Peter Tatchell is a human rights campaigner and activist who has worked with a wide variety of gay rights organisations throughout his long and illustrious career. Our resident provocateur, Blake Coe, met with him to talk politics, activism and LGBT issues.
Blake Coe: Peter Tatchell, thank you very much for seeing me. The theme of our upcoming issue is empowerment, and I think you would agree that the LGBT community has been greatly empowered in the UK over the last 50 years, of which you have been no small part. In your Channel 4 interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy you said that you thought in the late sixties when you started activism that it would take about 50 years to achieve the principle aims of the LGBT movement, and that you were more or less right. Have there been any particular surprises along the way, or have things gone more or less as you expected?
Peter Tatchell: Back in 1969, it was really hard to predict how things would pan out, but it’s true that in Britain today nearly all the anti-gay laws that used to exist have been repealed. There are still a few issues that are unresolved, such as the lack of marriage equality in Northern Ireland and the failure of many schools to include LGBT issues in relationships and sex education, the very poor treatment of LGBT+ asylum seekers who are fleeing persecution abroad and of course we still don’t have a really positive trans policy that allows trans men and women self-declaration. They should be able to decide by themselves, by a statutory declaration.
Blake: On gay marriage in Northern Ireland – do you think that Westminster should legislate for Northern Ireland or do you think it should be left to Stormont?
Peter: I do respect the devolved assemblies, and in normal circumstances I would say that this should be a matter for the Northern Ireland assembly, however, given that there is no assembly in place and functioning and given that the DUP keeps on demanding that there should be no difference between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK on Brexit, I don’t see why there should be any difference when it comes to equal marriage.
Blake: Following your rather prescient prediction 50 years ago about how things would pan out, where do you see things going with the LGBT movement worldwide over the next 50 years?
Peter: Within the UK, we have undoubtedly made stupendous gains since 1999 when the first major law reform came in with an end to the ban on LGBT people in the armed forces. Since then, all the major anti-gay laws have been repealed, culminating in the end to the ban on same sex marriage in 2013. However, we still live with the reality that a third of all LGBT+ people say that they have been a victim of hate crime because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and nearly half of all LGBT+ kids in schools have been the victims of bullying. It shows that there is still work to be done; there are some laws that still need refinement. For example, nearly all the equality laws have qualified exemptions for religious organisations. Not just places of worship but also faith run schools, hospitals and nursing homes. I don’t believe that faith groups or bodies should have exemption from the law; equality should apply to everyone.
In terms of the future, the cutting-edge issue at the moment is undoubtedly around trans, non-binary and gender fluid issues, which I think is great. The idea that we have to be boxed into male and female, masculine and feminine is very oppressive and doesn’t reflect reality. People aren’t made for boxes. There is a huge variety of sexualities and identities and those should be recognised and accepted in law and in the wider society and culture. Across the world, there are still 69 countries that criminalise same sex relations. Angola, India and Trinidad and Tobago have recently decriminalised but still more than a third of the nations on Earth have a total prohibition. Penalties range from a few years in prison up to life imprisonment and execution in 10 Muslim majority countries. Globally, the battle is far from won.
Blake: It’s very interesting what you said about the religious exemptions that some institutions still have that you don’t believe in. But the on the Northern Ireland Ashers gay cake row you actually supported the Christian bakery. Could you explain to us why because it seems counterintuitive for a gay right activist to take that position.
Peter: Well if Ashers bakery had refused to serve Gareth Lee, a gay man, because of his sexuality I wold have opposed them, because that is discrimination against a person, which in all circumstances is wrong. But Ashers didn’t discriminate against Gareth because he was gay, they simply refused to put the support gay marriage message on his cake. Equally I would be opposed to gay bakers being forced to decorate cakes with messages against same sex marriage. I think that on balance, it’s ok to discriminate against ideas but not against people.
Blake: To take things in a slightly different direction, you are a member of the Green Party, but you are very open about wanting to see Jeremy Corbyn as the next Prime Minister. Can I ask you in that case why you don’t re-join the Labour Party?
Peter: Because I think it’s really important to have a ginger group outside Labour on the left to press Labour to adopt more progressive policies. When the choice is between Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn, it’s no contest. But Labour really still has so many problems. It doesn’t support proportional representation, it’s not pushing for a democratically elected second chamber to replace the House of Lords, it doesn’t support a “progressive alliance” to keep the Tories out. On some international issues, Labour fails badly. On Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua or Syria; in all those scenarios Labour is on the wrong side, by not supporting the democratic and human rights initiatives of grass roots people.
Blake: You were one of around 30 people to found London Pride in 1972. Can you tell us how that came to be? You can’t have been here very long since you moved from Australia.
Peter: It was mostly an initiative from members of the Gay Liberation Front in London. We reasoned that since everyone was saying it was shameful to be gay, we should say no, we’re proud to be gay. That was the genesis of the concept of what was then called gay pride. We decided to hold a march, a gay pride march in celebration of our sexuality and our demand for human rights. That was a very novel idea and most LGBT+ people did not support us. There was a lot of hostility, people said “you’re creating a fuss, you’re drawing attention to us, you’re rocking the boat, you’ll create a backlash. It’s best if we keep our heads down and stay quiet.” Our response was: if you keep your heads down, you get your heads kicked in!
Blake: How does it feel seeing Pride today?
Peter: Well of course it’s completely different. And in many respects, I think it’s gone backwards. It’s not what the original pioneers envisaged. I’m all in favour of commercial sponsorship to pay for Pride, but I’m not in favour of the huge preponderant commercial presence on Pride parades now. All the big floats are from corporate interests because no community groups can possibly afford such extravagance. I welcome all allies from whatever sector, but I don’t think it’s a good move to have big business run the show or appearing to run the show and being so predominant and so overt.
Blake: Stonewall in 2018 wasn’t involved in the main pride march because they felt it wasn’t inclusive enough of ethnic minorities. I saw you march and managed to take a picture from the crowd. What do you think of their position on that?
Peter: Well as you probably saw, we had quite a lot of ethnic minority people in our contingent. I think Stonewall had a valid point, but I don’t think it was necessary to boycott. The way forward is to press the pride organisers to address any issues and concerns. At one level, I think the criticism of minority exclusion is a bit unfair. Quite a lot of the speakers on the main stage in Trafalgar square were black and minority ethnic people. There’s no exclusion policy. Certainly, there needs to be a better effort to facilitate and encourage black and minority ethnic involvement that’s true. But I always think that if you have a concern, unless you’re up against some kind of hard-core bigot, the best way is to engage. I would like to see the pride committee work more closely with black and asian LGBT organisations in order to increase the presence and participation.
Blake: In your long career as an activist, what is your proudest achievement?
Peter: I can’t say there is anything I’m particularly proud of, I just do my activism. Obviously, there are some standout issues. I suppose the success in forcing the police to stop the harassment of the LGBT+ community in the early 1990s. It led to a massive decline in arrests and convictions of gay and bisexual men. I’m also I suppose proud of the two attempted citizens arrests of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, the ambush of Mike Tyson over his sexism and homophobia, naming the 10 bishops and calling on them to tell the truth, and several times going to Russia to stand in solidarity with Russian LGBT+ people.
Blake: And what do you consider to be the greatest threat to LGBT rights in the United Kingdom currently?
Peter: It’s very hard to see a major threat now or in the foreseeable future. But who can tell what might happen in 10, 20- or 30-years’ time? History doesn’t always progress in a linear straight line. Who would have thought that Germany, one of the great civilisations of the world would descend into the barbarism of Nazism? And that’s a great example for us. In 1930, Berlin was the gay capital of the world, yet within 3 years, the Nazis came to power and everything went into reverse. Gay and bisexual men started being carted off to concentration camps. All the gay bars, clubs, newspapers, and organisations were shut down. It shows that things can turn. I can’t see into the future, but who knows? If we had another great depression or runaway climate destruction, you could potentially envisage a far-right organisation gaining popular support, on an agenda of “we’re going to put things right, we need strong government, we need tough powers to solve the crisis”. I can’t imagine that right now, but it’s not inconceivable in decades to come.
Blake: But you’re optimistic?
Peter: Yeah, I’m always optimistic. And even if that did arise, I’m sure we could overcome it.