Pride Matters: Peter Tatchell’s activism 1967-2017


Darren Marples interviews Peter Tatchell for Pride Matters

Part 1 –
Part 2–

27 March & 3 April 2017


Peter Tatchell has been a LGBTI and human rights activist since the sixties. I had an opportunity to interview him about events that have shaped his activism And the LGBTQIA movement over the years. 

You have been a human rights activist since the 1960s and are passionate about your work. When you began, you were one of very few activists in the UK. What made you begin on this journey?

PT: My passion for human rights began when, aged 11, I heard about the bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, in 1963. Four young black girls my own age were killed by white racists. I was horrified that anyone could kill another human being, let alone four young girls in a church on Sunday morning. That triggered my support for the black civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King.

But my first active campaign was not until 1967, when I was 15. It was against the death penalty in my hometown of Melbourne, Australia. A prisoner, Ronald Ryan, allegedly shot dead a prison warder during a jail escape. I read a newspaper report about the autopsy, which mentioned the bullet’s trajectory through killed warder’s body. I worked out that it would have been almost physically impossible for Ryan to have fired the fatal bullet, given where he and the warder were standing when the shot was fired. Ryan was hanged anyway, even though there was reasonable doubt about his guilt. I was shocked. Up until that time, I believed the government, the police, and the courts, were there to serve the people, but from that moment onwards I had an abiding skepticism towards authority. I thought to myself, what else are they doing that is wrong? I also campaigned, while still in high school, for the rights of the Aboriginal people and against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

It was not until 1969, at the age of 17, that I realised I was gay and began to campaign for LGBT rights – very much modelled on the ideas and methods of the black civil rights movement, including their tactics of non-violent direct action and civil disobedience. When I came to London in 1971, aged 19, I immediately immersed myself in the newly formed Gay Liberation Front, helping organise many of their daring, provocative protests, such as sit-ins in pubs that refused to serve ‘queers’, and against the Christian anti-LGBT movement the Festival of Light.

I’m aware that you have met legends such as Quentin Crisp, Peter Wildeblood and I believe you were a good friend of Dudley Cave. Do you feel that these pioneers are in danger of being lost in history?

PT: Sadly many of the pioneers of our movement are forgotten – not just the ones you mention but also Tony Dyson, Allan Horsfall, Jackie Forster, Antony Grey, Esme Langley and many others. We are in danger of a new generation of LGBT people who know nothing of the past heroes and heroines who took great personal risks to trail-blaze the freedoms we now enjoy.

Quentin Crisp couldn’t understand the need for equal rights. Is this true and do you think this a mindset of a different generation? Can you shed some light on this way of thinking? 

PT: I love and admire Quentin Crisp in many ways. It took incredible courage to be an out and flamboyant queer (his word) in the 1940s and 50s. But he never embraced the LGBT movement. He hated it. I only ever met Quentin once. It was a brief encounter in Charing Cross road in 1974. I was 22 and wearing a gay liberation badge, which prompted Quentin to retort: “What do you want liberation from?” He continued in a similar vein, dismissing the idea of gay pride: “What is there to be proud of? I don’t believe in rights for homosexuals.” This sad conversation sums up what Quentin Crisp had become by the 1970s: an often self-hating, arrogant, homophobic gadfly. He denounced the gay rights movement and slammed homosexuality as “a terrible disease.”

“The world would be better without homosexuals,” he declared. In 1997, he told The Times that he would advise parents to abort a foetus if could be shown to be genetically predetermined to be gay: “If it (homosexuality) can be avoided, I think it should be.” Other notorious Crispisms include his suggestion that gay men are so self-centred that they are incapable of love, and lack the capacity to care about the welfare of other people. This supposed lack of altruism is, according to Quentin, because most gay men have “feminine minds.” He was a misogynist, as well as a homophobe.

One of my earliest memories of you was the bitter election of Bermondsey by election in February 1983, when you fought hard against a backlash of homophobia. At the time how did this make you feel and looking back what did you learn?

PT: I was the left-wing pro-LGBT rights Labour candidate, at a time when most politicians opposed LGBT equality. Described by many commentators as the dirtiest, most violent and homophobic by-election in modern British history, I faced an anti-gay onslaught by the Liberals, four fascist candidates, Real Labour, and the tabloid press. It was like living through a low-level civil war. I was assaulted over 100 times in the street and while canvassing. There were 30 attacks on my flat, two attempts by car drivers to run me down, an arson attack on my home and a bullet was posted through my letterbox in the middle of the night. I received hundreds of hate letters, including 30 threats to kill me. Anti-Tatchell slogans were painted throughout the constituency, on dozens of walls, hoardings and bridges, including: “Tatchell is queer”, “Tatchell is a communist poof” and “Tatchell is a n*gger-lover”. I had to board up my flat. There was a neo-fascist lynch mob mentality stirred against me. At many moments I feared for my life. The anti-LGBT hatred bought home to me the scale of savage homophobia that still existed. It prompted me to give up work and volunteer full-time unpaid for LGBT rights for the next 28 years.

Can you explain what OutRage! was? How necessary was it to be involved in this project and how does the climate differ from today’s to make it so needed at the time? 

PT: The queer rights movement OutRage! was established in 1990, mostly in response to police indifference to dozens of homophobic murders, and near-record levels of arrests of gay and bisexual men for consenting, victimless behaviour (nearly 1,800 convictions in 1989). Our demand was “protection, not persecution”. Modelled on the direct action tactics of the suffragettes, we forced a reversal of police repression. We also targeted other homophobic institutions: the government, churches, media, armed forces, prisons, and the education and health care systems. Faced with institutional homophobia and official intransigence in the 1990s, OutRage! had no choice. Our battle cry was: “Queers bash back!” – non-violently. We strove to transform LGBT and public consciousness, from victims to victors. OutRage! did dramatic, irreverent high-profile protests to expose and challenge homophobia. We captured the headlines with “protest as performance” visual spectaculars like the kiss-in, wink-in and turn-in, as well as the mass queer wedding in Trafalgar Square, and the Queer Valentine Carnival in Soho. The 1992 Equality Now! campaign of feisty civil disobedience, including what was in those days an illegal march on Parliament, involved non-stop protests almost every fortnight for six months, which resulted in masses of arrests – making it one of the longest, most sustained civil rights protest campaigns in modern British history. OutRage! direct action put LGBT rights in the headlines, raising public awareness, provoking debate, changing hearts and minds and helping pressure the authorities to drop their homophobia – paving the way for Britain’s dramatic, successful LGBT law reforms since 1999.

Many people frown upon public outings of others, do you think the uneducated mind would see this as a home goal for equality?

PT: In 1994, OutRage! famously named 10 Anglican bishops and urged them to “Tell the Truth” about their sexuality. Since they preached that the rest of us should tell the truth, surely we had a right to ask them to practice what they preach? Furthermore, they were part of a homophobic church that opposed legal equality for LGBT equality. We were targeting their hypocrisy and homophobia, not their homosexuality. We saw this ethical outing as queer self-defence. We were defending our community against public figures who were abusing their power to do us harm. Outing had many positive effects. Within weeks, Anglican leaders began their first serious dialogue with the gay community, and the House of Bishops issued its strongest ever condemnation of homophobic discrimination. The dismissal of gay clergy fell sharply. Congregations all over the country discussed LGBT issues. According to the Lesbian & Gay Christian Movement, outing the bishops achieved more in three months than polite lobbying had achieved in 17 years.

What in your eyes is the greatest achievement of yourself and of the UK LGBTQIA community since 1967?

PT: It is impossible to single out any one achievement. But I am very proud of the OutRage! campaign against police harassment of the LGBT community in the early 1990s. The police refused to end their homophobia, and wouldn’t negotiate seriously. So OutRage! began a high-profile campaign of direct action. We invaded police stations, interrupted police press conferences and exposed ‘pretty police’ undercover agents who were luring gay men into committing criminal acts and then arresting them. Within three months, the police were pleading with us to negotiate a resolution. We did. Within a year, they agreed to most of our demands for a non-homophobic policing policy. Within three years, the number of gay and bisexual men convicted for consenting behaviour fell by two-thirds – the biggest, fastest fall ever. We saved thousands of men from arrest and criminal conviction. Direct action worked, where lobbying had failed.

I know you are involved with many overseas projects. Do you think more pressure needs to be put on the Commonwealth in order to eradicate the anti-LGBT laws that have been left out there since the days of Empire?

PT: 36 out of the 52 Commonwealth nations still criminalise homosexuality, under anti-LGBT laws that were originally imposed by Britain during the colonial era. They account for half of the world’s countries where same-sex relations are illegal. Seven of these Commonwealth countries stipulate life imprisonment: India, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Pakistan, Uganda, Bangladesh and Guyana. In parts of Nigeria and Pakistan, there is Sharia law, which stipulates the death penalty for same-sex acts. This massive scale of homophobic persecution makes a mockery of the Commonwealth Charter. It supposedly commits the member states to respect universal human rights, including the human rights of millions of LGBT Commonwealth citizens. Despite most member nations having failed to meet this commitment, the Commonwealth says and does nothing. The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) has refused to even discuss LGBT human rights for 40 years. We are trying to get LGBT issues on the summit of the next CHOGM, which takes place in the UK in 2018. Our key demands are: Decriminalisation of homosexuality; laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity; the enforcement of legislation against threats and violence, to protect LGBT people from hate crimes; and consultation and dialogue with LGBT organisations.

Pride began as a protest March and as certainly at some festivals focuses on LGBTQIA issues. What message would you like to give to people who believe there should be a straight pride festival?  

PT: Straight people are not oppressed. They’ve always been the oppressors of LGBTs. But if they want to organise a Straight Pride, go ahead and organise one. It’s a free country.

Many young LGBTQIA people have reclaimed the term Queer. What are your thoughts on this term, looking back as a derogative term and now it’s being recycled?

PT: The reclaiming of queer happened a long time ago; pioneered by OutRage! in 1990. The idea was to turn a term of abuse into a symbol of defiance and pride – in the same way that the pink triangle badge, worn by gay concentration camp prisoners, was reclaimed from the Nazis. If we rob the bigots of their exclusive usage of the queer word it loses at least some of its negative, hostile sting. Indeed, today, “gay” is a more common term of insult than “queer”.

The transgender community has very issues of their own. How as a united community can we help them with their fight? 

PT: It is important to embrace transgender people as part of the LGBT spectrum. Although different from LGBs, they also, like LGBs, defy heterosexist and gender norms. Sexual orientation, gender, gender roles, and gender identity are all interlinked. These are part of a matrix of issues that revolve around social expectations of what it is to be male and female, masculine and feminine. This is also why lesbian and gay liberation is so strongly linked to women’s liberation, and also linked to transgender and bisexual liberation. Straight machismo and orthodox male and female roles underpin the oppression of LGBs, transgender people, and the female sex. To disassociate the LGB from the T, and from women, is wrong and impossible. LGBs are, like transgender people, gender dissidents. We don’t conform to traditional heterosexist assumptions about being male and female, in that we have sexual and emotional relationships with the same-sex, not the opposite-sex. We also tend to adhere less strictly to traditional ideals and patterns of maleness and femaleness. LGBs are, like transgender people, gender non-conformists. We should celebrate this shared discordance with mainstream straight norms and see it as the basis of an alliance for our joint LGBT liberation. The right to be different is a fundamental human right for LGBs and Ts. The idea that people should be expected to adhere to heterosexist and gender-normative expectations is demeaning and insulting for LGBs and for Ts. We share a mutual interest in working together for both sexual orientation and gender/gender identity liberation.