Tatchell and his OutRage! colleagues were arrested instead, while Mugabe was allowed to go Christmas shopping at Harrods. The attempted citizen’s arrest catapulted gay rights into the headlines inside Zimbabwe, giving the gay rights movement there an unprecedented public platform and resulting in more media coverage of gay issues over the following few weeks than in the previous ten years combined. It also inspired and emboldened many in the democratic opposition to intensify their challenge to the Mugabe dictatorship.

On the downside, Peter Tatchell’s defiance of convention and his confrontations with powerful homophobes have led to him being vilified by right-wing newspapers and politicians as a “terrorist”, “subversive” and “extremist”. He has been placed under police surveillance, blacklisted by the Economic League, threatened with assassination by neo-Nazis, and subjected to hundreds of personal assaults and attacks on his home. Nevertheless, he remains a high-profile lecturer, author, broadcaster, journalist, researcher and activist on a wide range of issues of concern to the lesbian and gay community.

For more than a third of a century, Peter Tatchell’s writing and activism has made a major contribution to the public awareness and acceptance of homosexual human rights. In recognition of his efforts, he was nominated for the 1992 Martin Ennals Civil Liberties Award.

Peter Tatchell is the author of:

The Battle for Bermondsey (Heretic/GMP 1983)
Democratic Defence – A Non-Nuclear Alternative (GMP 1985)
AIDS: A Guide to Survival (GMP 1986, 1987 & 1990)
Europe in the Pink: Lesbian & Gay Equality in the New Europe (GMP 1992)
Safer Sexy – The Guide to Gay Sex Safely (Freedom Editions/Cassell 1994)
We Don’t Want to March Straight – Masculinity, Queers & the Military (Cassell 1995)