Suggest to Peter Tatchell that, after 40 years of campaigning on a wide range of human rights issues, it might be time to ease-up a little, he has a two-word reply: “No way!”
And then he expands his thoughts on any suggestions of “hanging up the placards” and taking things easy. “I am only 55, and only at my halfway mark,” he points out.
“After another 40 years – when I’m 95 – perhaps, then, it will be time to retire from active campaigning.”
It was in 1967 that Mr. Tatchell, then just 15, took part in his first campaign – against the death penalty in his native Australia. This was followed by his support of Aboriginal rights, opposition to military conscription and the Australian and US war against the people of Vietnam.
In 1969, on realising that he was gay, the struggle for ‘queer freedom’ became an increasing focus of his 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 protests against police harassment and the medical classification of homosexuality as an illness.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Peter Tatchell, once a Labour supporter, is now a member of the Green Party. He is currently the prospective Green candidate for the parliamentary constituency of Oxford East and is the party’s spokesperson on human rights.
But he is more than willing to set-aside party politics and give praise where praise is due.
“In Britain, in less than a decade, nearly all legal discrimination against gay people has been repealed,” he points out.
“It has been one of the fastest, most successful law reform campaigns in history; transforming the lives of lesbian and gay people for the better. I am immensely proud to have played a small part in achieving these positive changes, which have helped make Britain a kinder, fairer and more tolerant society for everyone, gay and straight.
Within the UK, the ban on same-sex civil marriage remains the last major legal discrimination to overturn. I intend to carry on campaigning until the ban is lifted,” says Tatchell.
He says his key political inspirations are Mahatma Gandhi, Sylvia Pankurst, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. He has adapted many of their methods to the contemporary struggle for human rights – and invented a few of his own.
Some of his protests fall into the “direct action” category.
He famously disrupted Prof Hans Eysenck’s 1972 lecture which advocated electric shock aversion therapy to ‘cure’ homosexuality.
Then, a year later in East Berlin, he was arrested and interrogated by the secret police – the Stasi – after staging the first-ever gay rights protest 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.
Mr. Tatchell also campaigned against the dictatorships in Franco’s Spain, Caetano’s Portugal, the Colonel’s Greece, Marcos’ Philippines, Suharto’s Indonesia, Pinochet’s Chile, Somoza’s Nicaragua, Saddam’s Iraq, the Shah’s and Khomeini’s Iran, and Brezhnev’s Soviet Union and its satellite regimes in Eastern Europe and the Baltics.
In 1983, he attempted to be elected to the British Parliament, standing as the Labour candidate in the parliamentary by-election in London constituency of Bermondsey. He was defeated in what was most violent and homophobic election in modern British history.
“Nearly 80 countries still outlaw homosexuality, with penalties ranging up to life imprisonment. Seven counties or regions of countries impose the death penalty, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan and parts of Nigeria and Pakistan…”
In early 1987, Mr. Tatchell 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 Minister’s Summit on AIDS to issue a declaration opposing government repression and discrimination against people with HIV.
After playing a prominent role in the London chapter of the AIDS activist group ACT UP, in 1990 he and 30 other people founded the radical queer human rights direct action movement OutRage!.
Most notoriously, in 1994 Peter Tatchell and OutRage! outed ten Church of England Bishops and called on them to “tell the truth” about their sexuality – accusing them of hypocrisy and homophobia for publicly supporting anti-gay policies, while privately having homosexual affairs.
This led to him 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.
Outrage! was protesting against Hizb-ut Tahrir ‘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 Mr.Tatchell.
Peter and his OutRage! comrades 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 is Peter’s only conviction in 40 years of nearly 3,000 direct action and civil disobedience protests.
1999 saw Mr. Tatchell and three colleagues from Outrage! ‘ambush’ the motorcade of the President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, in London. They wanted to make a citizen’s arrest of the President on charges of torture and other human rights abuses.
Two years later in Brussels, he attempted another citizen’s arrest of President Mugabe. This resulted in him being beaten unconscious by Mugabe’s bodyguards.
Afraid of nobody, including a world heavyweight boxing champion, Mr. Tatchell ‘ambushed’ Mike Tyson outside his gym a few days before the world title fight between Tyson and Lennox Lewis in Memphis.
Mr. Tatchell challenged Tyson over his homophobic slurs against Lewis and persuaded the controversial boxer to make a public statement insisting that he was not homophobic and to declare: “I oppose all discrimination against gay people”.
He participated in the attempted Moscow Gay Pride marches in 2006 and 2007, in solidarity with Russian lesbian and gay rights campaigners.
Together with others, including Members of the European Parliament, Mr. Tatchell was trying to deliver a letter of protest to the Mayor of Moscow at City Hall this year.
He was beaten up by neo-Nazis, ultra-nationalists and fundamentalist Christians. A vicious attack on him was made by a thug who police said could not be identified, despite crystal-clear television footage and still photographs that were flashed around the world. Mr. Tatchell suffered some brain and eye damage from this attack.
The Moscow police arrested him, while the need for hospital treatment was ignored. His attacker – like those who attacked others in the delegation – was allowed to go free.
Tatchell will mark his 40th anniversary of campaigning on December 10 – Human Rights Day –