Outsiders in London
All photographs: copyright © Milan Svanderlik - London - UK
PETER TATCHELL (# 13)
Born in Melbourne, Australia
Father & Mother both born in Australia
Ethnic heritage / Father: Anglo-Irish / Mother: English
Peter Tatchell has been campaigning for human rights, democracy, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) freedom and global justice since 1967. He is a member of the queer human rights group, ‘OutRage!’ and is on the left wing of the Green Party. Peter is also the Green Party’s spokesperson on human rights. Through the Peter Tatchell Foundation, he campaigns for human rights in Britain as well as internationally.
In 2006, Peter was voted into sixth place on the ‘Heroes of Our Time’ list in The New Statesman. In 2009, he won a number of awards: ‘Campaigner of the Year’ in The Observer Ethical Awards; London Citizen of Sanctuary Award; Shaheen Nawab Akbar Khan Bughti Award; Evening Standard ‘1000 Most Influential Londoners’ (he was listed again in 2011); Liberal Voice of the Year; and a ‘Blue Plaque’ in recognition of his 40 years of human rights campaigning. In 2010, he won Total Politics‘ ‘Top 50 Political Influencers’. In 2012, he won the Irwin Prize, awarded to the ‘Securlarist of the Year‘ by the National Secular Society, and a Lifetime Achievement Award at the UK’s first National Diversity Awards.
For many years, Peter Tatchell wrote regular columns for The Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ website, and in 2007, he hosted a weekly online TV current affairs programme, Talking with Tatchell. He is the author of over 3,000 published articles and six books, including The Battle for Bermondsey (Heretic Books), Democratic Defence - A Non-Nuclear Alternative (Heretic Books/GMP) and We Don’t Want To March Straight - Masculinity, Queers & The Military (Cassell).
Peter’s key political inspirations are Mahatma Gandhi, Sylvia Pankhurst, Martin Luther King and, to some extent, Malcolm X and Rosa Luxembourg. He has adopted many of their methods in his contemporary non-violent struggle for human rights – he has also invented a few of his own.
Important note: Most of ‘Peter’s Story’ is drawn from his published online biographies.
Born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1952, Peter Tatchell began campaigning for human rights in 1967, at the age of 15. His first campaign was against the death penalty, followed by campaigns in support of Aboriginal rights, in opposition to conscription and to the Australian and US war against the people of Vietnam. In 1969, following the realisation that he was gay, the struggle for queer freedom became an increasing focus of Peter’s activism.
After moving to London in 1971, he became a leading activist in the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) organising sit-ins at pubs that refused to serve “poofs”, and protesting against police harassment and the medical classification of homosexuality as an illness - he famously disrupted Prof Hans Eysenck’s 1972 lecture which advocated electric shock aversion therapy to “cure” homosexuality. The following year, in East Berlin, he was arrested and interrogated by the secret police (the Stasi) after staging what was the first ever gay rights protest to be held in a communist country.
Throughout much of the 1970s and beyond, he was active in anti-imperialist solidarity campaigns, supporting the national liberation struggles of the peoples of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Oman, Palestine, Western Sahara, East Timor and West Papua. He also campaigned against the dictatorships in Franco’s Spain, Caetano’s Portugal, the Colonels’ Greece, Marcos’s Philippines, Suharto’s Indonesia, Pinochet’s Chile, Somoza’s Nicaragua, Saddam’s Iraq, the Shah’s and Khomeini’s Iran, and in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union and its satellite regimes in Eastern Europe and the Baltic.
Peter stood as the Labour candidate in the 1983 Bermondsey by-election, but was defeated in the most violent and homophobic election in modern British history.
In the mid-1980s, together with Bruce Kent and others, he risked arrest on charges of sedition and incitement to mutiny by publicly urging British military personnel to refuse to obey orders to train, prepare and use nuclear weapons.
In early 1987, Peter launched the world’s first organisation dedicated to defending the human rights of people with HIV, the UK AIDS Vigil Organisation. In 1988, the UKAVO persuaded the World Health Ministers’ Summit on AIDS to issue a declaration opposing government repression and discrimination against people with HIV.
An anti-apartheid activist since his teens in the late 1960s, his lobbying of Thabo Mbeki and the ANC in 1987 contributed to the ANC’s renouncing homophobia and making its first public commitment to lesbian and gay human rights. Later, together with others, he helped persuade the ANC to include a ban on anti-gay discrimination in the post-apartheid constitution - this became the first constitution in the world to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.
In the late 1980s, Peter co-organised the Green and Socialist Conferences, which bought together reds and greens and sought to forge a new political alliance for social justice and ecological sustainability. During the same period, he was warning of the dangers of climate change, resource depletion and species extinction.
After playing a prominent role in the London chapter of the AIDS activist group ACT UP, in 1990 he and 30 other people jointly founded the radical queer human rights direct action movement OutRage! Most notoriously, in 1994, Peter Tatchell and OutRage! outed 10 Church of England bishops and called on them to “tell the truth” about their sexuality, accusing them of hypocrisy and homophobia for publicly colluding with anti-gay policies, despite their own homosexuality. This led to his being denounced in parliament and the press as a “homosexual terrorist” and “public enemy number one”.
In the same year, he and five other members of OutRage! picketed an Islamist mass rally at Wembley Arena, organised by the fundamentalist group, Hizb-ut Tahrir. They were protesting against the group’s unlawful public exhortations to kill gay people, unchaste women and Muslims who turn away from their faith. Despite the Islamists openly threatening to murder him, the police arrested Tatchell. He was convicted but the conviction was overturned on appeal.
Two years later, in 1996, together with OutRage!, he launched his ‘Consent at 14’ campaign, which urged a reduction in the age of consent to 14 for both gay and straight sex, arguing that consent at 16 was unrealistic and unfair because it criminalised the many young people who have sexual contact and experience before the age of 16. He suggested that the best way to protect young people is earlier, more frank sex and relationship education, to empower them with the knowledge, skills and confidence to make wise, responsible choices and to report unwanted sexual advances and abuse.
From 1994-2000, Peter helped expose the by then deceased Nazi war criminal, SS Dr Carl Vaernet, who had experimented on gay prisoners in Buchenwald concentration camp, revealing how he escaped justice at the end of the Second World War with Allied connivance.
Peter and his OutRage! comrades briefly and peacefully interrupted the Archbishop of Canterbury’s 1998 Easter Sermon in Canterbury Cathedral, condemning Dr Carey’s advocacy of discrimination against lesbians and gay men. He was arrested and convicted under the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860 (formerly part of the Brawling Act 1551). This was Peter’s only conviction in 40 years of protest, including nearly 3,000 instances of direct action and civil disobedience.
The following year, 1999, he and three OutRage! colleagues ambushed the motorcade of Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe, in central London, and made a citizen’s arrest of the President on charges of torture and other human rights abuses. When Peter summoned the police, he and his colleagues were arrested, while Mugabe was given a police escort to go Christmas shopping at Harrods. All charges against Peter and his colleagues were later dropped.
In 2000, he stood unsuccessfully as an independent Green Left candidate for the London Assembly.
He attempted another citizen’s arrest of President Mugabe in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel in Brussels, in March 2001, with the result that he was beaten unconscious by Mugabe’s bodyguards.
In 2002, Peter brought an unsuccessful legal action in the British courts for the arrest of the former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, on charges of war crimes in Vietnam and Cambodia during the 1970s. The same year, he ambushed Mike Tyson outside his gym, just a few days before his world title fight against Lennox Lewis in Memphis, USA, challenging Tyson over his homophobic slurs against Lewis. Tatchell persuaded Tyson to make a public statement insisting that he was not homophobic, declaring: “I oppose all discrimination against gay people.”
In early March 2003, Peter forced Prime Minister Tony Blair’s motorcade to a halt in Piccadilly, in protest against the impending war in Iraq. He ran out into the road and held up a placard opposing invasion, urging instead that aid should be given to the Iraqi people to help them topple Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Blair’s car screeched to a standstill just six inches from Tatchell’s legs. Although arrested and detained in Vine Street police station, no charges were pressed.
Participating in the attempted Moscow Gay Pride marches in 2007, in solidarity with Russian lesbian and gay rights campaigners, he was beaten up, together with others, by neo-Nazis, ultra-nationalists and fundamentalist Christians. Having suffered some brain and eye damage, Peter was arrested by the police, while his attackers were allowed to go free.
In 2009, he co-proposed a UN Global Human Rights Index, to measure and rank the human rights record of every country, with the aim of creating a Human Rights League Table, highlighting the best and worst countries, and thereby embarrassing low-ranking governments into improving their records and uprating their human rights rankings.
He coordinated the Equal Love Campaign in 2010, in a bid to overturn the twin legal bans on same-sex civil marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships. The following year, he organised four gay couples and four heterosexual couples to file a case in the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that sexual orientation discrimination in civil marriage and civil partnership law is unlawful under Articles 8, 12 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Although great progress has been made in repealing anti-gay legislation in the UK, he is still campaigning to complete the unfinished battle for queer equality: for an end to the ban on same-sex marriage (now secured); for action against homophobic hate crimes and bullying in schools; and for the enforcement of the laws against inciting homophobic violence.
He is also supporting LGBT activists in many of the more than 70 countries where lesbian and gay relationships are still totally outlawed, and which punish same-sex partners with extreme penalties, including flogging, life imprisonment and execution. This solidarity work has included support for queer activists in Nepal, Iraq, Nigeria, Iran, Uganda, Malawi, Russia and Zimbabwe.
More than 40 years after first beginning his human rights campaigns, Peter Tatchell continues to campaign for the independence of the Western Sahara, Palestine, Baluchistan, and West Papua. He supports the struggles for democracy and human rights in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Burma, Columbia, Somaliland, Pakistan, Zimbabwe and elsewhere. As well as opposing the war in Iraq and the post-war occupation, he has spoken out against US threats to attack Iran.
A high-profile campaigner in British politics for three decades, Peter opposes ID cards, nuclear weapons and nuclear energy, the privatisation of public services, and the erosion of civil liberties by draconian anti-terror laws. Believing that climate chaos is the biggest threat faced by humanity, he proposes a switch to renewable energy and, in particular, a coordinated international scientific endeavour to develop safe, clean, sustainable fuels for cars and planes. He also supports a fairer, proportional voting system; an elected head of state and upper house; as well as a written constitution and a Bill of Rights.
Peter is an opponent of animal-based medical research, on both scientific and humanitarian grounds, and he urges major funding for an EU-wide effort to devise more reliable, effective and cruelty-free research technologies.
A radical anti-materialist and critic of the celebrity-obsessed consumer society, he advocates quality, not quantity, of life, arguing that ever-increasing personal income and material wealth is not the key to human happiness.
Peter is a strong proponent of ‘economic democracy’, believing in the redistribution of economic power and wealth, in order to make Britain (and the world) a more economically democratic, participatory, inclusive, transparent, just and compassionate society. Peter’s ideas for economic democracy include a legal requirement for one-third employee and consumer directors on the boards of all private and public institutions with more than 50 staff, to defend the interests of employees and the wider public; trade union supervised administration of their members’ pension funds, in order to decentralise the control of capital and investment; staff rewards for increased productivity in the form of new share issues, payable into a share fund for the collective benefit of all employees; legal rights and low-cost loans to enable employees to convert businesses into cooperatives; and bonuses for frontline public and private sector staff who devise efficiency savings without damaging product and service provision. He also advocates making corporate recklessness and negligence a criminal offence, so as to rein in the big business cowboys and to ensure more prudent economic decision-making.
From the late 1970s onwards, he called for a single, comprehensive, all-inclusive Equal Rights Act to harmonise the uneven patchwork of equality legislation, to ensure equal treatment and non-discrimination for everyone.
Peter has proposed an internationally-binding UN Human Rights Convention, enforceable through both national courts and the International Criminal Court; a permanent rapid-reaction UN peace-keeping force, with the authority to intervene to stop genocide and war crimes; and a global agreement to cut military spending by 10 percent to fund the eradication of hunger, disease, illiteracy, unemployment and homelessness in the developing world.
Recently interviewed in London for this project, Peter was asked why he considered himself an outsider: “I have a sceptical, questioning mind. Many of my human rights and social justice campaigns have challenged orthodoxy and the status quo. I’ve stood up for what I believe is right, rather than conforming to the prevailing consensus, most notably on the issues of LGBT and women’s rights, sex education and the age of consent, and on international issues, such as support for the people of Vietnam, Palestine, East Timor, Baluchistan, Somaliland, West Papua and the struggles against apartheid and nuclear weapons.”
When asked what he thinks are the disadvantages experienced by outsiders, Peter replies: “In the 1980s and ‘90s, I was vilified by much of the media and by many political and church leaders as an extremist. Some denounced me as ‘public enemy number one’ and a ‘homosexual terrorist.’ In particular, my advocacy of LGBT human rights made me a magnet for homophobes and neo-Nazis. I received thousands of hate letters and death threats, dozens of attacks on my home, and I have been violently assaulted over 300 times - often by supporters of organised far right groups, like the National Front and the British National Party.”
And in response to an invitation to cite any advantages he had derived from being an outsider, Peter comments: “Because I’ve stuck to my principles, after two decades of demonisation, even some of my critics now show grudging respect. Many of the marginal issues that I’ve championed, like LGBT rights, are now mainstream. However, some of my ideas are still minority, fringe viewpoints - my perspectives on animal rights, hate speech, drugs, pornography and alternatives to marriage, for example. Being unafraid to be an outsider gives me the freedom to think, speak and act according to my own conscience.”
Asked if he were to have the choice, would he prefer not to be an outsider, Peter replies: “I don’t choose to be an outsider. Being an outsider is a means to an end, not an end in itself. I am an outsider because the beliefs I hold and the direct action I take is outside the mainstream. I am not an outsider for the sake of it. Ultimately, my aim is to win a majority of the public over to my dissenting, heretical ideas - in which case I will happily cease to be an outsider.”
Interview Date: 16th June 2013
Updated: 22nd September 2013
For more information about Peter Tatchell's human rights campaigns, follow this link:
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Peter Tatchell has been campaigning for human rights, democracy, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) freedom and global justice since 1967 and it might be argued that as a veteran civil rights campaigner and tireless fighter for LGBT rights in Britain and all over the world, Peter is both an outsider and an insider, because of his intimate knowledge of politics and his mastery of the media. Over the last 25 years, Peter has probably done more for gay rights, and for human rights in general, than anyone else in Britain. Of course, his task is endless for we all bear reluctant witness to the perpetual battle being fought in country after country to secure and to preserve the human rights of all, regardless of race, gender, religion or sexuality.
Photography: London 16th June 2013