Peter Tatchell on LGBT suffrage, ethical outing, and receiving death threats

The prominent LGBT rights campaigner talks with John Maier about human rights, his life's work, and why he can't retire

Peter Tatchell is an unshakable sort. Indeed, he stands so secure in the justness of his convictions that it is easy to imagine him as the earnest young churchgoer of his childhood, raised as he was, a “devout evangelical Christian”, by “prim” working-class parents, in Melbourne, Australia.

Yet, the notable human rights campaigner and LGBT activist has long lost his faith; even in matters of doubt, though, he remains definitive. “I haven’t lost it,” he corrects me, “I abandoned it.” His address to the Theology Society is subtitled, in characteristically unflinching style, “how I made the transition from dogma and superstition to science and rationalism’’. As I enter towards the end, Tatchell is fielding a particularly stodgy question from somewhere in the front rows, accusing him of neglecting the problems that induction poses for empiricism. Tatchell blinks at the question, then pushed it away with his sturdy antipodean insouciance.

His faithlessness and his politics are closely connected. In many ways it seems the one made way for the other. “At the age of 17” he says, “I had realised I was gay. From the first time I had sex with a man I felt emotionally and sexually fulfilled, without any shame at all.” Rather than falling into the ideological conflict that such a discovery might precipitate, then, Tatchell determined “to do [his] bit to help end the persecution of lesbian and gay people”, and soon after shed his religious conviction.

So long estranged from the church which has remained an unregenerate obstacle to so many of the humanist values he now cherishes, I wonder what Tatchell makes of the perceived détente occurring under the current Pope. “Pope Francis is a PR genius”, Tatchell concedes, “he’s changed the tone but not the substance” of catholic dogma. “All the traditional teachings about the rights of women and gay people remain the same. In fact a number of priests have been excommunicated since he became Pope because they supported LGBT equality.”

The desire to secure civil rights, adopted in earnest after breaking from the church, has become a lifelong project. It has led him to prominent positions within the Gay Liberation Front, the Ecology Movement, the campaign opposing the Iraq War, and to several times attempt the citizens arrest of Robert Mugabe. He was famously selected in 1983 as the labour party candidate for the Bermondsey by-election, was decisively denounced by the party leader Michael Foot for employing extra-parliamentary tactics against the Thatcher government, and lost, following a notoriously underhand contest. “If I’d been elected in 1983 there would have been a fair chance that I would have ended up in the Cabinet”, he informs me, soberly.

Looking back, does he put hit loss down to electoral homophobia? “Partly” he admits, but it was also “because I was disowned by the labour leadership …[and] deemed to be a left-winger with extremist policies.” “But!” he asserts steadily, “all the extremist policies I espoused have now come to pass. I advocated political settlement in Northern Ireland, devolution to Scotland and Wales, a national minimum wage, and comprehensive equality laws. All those things… were denounced as extremist – now they’re the mainstream.”

So what does Tatchell – once too radical for Michael Foot – make of the current state of the labour party? “I’m broadly supportive of Jeremy Corbyn’s bid to make the Labour Party a mass membership party… That’s the way it should be: the party belongs to the members, not to the members of parliament.” Although currently a member of the Greens, “I am aware that a defeat for Jeremy Corbyn would be a setback for progressive politics in this country”. There seems something vaguely strained about this endorsement of his old party. “I’m much to the left of Jeremy Corbyn”, he admits “but also more practical with more achievable goals. I’ve synthetised a radicalism with pragmatism.” No wonder, then, the current state of the opposition leaves Tatchell restless.

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Still proudly to the left of the left, has Tatchell not made room for the clichéd encroachment of any conservatism into his thought, even as he enters his seventh decade? “No.”, he eyes me. “I’m way more radical than most young people.” This boast seems to have been tested recently, when in 2015 Tatchell was publically attacked as a signatory to a letter warning the NUS to reconsider its policy of No-platforming on university campuses. Surely, if such disagreeable trends are at the vanguard of student activism, it might be time for him to give up chasing after the radicalism of the young? ‘They’re not the vanguard. They’re regressive”, he protests. “It disturbs me that a lot of young people embrace the idea that if something’s offensive it should be banned” he later reflects.

Having said this, “the No-platform and safe-space policies are well-intended… the problem I have is the way in which they’re often interpreted: far more widely than was the original intention.” Underlying the alltoo-frequent deployment of these policies is a fundamental misapprehension. “Censorship and bans don’t defeat bigoted ideas, they simply suppress them; those ideas don’t go away, they remain and fester. That’s not a solution.”

That said, Tatchell himself is no stranger to forms of activism which can raise the onlooking eyebrow. For a while in the 1990s, Tatchell drew attention as a prominent fi gure within the gay-liberation group Outrage! which made a practice of outing closeted homosexuals whom they deemed to be among their political opponents; surely methods such as these are morally dubious? “It was a tiny fragment” of our work, Tatchell responds. But, all the same, “Outrage! practiced ethical outing”, he insists. “We never outed anyone because they were gay and in the closet. It was because they were public figures who were abusing their power and influence to attack and harm other gay people… There was a contradiction between their public homophobia and their private homosexuality.” They were hypocrites, I suggest. “Yeah. It was a clear example of hypocrisy and double-standards. It was ethically and morally right to expose them.”

I suggest that perhaps there is another, more substantive sense, in which Tatchell might be alienated from the first-world social activism of today. In contrast to his own undeniably global concerns, there seems something strangely introverted and self-inspecting about the most contested objects of protest today. Does he sense that activism has become trivialised in this way? Take the issue of cultural appropriation: “It is perfectly reasonable to be critical of cultural appropriation” Tatchell affirms, “but it is outrageous that people are more obsessed with that than the fact that a thousand million people on this planet don’t have safe clean drinkingwater and are hungry or mall-nourished.”

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Looking toward Oxford, Tatchell says that he was broadly “sympathetic to the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in the sense that it was a timely reminder of [Rhodes’s] personal role and the role of British imperialism”. “But”, he continues “I actually felt that rather than bring the statue down, the statue should remain but a plaque should be erected to explain the bad things he did and advocated.”

Watching and listening to Tatchell, I think it is evident that he feels compelled most strongly by those whose cause is the direst, whose suffering the most profound. Accompanying this is a barely-veiled frustration with those who fail to feel the full force of this concern, even those who ought to be his ideological bedfellows. “The left and progressive movement is very partial and selective about what issues it embraces” he confides. “They never champion the cause of jailed trade-unionists in Iran, arrested left-activists in Russia, persecuted Shia muslims in Saudi Arabia, or the Indonesian occupation of West Papua”. One feels the list could continue, and probably does.

What, then, is the cause of this dislocation of values amongst western liberals? “The priorities of people in many western countries are completely out of kilter” with the most acute concerns facing “the planet”, he suggests. “Too many people are obsessed with being politically correct and out-doing each other as to who’s the most radical rather than actually addressing the major global problems faced by people, particularly in the developing world”. He points to “the LGBT community in Uganda”, which has long been “appealing for Western solidarity. Most western left and liberals choose to ignore those appeals. They no longer support the principle of international solidarity. They are insular and isolationist, just like Donald Trump.”

It is this last, peculiar equivocation that seems to expose the tension in Tatchell’s ambition and the punishing burden he has claimed as his own: to fight tirelessly in the corner of the downtrodden the world over. His every word tells of his persuasion of the innate value of all people, and their entitlement to an improved life. To him we are all equals, not before god, but in our shared pursuit of recognition and liberation. Yet in the pursuit of this vision of brotherhood and egalitarianism, he seems strangely alone: a single soldier, a solitary figure on a horizon of global concern.

Tatchell seems to enjoy the embattled image. He tells me he still gets death threats. How often now? I ask. “Pretty regularly.” He responds, gruffly. “I’ve had lots of threats from Islamic extremists to kill me because I’ve condemned their misogyny, homophobia, and persecution of liberal progressive Muslims.” Will he ever hang up the protest banners and seek escape from this deathdefying game, I wonder. “No.” he says, and repeats. Why not? “The work I want to do is not finished”. In anyone else’s mouth, these words might come across as distinctly pompous. But with Tatchell, the years in the teeth of the struggle and the front line of the march, seem to give truth to the claim. “So long as there are human rights abuses happening, and I’ve got health and energy, I will carry on.”