A cause for all seasons – Peter Tatchell

March 22, 2003

Everyone knows what happens to left-wing consciences. They’re all around us: those solid citizens who wore the badges and shouted the slogans in their youth, then gave up in the name of growing-up. But there was always the odd one who stuck with the struggle, picketing and boycotting and agitating about oppression in faraway lands. It was, well, sweet really, if a bit of a joke…

Peter Tatchell is 51. He works 60 to 70 hours a week as an unpaid human rights campaigner, and another 20 to 30 hours to earn his £7,000 annual income. He has been arrested, vilified, run over and beaten up, and has night terrors where he relives the most violent attacks. It’s hard to make a definitive audit of his achievements. His website contains some impressive claims, but in person he’s diffident, scrupulously crediting the part played by others. He’s certainly done his bit – often a big bit – towards every gay rights victory of the past two decades: convincing the European Community to act against discrimination, equalising the age of consent in Britain, overturning the ban on gays in the military, pressurising the Anglican Church into a more gay-friendly attitude, persuading the Metropolitan Police to record homophobic attacks and to cut prosecutions for consensual gay behaviour. But he’s not just a gay rights campaigner. Recently he hit the headlines with his attempts to perform a citizen’s arrest on Robert Mugabe. Last week he hurled himself in front of Tony Blair’s limousine to publicise his “arm the Kurds” strategy for overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

He still lives in the same tiny council flat in south-east London, the one his enemies tried to set fire to 20 years ago, around the same time they threw bricks through his windows and shoved a bullet through his letterbox. There are bars on all the windows and no number on the door. Crossing the threshold is like stepping into a time warp. We’re back in the 1980s, not the era of red braces chronicled in the newspapers but the decade of second hand clothes and salvaged furniture and postcards celebrating 1950s kitsch: Margaret Thatcher may have been patron saint of the yuppie but she was also midwife to a generation of thrift shop subversives. Books, magazines and photocopied agitprop are piled on every available surface. A home-made pink triangle dominates one wall.

Tatchell himself has a touch of the man that time forgot, with that tartan shirt-tail hanging below his sweater. There’s a point in middle-age where the boyishly slender start to look shrunken, but he hasn’t reached it. Being knocked out by Mugabe’s bodyguards two years ago has left him with slight brain damage. He’s been diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; he’s the victim of two or three attacks or serious menaces every month and permanently tired from his punishing workload, and he hasn’t had a relationship since 1997 (“right now it’s out of the question”) – but he looks oddly well on it.

“The kind of direct action protests I do are very stressful but also quite exciting and sometimes even quite fun,” he says in a voice which still carries a trace of his native Australia. “It beats a boring nine-to-five office job.”

Tatchell was never destined for the boring nine-to-five. For all his careful modesty, he is entirely lacking in self-doubt. Is he ever intimidated by the overwhelming odds against him? “No,” he says unhesitatingly. He’s always been a doer. As an 18-year-old in Melbourne in 1970 he founded the anti-Vietnam War group Christians for Peace and organised a 3,000-strong candlelit march. The following year he left Australia to avoid having to fight in an immoral war, and on arriving in London joined the Gay Liberation Front. He quickly became one of the most active members, running sit-ins in pubs refusing to serve “poofs” and “lezzies”; disrupting a lecture by Hans Eysenck, the IQ guru who favoured “curing” homosexuals with electric shock aversion therapy; and staging the first-ever gay lib protest in the Soviet Bloc. It never occurred to him that as a foreigner he might take a back seat to indigenous campaigners, just as it never crossed his mind that maybe it wasn’t his place to lobby the ANC into making a commitment to homosexual equality, or to set himself up as Mugabe’s personal nemesis.

Even as a child he was like that, he says. His parents were evangelical Christians. “They taught me the importance of standing up for what’s right and not just going along with the crowd. They always stressed that we all have to take personal responsibility for our actions and what’s been done in our name.”

He was the eldest of four children. What little money the family had went on medical bills for his mother who suffered from life-threatening chronic asthma; he remembers coming home hungry and finding the cupboards bare. He was a quiet, shy boy but with a curious adventurous streak, serious beyond his years. As a ten-year-old he followed the black American civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the campaign for aboriginal rights on the nightly news, counting Martin Luther King among his heroes.

His Damascene moment came at the age of 13. An Australian prisoner, Robert Ryan, was charged with murdering a warder during an escape, but the young Tatchell worked out that the bullet’s trajectory meant it could not have been fired by Ryan. He wrote to the papers. Ryan was hanged. Thirty years later a commission of enquiry was to accept what Tatchell had known all along. “The fact that he was hanged despite this huge doubt had an incredibly radicalising influence upon me. It broke my trust in the police, the judicial system and the government, and began to make me question everything I’d ever taken for granted – which wasn’t a lot, since I’d been a pretty questioning child.” It was around this time he started to see the narrow-minded, puritanical, repressive aspects of his upbringing. At 17 he came out as gay, abandoning his religious faith two years later.

Though he was politically active throughout his twenties, it was standing as Labour candidate in the 1983 Bermondsey by-election which turned him into the driven, arguably obsessional, campaigner he is today. His sexuality was seized on by his opponents. Graffiti appeared all over the constituency: “Tatchell is a communist poof”, “Tatchell is a nigger-lover”. The Sun printed a photograph touched-up to make it appear that he was wearing make-up. An abusive leaflet containing his address and telephone number was widely circulated. The police refused to offer protection. In the 15 months before the poll he was assaulted more than 150 times. Fists, rocks, bottles, lumps of wood… There was an attempt to stab him. He was run over three times. Mostly his assailants were groups of young men. “The safest defence was to run. I couldn’t have physically fought four or five guys at once.”

It’s a telling remark. He may admire Mahatma Gandhi and espouse non-violent direct action, but Tatchell is no wimp. That doctored Sun photo couldn’t have been more misleading. All the evidence points to a reckless courage bordering on machismo. His friend, the former editor of Cosmopolitan, Marcelle d’Argy Smith, describes him as “practically a Hemingway hero”. Last summer he and two others ambushed the boxer Mike Tyson outside a Memphis gym, challenging him to stop making homophobic comments. “It was scary,” he admits. “I didn’t know how he would react. I was hoping that he would engage in a dialogue but fearing that he could just as easily let loose a right hook that would knock me to the ground and could do some very serious damage.” Fortunately Tyson chose the former response.

Seven years after dodging the draft, Tatchell applied for an officer’s commission in the Royal Artillery, underwent training in artillery and tank warfare and was offered a place at Sandhurst. He turned it down, since he was actually researching a book on the class-ridden, anti-democratic, imperialist culture of the British armed forces. But a few years later he was lecturing at Sandhurst and other military institutions on his strategy of non-nuclear “defensive defence”.

I have a theory about Peter Tatchell which I put to him and he rejects but which seems worth airing anyway. Everybody has paths not taken in life, opportunities passed over with the thought “It’s not for me”. For Tatchell it’s different. He’s the draft-dodger who ends up respected by the military. He renounces Christianity, and later outs ten bishops; in 1998 he takes over the pulpit while the Archbishop of Canterbury is preaching his televised Easter sermon. This leads to a dialogue between the Anglican Church and gay Christians. The result? A marked reduction in anti-gay pronouncements. Consider his detailed plans for a civil commitment pact: it’s not enough to campaign for homosexual liberation, he has to come up with a replacement for marriage which would transform the legal basis of all partnerships, straight and gay.

He argues that this pattern is a by-product of the campaigning, not its motivation: he has espoused many causes with which he has no personal connection. True enough, but if he senses a challenge he’ll never let it go.

In a recent newspaper profile an unnamed acquaintance described him as “a bit autistic”. Sitting in the ordered chaos of his flat, hearing how he answers up to 400 e-mails a day, this seems a distinct possibility. He talks ve-ry slow-ly as if giving dictation, frequently stopping in mid-sentence to revise his choice of words. But there’s another side to him too: Tatchell the playful; the engaging face-puller and head-waggler, with his now arch, now gruff, comic asides.

At one point he jumps up to fetch a cardboard box which arrived recently in the post. Balancing it gingerly on the palm of his hand, he says his first thought was “it’s probably nothing” but still, he has to be suspicious of unexpected packages. Phoning the Bomb Squad takes forever, so he decided to open it himself. Taking a Stanley knife – he mimes the action – he cut very carefully along the sides and saw that the box was stuffed with compacted tissue paper. Again very carefully, he used the knife to cut through the tissue. By now I’m on the edge of my seat, half-expecting the box to explode in his hand. He saw a piece of paper inside the tissue and, using a pair of tweezers, extracted it … “It said: ‘Enclosed are your dental records’.”

Scratch the surface earnestness and Tatchell’s a performer. His first job on leaving school at 16 was as a department store window-dresser. “My first love was art and design, my gut instinct is towards imaginative and creative work.” In 1990 he co-founded OutRage! the queer rights group famed for its quasi-Situationist “zaps”. The most elaborate involve script writers, graphic designers, stage managers, musicians and costume makers, but even the simplest show a certain flair. To protest at the now-lifted ban on gays in the military, statues of Field Marshall Haig and Admiral Mountbatten were posthumously outed, Haig being draped with a pink feather boa while Mountbatten had a placard hung around his neck reading “For Queens and Country”. Other stunts have included a Queer Remembrance Day at the Cenotaph, a mass “queer wedding” in Trafalgar Square, a gay and lesbian “kiss-in” under the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus, and a “wink-in” to highlight the absurdity of laws banning the mildest gay activity in public. Most of the zaps have been Tatchell’s idea.

There are all sorts of issues I never get round to discussing with Peter Tatchell. His gay sex manual, Safer Sexy. His protest against violently homophobic lyrics in Jamaican reggae music. His Aids campaigning. His attempt to have Henry Kissinger arrested for war crimes in Indo-China. His calls for education about homosexuality and HIV-prevention in primary schools. The stands he has taken on animal-based medical research, the Damilola Taylor murder enquiry, the Indonesian occupation of East Timor and West Papua, the Burmese junta, the regimes in Gibraltar, Belarus, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran … There’s more, but The Scotsman would run out of space before Tatchell ran out of indignation.

His gains for gay rights are undeniable, but his protracted war of attrition against global human rights abusers has proved less efficacious. For all the congratulatory e-mails Tatchell has received from Zimbabwe, Mugabe is still president, the torture practised by his regime still unavenged and likely to remain so despite Tatchell’s plans to apply to a London magistrate for an arrest warrant and extradition order. His next project will be highlighting human rights abuses in Egypt, but it’s doubtful president Mubarak is quaking in his boots.

Anyone else would reckon they’d done their stint and be thinking about retiring from the fray, but Tatchell’s in for the long haul. “A lot of people on the left are basically negative oppositional campaigners. They’re anti-this and anti-that. I’m more inclined to be a campaigner for things,” he says. “I think the difference I make is rather small and modest but the incremental effect over time perhaps does make things better for a few people.”

Say what you like about Peter Tatchell – that he’s sacrificed his private life to the cause; that he’s a political Peter Pan; that no normal 51-year-old works 70 hours a week unpaid – he puts us grown-up, solid citizens to shame.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications