During his teenage years in Melbourne, Australia, the human rights activist Peter Tatchell volunteered as a Sunday school teacher. “I used to make beautiful biblical tableaus with cardboard cut-outs to show the kids. My classes were always very, very popular,” he recalls, chuckling, “because I’d choose all the good stories.”
A devout Christian growing up, the gay rights campaigner, now 69, tells me that from a young age he was attracted to the more radical stories in the Bible. Though Tatchell swiftly relinquished his religious beliefs, he initially saw stories such as the Sermon on the Mount as part of a “theology of liberation against injustice”.
Tatchell’s parents – his father a lathe operator and his mother a packer in a biscuit factory – were fervent Pentecostal evangelists and did not share this interpretation of religion as emancipatory. Tatchell was four when they divorced, and his mother went on to marry a cruel man, who beat him. His mother suffered from life-threatening asthma, which meant Tatchell had to help raise his younger siblings. “From the age of eight, I was cooking meals, dressing them, bathing them and doing all the household chores,” he says. “It taught me to be resourceful.” Tatchell has drawn on this resourcefulness throughout his decades of activism. After moving to London, where he still lives, in 1971, he quickly became a leading figure in the gay rights movement, helping to organise the UK’s first Pride parade the following year.
But it was his selection as the Labour candidate for the 1983 Bermondsey by-election that thrust him into the spotlight. The election was marked by vicious homophobia and the tabloids conducted what Tatchell describes as a “drip, drip, drip hate campaign”. Simon Hughes, the Liberal candidate who won the election, later apologised for the homophobic campaigning and came out as bisexual. “There’s never been an election like it before or since,” Tatchell tells me. “Britain today is almost a different planet.”
Speaking via video call from his flat in south London, Tatchell, his hair clipped and demeanour controlled, gives purposive and methodical responses. At times he stumbles over his words, before calmly retracing them and starting the sentence again. He explains that the hundreds of physical assaults he’s suffered over the years have given him semi-permanent brain and eye damage. “It affects my concentration, memory, balance and coordination… it’s quite a struggle,” he says.
Tatchell has been involved in many of the most high-profile human rights campaigns of the past half-century. A new Netflix documentary, Hating Peter Tatchell, charts this activism and the often vitriolic opposition its subject has encountered. To give a sense of the number and breadth of Tatchell’s causes, here’s a list of those that weren’t included in the film: campaigning against Jamaican dancehall and reggae musicians for inciting the murder of gay people; bidding for an arrest warrant for Henry Kissinger in 2002; persuading South Africa’s ANC party to embrace LGBTQ+ rights in 1987; and ambushing Tony Blair’s motorcade in 2003 to protest the Iraq War.
Throughout his history of campaigning Tatchell has been committed to debating his opponents, however distasteful their views. How, then, does this experienced progressive view the left’s relationship with free speech and no-platforming?
“I look back to the 1980s and 1990s. We didn’t change public opinion by banning homophobes, biphobes and transphobes. We did change public opinion by debating them and showing them why they were wrong. I went on every available TV and radio programme to debate some really vile people who were saying that LGBTQ+ people should be locked up, quarantined, even gassed.”
Having lived through Australia’s version of McCarthyism, Tatchell has seen how the right has used no-platforming and bans on speech against the left in the past. “To me, it’s really important the left does not resort to the methods of the right,” he tells me.
The relationship between LGBTQ+ activism and freedom of speech has been a subject of interest in recent times. Last month an independent review was published into Essex University’s disinvitation of two professors, criticised for their views on gender, to speak at the campus. The report said the LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall had provided misleading advice to the university on how the Equality Act relates to transgender issues, and that Essex should reconsider its relationship with the charity. Numerous public institutions have since cut ties with Stonewall.
“Stonewall has been criticised and fair enough,” Tatchell says. “But I don’t think that justifies the demonisation campaign they’re currently experiencing… Overall, they’ve done fantastic work to secure more LGBTQ+ friendly and inclusive workplaces [over the years].”
Tatchell hasn’t given up challenging injustice. He mentions his opposition to the government’s new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which risks restricting the right to peaceful protest, and his work on the campaign to ban conversion therapy as just two of the issues with which he’s grappling. When will he rest? “I’m 69 now and I’m hoping that, my health willing, I can carry on for another 26 years. Maybe retirement at about 95 would be the point to say my life’s work is done.”
This article appears in the 16 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Cold Web