Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Winter 2001-2002

Peter Tatchell, one of the UK’s most prominent human rights campaigners and a frequent contributor to Gay and Lesbian Humanist, celebrates his fiftieth birthday on 25 January 2002 with a high-profile event in London, to be attended by celebrities, politicians and friends. The Peter Tatchell Human Rights Fund will be launched. there. Andy Armitage pays tribute to a tireless campaigner.

Rock of the Gay Movement reaches his Half-Century

by Andy Armitage

“A lot of people find him humourless, you know,” Peter Tatchell’s publicist told me a couple of weeks ago. “He lives a very austere lifestyle. He works eighteen hours a day and doesn’t need much sleep.”

Adrian Gillan, who is also one of the trustees of the new Peter Tatchell Human Rights Fund, is, understandably, living and breathing the work of Peter Tatchell at the moment, ensuring that the world’s media know of the fund that’s being launched in the name of a man for whom the adjective “tireless” ceases to be a metaphor.

To your average straight reader of newspapers and watcher of television news, Tatchell is that gay bloke who makes a bloody nuisance of himself, dares to question things, disrupts church services, tries to arrest important people. To the average gay airhead, he rocks the boat, gets up people’s noses, spoils it all for the rest of us by saying all the wrong things about an age of consent of fourteen. Why doesn’t the man just shut his big mouth and let us enjoy our clubs? We’re equal now, aren’t we? People like him ought to be put out of our misery.

The arguments over what constitutes shouting too loud, not shouting loud enough and where the fine line is being trodden with consummate skill will rage for years to come among those who ponder such things. What no-one can say about Peter Tatchell is that he’s sat on his arse and let other campaigners get on with it. Not only does he put his own safety on the line, but he refuses to stop. I suspect he’ll campaign until either he’s dead or a world leader’s hired thug renders him incapable of thinking.

Since he came out in 1969, Peter Tatchell has been active in the fight for gay rights and the wider battle of human rights. His attempts recently to arrest the arch-homophobe Robert Mugabe testify to the fact that Tatchell does not restrict himself to queer campaigning, for Mugabe’s transgressions from everything that’s decent extend beyond his avowed contempt for queers. Like many activists who happen to be gay, Tatchell may well, understandably, come at his work from that corner. After all, we are to some extent shaped by what we are not, and by what we are pilloried for not being (straight, in our case); we are defined in others’ eyes and our own by what we are lauded or despised for. A crusade for an improvement in the lot of one group sensitises one to others in a similar plight but for different reasons. Oppression is oppression – only the detail differs.

Tatchell was active in human rights before he came to prominence in the UK when he stood as the Labour candidate in the 1983 Bermondsey by-election. During that campaign – which he lost to the Liberal Democrats’ Simon Hughes – he was vilified for being too left-wing and for his advocacy of lesbian and gay rights.

Peter Tatchell was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1952. His coming out at the age of seventeen was inspired by press reports of the early gay liberation protests in New York. In 1971 he moved to London, having refused to be drafted into the Australian army to fight in Vietnam. Here he became a leading activist in a young, bold and audacious organisation called the Gay Liberation Front (GLF).

During those early days he was often to be seen refusing to move from pubs that declined to serve ‘lezzies’ and ‘poofs’. He believes that protests such as these helped pave the way for many of the gains queers of both sexes now take for granted.

He also involved himself in controversy when he disrupted a lecture by Professor Hans Eysenck (1916-1997), the German-born British psychologist, who endorsed the use of torture – sorry, electric-shock aversion therapy – to ‘cure’ homosexuals. Such treatment, Eysenck said, was no worse than a visit to the dentist.

He once tried to lay a pink-triangle wreath on the site of a former concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, a northern suburb of Berlin, in memory of the gay victims of Nazism. He was blocked on the orders of the communist government and later beaten up by communist officials after being interrogated by the Stasi.

It was the Bermondsey by-election, though, that finally resolved it for Tatchell: he’s been subjected to “such visceral, violent homophobia”, he says, that he decided to devote himself more or less full time to campaigning for queer rights. To most of us, the rest is history, and we’d need several more pages to go into detail.

Now, he’s just got his just deserts – well, some deserts, anyway: more, we hope, will follow – by winning the Mike Rhodes Award 2001. The Mike Rhodes Award is for the person who has done the most in the last year “to promote an understanding of lesbian and gay life”. In Peter’s case, it was for his success in lobbying the British Fertility Society to support same-sex parenting rights, and for his attempted citizen’s arrest of Mugabe in Brussels.

Another of his memorable feats in recent years was when he persuaded OutRage!, the queer rights group that dares to be different, that the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, had to be confronted. It was on Easter Sunday 1998 that Tatchell and six other members interrupted his Easter sermon by unfurling placards near the pulpit. Some time after that, Carey agreed to meet the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement for the first time, and subsequently toned down his public advocacy of discrimination.

Now, at last, a fund is being launched in Peter Tatchell’s name. Such a thing is long overdue.

You can send donations to the Peter Tatchell Human Rights Fund at PO Box 35253, London E1 4YF. For information on Peter Tatchell and his campaigns, visit his very comprehensive website.
URI of this page :
Created : Sunday, 2002-02-17 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
Brett Humphreys :