Is Peter Tatchell the bravest man in Britain?

He’s been beaten by Mugabe’s thugs and Russian Nazis:Is Peter Tatchell the bravest man in Britain?


By Frances Hardy

London –Daily Mail – 26 December 2009

A sign on Peter Tatchell’s front door warns would-be assassins that there is round-the-clock CCTV police surveillance on his flat. The arson attacks have, mercifully, stopped since the camera was installed, and there is less chance now of a vengeful killer lurking in wait on his doorstep.

That aside, though, the repeated beatings he has endured during four decades as Britain’s most prominent and relentless human rights campaigner have conferred an unhappy legacy.

For Tatchell has brain damage and recently announced that ill-health has forced him to abandon his role as Green Party candidate for Oxford East. And while for some he remains a controversial, and perhaps unsympathetic, figure because of his uncompromising promotion of gay rights, no one can deny that he has suffered harshly for his convictions.

‘It is a huge disappointment and frustration,’ he says. ‘But my doctor told me it would be inadvisable to stand as a candidate for the General Election; that it would be too much of a strain and that I need to cut back on my workload.

‘Successive beatings have left me with brain damage and the symptoms are impaired memory and balance, poor co-ordination and diminished concentration. I make more mistakes. Words get jumbled up when I write, so I’m prone to misspelling, and I get confused, which can be a problem when I’m speaking in public.

‘I met a friend I’ve known for 30 years the other day and couldn’t remember his name. It was so perplexing and distressing. The sight in my right eye is quite poor, I can just see blurred outlines, although the left eye, which is also damaged, compensates.

‘I’m also utterly exhausted. I feel as if I could sleep for a thousand years. I have a permanent headache and upset stomach. My eyes feel dead. I’m 6ft tall and my weight has fallen to 9st 8lb eight. I work 14-16 hours a day, seven days a week. I haven’t got an office and I have one assistant who can barely cope with his workload.

‘I think I’ve come close to a nervous breakdown. I’ve resisted admitting it. I don’t want people to think I’m superman – but neither do I want them to think I’m weak, frail and finished; because I’m not. But I have to be honest and publicly acknowledge my limitations.’

Tatchell, 57, has endured successive-drubbings during his many protests to highlight the plight of those he feels are oppressed, and persecuted. But it was two specific campaigns that earned him the vicious thrashings which he believes precipitated his current poor health.

The first, in 2001, was a protest against the tyrannical regime of the then Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe. The second, six years later, was at a march in Moscow for homosexual-rights (Tatchell has been openly gay since he first became aware of his sexuality in his mid-teens).

In 2001 he went to Brussels to confront Mugabe, who was visiting EU commissioners and the Belgian Prime Minister. His plan was to carry out a citizen’s arrest on the tyrant on charges of torture; he justified his action under the United Nations Convention on Human Rights.

It is hard to overstate the courage – some would say foolhardiness – of his decision to confront, singlehanded, a dictator protected by a posse of burly and unprincipled bodyguards.

Every time he protests, he confesses to a debilitating surge of fear. ‘I’m always incredibly nervous and anxious,’ he says. ‘I tremble and feel physically sick. My stomach churns and my head aches.’

Yet he waited in the lobby of Mugabe’s hotel to tackle the tyrant and his retinue. ‘I walked into the middle of his entourage and held up my hands to show I wasn’t armed. I got within three feet of Mugabe. I said: “I’m arresting you on charges of torture.”

‘I didn’t say much more, because his bodyguards pounced and started beating me. They were big, boxer types, well trained to dispose of 10st lightweights like me,’ he smiles wryly. ‘They landed a few bad blows to my head.’

Then a moment of farce deflected them from their attack: Mugabe became stuck in a revolving door. As he was being freed, Tatchell got to his feet, chased after the dictator and attempted to make his citizen’s arrest for a second time.

‘I was bashed again and some journalists asked under whose authority I was being beaten,’ he recalls. The presidential party attempted to drive off in their limousines. This time, Tatchell stood in the path of Mugabe’s car.

‘It stopped six inches from me and a bodyguard got out and hit me again. He landed seven or eight blows to my head. I was knocked unconscious. When I came round, I was lying in the gutter with a throbbing head and blurred vision. The motorcade had long departed.’

Photographs of Tatchell, bloodied but resolute, made international news. But his injuries took a toll. ‘For nearly a week, I was numb and semi-paralysed down the left side of my body from my head to upper thigh. I was told to rest. I didn’t. I just carried on with the next campaign.’

Is it anger that propels him? ‘It’s not anger. I describe it as passion, determination and love – for other people and for justice.’ He says fear recedes when he focuses on the objective; that in comparison with those who campaign for human rights in Zimbabwe, Iran and Russia, his injuries are trifling.

‘There are people who are being tortured, raped and killed. I have got off lightly,’ he says. ‘When I see what they endure, it keeps me going.’

His refusal to allow himself the leisure to recuperate hampered his chances of recovery; so, too, did the further vicious beating by Neo Nazis at a Russian Gay Pride march in 2007.

Tatchell was invited to attend the march a month after he was selected as the Green candidate for Oxford East.

‘The whole area was swamped with riot police and then suddenly, as if on some signal, they dispersed to allow around 200 Neo Nazis to storm in and attack the marchers at random,’ he recalls.

In the ensuing melee, Tatchell was dragged to the ground. ‘I was kicked and punched in the head and body by half-a-dozen thugs while the police stood and watched. My vision was blurred. I was worried I might lose the sight in one eye. Then when the police thought I’d had enough of a thrashing, they moved in to arrest me and allowed the heavies to walk away. It was as if the whole attack had been orchestrated.

‘One policeman demanded to know if I was gay. I hesitated before saying yes. Then he started thwacking his truncheon in the palm of his hand and said: “Just wait until I get you back to the station.”

‘For two-and-a-half hours I sat in the police van with a group of ugly looking Neo Nazis. Clearly, the intention was to scare me witless.’

However, thanks to the intervention of an English- speaking protester, who alerted the police to Tatchell’s identity – and the probability that his wrongful arrest would have repercussions internationally – he was taken to hospital, then freed.

‘When I came back home, the symptoms in my right eye worsened,’ he recalls. ‘My co-ordination, balance and concentration deteriorated. But I carried on campaigning. That was my coping mechanism.’

He regrets, of course, the debilitating effects of his beatings; however-he accepts they were the price he paid for standing up against tyranny.

‘You have to show you’re not going to be intimidated or deterred,’ he says. ‘I’ve never had the desire or intention of being harmed, but sometimes that’s the price you pay for challenging injustice.’

Tatchell is a man of singular conviction and unwavering principle. He has stubbornly refused to be cowed by the multiple – and very real – death threats made repeatedly against him.

Equally, he retains a sense of perspective. When the Daily Mail’s Jan Moir provoked controversy with her comments on the death of gay singer Stephen Gately, he declared that the reaction was disproportionate.

‘I thought it was over-the-top, given that there was not a similar outcry when a succession of gay men were murdered,’ he says.

He subsists on a tiny stipend of around £8,000 a year – the income comes from journalism and personal appearances – and lives in the same cramped South-East London council flat that has been his home for 30 years. When it was targeted by arsonists, he refused to move, although flaming rags were pushed through his letterbox and lavatory window.

His response, instead, was to become more intransigent. ‘Friends urged me to leave, but I was determined to stand my ground. It might seem pig-headed and stupid, but I refused to let anyone force me out.’

His assailants have come in many guises. Aside from the homophobic onslaught he endured when he stood as an openly gay Labour candidate for the Bermondsey by-election in 1983, he has also been targeted by Jamaican hitmen.

Police intelligence revealed that he was a prime assassination objective because of his persistent campaign against a group of reggae singers whose lyrics glorify violence and incite the killing of homosexuals.

He thwarted a string of concerts – at significant financial loss to the performers – but he remains incensed that work permits and visas have still been granted to those singers who promulgate hatred and advocate killing.

What drives his activism and the burning desire to avenge injustice?

His childhood, in a working-class suburb of Melbourne, Australia, was overshadowed by his stepfather Edwin’s brutal beatings of his mother, Mardi.

He says: ‘I thought how unjust and unfair it was and I wished my mother would leave him. But in those days there was such little support for battered wives.’

He came to Britain, aged 19, to escape conscription to Vietnam, a war he bitterly opposed.

Paradoxically, however, it was not an attacker, but an inanimate object that triggered his latest bout of concussion: while on a Green campaign bus in Devon, he was propelled into a metal hand rail and hit his head when the vehicle swerved to avoid a cat.
Tatchell is, for all his fiery conviction, a gentle and immensely likeable man with a dry sense of humour. When I ask if the impoverished estate on which he lives is fundamentally a safe place to be, he jokes bleakly that there have been only two murders and one machete attack in his vicinity during his tenure there.

His small, cramped sitting room doubles as his office and is jammed with the paraphernalia of his campaigning – carefully stacked folders, pamphlets and books fill every available space – and his ten-year-old bicycle, his sole means of transport, is propped against one wall.

He does not currently have a partner, work is so all-consuming he says he does not have the time, although if he found the right person he would make the space for him.

‘I’d love a sustained relationship,’ he concedes. ‘I’ve been in love five times and, although two of my former partners have since died – one in an accident, one of HIV – I remain great friends with the other three.

‘I look back on my time with them with immense pleasure and affection, but I’m sad that I haven’t had an enduring relationship.’

It is a wistful lament. His life seems at once both crammed with passionate commitment and emotional austerity. Despite his abrasive attitude towards those who don’t share his convictions, in person it is impossible not to warm to him – and to wish him the good health to continue his campaigns.

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