The lifelong activist says he’s been beaten up 300 times and had 50 bricks through his window. But he tells how his most dispiriting clashes – such as the ongoing NUS row – have been those with other gay rights campaigners.
Peter Tatchell lives where he has always lived, in a tiny flat round the back of the Elephant and Castle roundabout. In the 1990s, interviewers were always surprised by his modest surroundings, on that ritzy, fin de siecle logic that he was pretty famous, so why wasn’t he rich?
The world has now become accustomed to the fact that he will never find a way to monetise his quest for global justice, and younger activists will probably gape in amazement that he can afford to live in London at all. But his place is still a surprise, stacked high with posters and folders; endless, endless paperwork; dramatic, trenchant demands – Arrest President Mugabe; Free Raif Badawi – printed in neat and unassuming Helvetica on A3 bits of paper. We could create a third category of hoarder: clean hoarder, dirty hoarder, cause hoarder – and Channel 5 could make a documentary about him.
His manner is gentle and precise. He likes things to be right, and will break into a poignant, evocative anecdote to make sure you’ve got the correct spelling: “In the 1980s, in the wake of the moral panic around Aids and Margaret Thatcher’s anti-gay family values campaign, police harassment of the LGBT community massively intensified. By 1989, the number of gay and bisexual men convicted for consenting adult same-sex behaviour was more than 2,000, which was almost as high as in 1954/55, at the height of the McCarthyite anti-gay witch-hunts. I was involved withOutRage! at the time – which is a capital O and a capital R and an exclamation mark – and we sought dialogue with the police …” This subtly affects the conversation; we’re not talking to each other, we’re recording it for distribution, posterity; every connection is part of a wider, awareness-raising plan. It’s endearing and distancing at the same time, as has probably been the case with these one-off, once-in-a-generation activists since the dawn of time.
There is another noticeable thing about the way he talks. He often unpicks sentences halfway through, going back to replace words with extremely similar words, trying to rewrite as he speaks, as though giving dictation. I ask him if he is worried about being misrepresented or misunderstood – either of which would be reasonable, given that he is constantly at the centre of a furore, and is currently in a no-platforming spat with the NUS (more shortly). Oh no, he shakes his head. “It’s probably just my brain injuries.” A life in activism has done more than left him with a lot of paperwork. “The two major bashings were in Brussels in 2001, when I was beaten unconscious by President Mugabe’s bodyguards, the second major injury was in Moscow in 2007, when I went there to support the bid to hold a Gay Pride parade and was badly beaten by neo-Nazis, with the connivance of the Moscow police. Both of these have left me with minor permanent brain and eye injuries. The damage is mostly to my memory, balance, co-ordination and concentration.” That doesn’t sound very minor … “It doesn’t stop me. But life is much more difficult. When I’m talking I have to think more carefully about what I’m trying to say. Occasionally I have momentary blackouts, where I don’t know where I am or what I’m doing. It only lasts a second or two, but it can be quite unnerving.”
I express some surprise at this point that he doesn’t have post-traumatic stress disorder, and he looks at me, astonished that I might think these two attacks are the extent of it. “In the 1980s, I was one of the best-known advocates of LGBT rights, which made me a magnet for every homophobe in the country. From 1981 … until about 2010 I had constant death threats, and hate mail. Plus violent assaults, attacks on my home. I’ve had about 50 bricks and bottles through my windows, three arson attempts and a bullet through the letterbox. I’ve been physically beaten up about 300 times in the last 30 years.”
He goes on to describe the most horrific events: nearly being thrown off a moving train by BNP supporters and being chased into traffic by a gang carrying knives. All these years, his peaceable bearing has given the impression that he lived a quiet though passionate life. In fact, it’s been “like living through a low-level civil war, in constant fear of attack, every time I left my flat”. He has been diagnosed with PTSD in which the trauma is ongoing, and says that specialists have often been amazed that he is not more affected by what he has been through. “My strategy for coping with it was totally against medical advice; what I would do was, some time after the attack, sit down and think about it, go through what happened, and then banish it from my mind. That was my coping mechanism. And it was so successful that sometimes people would say to me, ‘Have you had any violent attacks recently?’ and I’d say no, and then someone else would pipe in, ‘But you had that attack only five days ago. I’d completely erased it from my mind. If I hadn’t adopted it, I think I would have had a breakdown or committed suicide.”
The other thing that might protect his mental health is a relentless focus on his good fortune. “I think to myself, I’ve got off lightly, compared to human rights defenders in Russia, Iran or Uganda, I’m very lucky. They end up tortured, imprisoned and even killed.” It takes a particular sort of person to deliver such a martyrish line simply, without trying to coat it with a self-deprecating joke. He isn’t humourless, but there is a time and a place for it, and it’s after you’ve finished everything else.
This life in activism – part Jason Bourne, part Florence Nightingale – began when he was 11, in Melbourne, Australia. It was 1963, and he saw “a news report about white racists who bombed a black church in Birmingham, Alabama. I was absolutely horrified that anyone could kill another human being, let alone four young girls. That prompted my interest in the black civil rights movement, and made me a lifelong anti-racist. When I first began campaigning for gay rights when I was 17” [this, incidentally, was after young teenage protests against the death penalty, along with the systemic discrimination of aborigines] “I remember reflecting on the black civil rights experience, and I worked out in my own mind that gay people were an oppressed minority just like black people, that we had an equal claim to social justice, and based on the experience of the black civil rights movement, I calculated it would probably take about 50 years to win LGBT equality. As it turned out, my guestimate was roughly right.”
We talk a lot about the role anti-racism has played in his life – possibly, either consciously or unconsciously, it’s playing on his mind because of his row with the NUS. In a nutshell, he was due to appear on a panel, and their LGBT representative, Fran Cowling, refused to share a stage with him on the basis that he was racist and transphobic. It’s not no-platforming, strictly speaking, and he is rigorous in his respect for Cowling’s decision. “Fran simply decided that she did not wish to share a platform with me. That’s her right. What I object to is that she made false allegations that I’m racist and transphobic, without offering any evidence. She can’t provide it because there is none.” At the root of the row is a letter Tatchell co-signed to the Observer protesting the general practice of no-platforming as “illiberal and undemocratic”. Tatchell is a lifelong defender of free speech and simply doesn’t have the personality to keep his head below this or any other parapet. By the logic of no-platforming enthusiasts, anyone who lodges a critique of silencing anyone is de facto undermining the physical safety of transsexuals. It seems particularly unfair to level this at Tatchell, who has imperilled his own safety so often in the service of human rights.
He takes a long view, though not one that has necessarily been mellowed by time. “Despite all this, I remain a strong supporter of the NUS. I support their campaigns against tuition fees and education cuts. But I have a feeling of deja vu: the last time I was attacked by leaders of the NUS was in 1973, when I staged what turned out to be the first-ever gay rights protest in a communist country, East Germany. I was part of the British delegation to the World Festival of Youth and Students. When I attempted to speak in defence of gay rights, I was stopped. When I attempted to lay a pink triangle wreath at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, in memory of the gay men killed there, I was stopped. When I held up a gay rights placard at the final festival rally, I was stopped. The key stoppers were leading members of the NUS. They opposed gay rights and did not want to offend the communists.”
This is the first and I think only time he looks pained on any subject: “At this stage, the British left were homophobic. They said that homosexuality was a ‘bourgeois perversion’, a ‘manifestation of capitalist degeneracy’, and it would disappear in a pure Socialist society. There have been many times when I’ve felt demoralised and dispirited. I could always cope with attacks from the right, but attacks from the left and other gay activists were incredibly painful. They pitched me into deep depression.”
The other ongoing controversy is that of Ashers bakery, or as it could be known, the curious sight of a public figure changing his mind. In brief: a bakery refused to ice a sentence on to a cake that was pro-gay marriage. Gareth Lee, the customer, took it to court, with Tatchell’s support, and the bakers were found guilty of discrimination. The case then went to appeal, and two days before it was heard, Tatchell changed his mind, and came out in favour of the bakery. He gives me a intricate and precise reasoning for his about-face, before concluding: “It was an agonising decision for me, to change my stance. I felt really bad about going against what the LGBT community in Northern Ireland were saying. For decades, I’ve supported their struggle. But at the end of the day, I felt that I owed it to everyone in Northern Ireland to take a stand in defence of freedom of conscience, expression and belief. There are pros and cons on both sides, it’s not a clean-cut case. But on balance, I felt it was important to err on the side of freedom. Free speech is one of the most important and precious of all human rights.”
This isn’t the first time he has changed his mind – he started his career as an activist morally opposed to outing, until he was persuaded by the case for “outing public figures who were abusing their power and influence to harm gay people”. He then describes outing 10 Anglican bishops in 1994, as “a last resort after the church refused to reconsider its homophobic stance. We would have much preferred to have been able to sit down with the church leadership and get them to agree to stop these double standards, but they slammed the door in our face. The upshot was that, as far as I know, none of those bishops ever again spoke or voted in favour of homophobic legislation.”
His memory finds the triumph in everything, which must go a long way towards explaining the longevity of his campaigning, the fact that he has never thrown it in for a desk job. But the main engine, I think, is of the desperate urgency of every cause that ignites his interest. From bringing Mugabe to trial for the torture of his own people to freeing Balochistan, an annexed and occupied territory of Pakistan, no issue is too niche, and no effort ever enough. Two hours roll by as he describes these and other campaigns in the most intricate details, right down to the looks on Mugabe’s bodyguard’s faces when he and three colleagues from OutRage! first tried to arrest him in 1999. It is terrifically engaging, vaudeville – “it took two officers to remove each of us from the car. So they’d remove us and put us on the pavement, come back and we’d run back. It wasn’t until about 20 reinforcements arrived that we were put in the cells while the police gave Mugabe an escort to go shopping in Harrods.”
If, at this microscopic level of detail, it feels at times like the interview version of a filibuster, or being kidnapped, it is still extraordinary: when you listen to his life’s work in detail, his originality comes into focus. In every campaign, a new tool or technique, from building local movements to mass protests to citizens’ arrests to sponsored walks is invented or discovered or repurposed by this mild, driven man with two bikes in his living room – and those are his only luxury. In an alternative universe, he would have been Steve Jobs, but that universe – no offence to Jobs – would have been the poorer.-Guardian