10 minutes with Peter Tatchell
It started in 1969 when I was 17. I love other people and I love human rights, equality and freedom. Those are the values that motivate and inspire me. I’ve also taken comfort from the struggles of people who’ve gone before me such as Matt Magandi, Sylvia Pankhurst and Martin Luther King. These are people who have inspired me to do what I can to make the world a better place.
One of your major campaigns was the fight for equal marriage in England and Wales. Tell us a little about that.
The first same-sex marriages were the combination of a 22 yearlong campaign that began way back in 1992. That year, myself and Outrage got 5 same-sex couples to file applications for civil marriages at Westminster registry office in London. They were refused, but that was the opening shot in the battle to secure equal marriage. I’m so happy that our efforts all those years ago have finally secured the result we wanted today.
So what’s next for LGBT rights here in the UK?
The next big issue is tackling the schools. Just over half of all LGBT people report being bullied at school because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Yet only about half of all schools have anti-bullying programs that specifically address homophobia. Even the ones who do, virtually none of them have any component that challenge transphobia. Much more needs to be done to challenge anti-LGBT attitudes.
How do you think we can help challenge anti-LGBT attitudes?
I think it needs to start in schools. I’m in favour of equality and diversity lessons from the very first year of primary school in order to challenge all forms of prejudice including racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. Children are not born bigoted, they become bigoted because of the negative influences of adults and peers. It’s very clear that education in acceptance and understanding can reduce levels of prejudice, discrimination and hate crime.
Tell us a little bit about the Peter Tatchell Foundation.
We campaign on a wide range of human rights issues, both in Britain and internationally. Our key UK campaigns are LGBT rights, freedom of expression and civil liberties. Internationally, we primarily focus on Iran, Uganda, Russia, Nigeria and the Balochistan region of Pakistan.
What can the UK do for countries like Russia and Uganda?
In homophobic countries like Russia, real change can only come from within. So our focus must be on supporting LGBT activists and human rights defenders in Russia and other similar homophobic countries. We help them liberate themselves but we can also assist by lobbying our government to impose travel bans and asset freezes on political and religious leaders who are orchestrating the crack down on the LGBT community. I think it’s also legitimate for countries like Britain to withdraw aid from homophobic governments and switch it to aid agencies that don’t discriminate. That way, we punish anti-gay regimes but don’t cause suffering to poor vulnerable people who depend on foreign aid for water, food and medicine.
Should LGBT people from places like Uganda be allowed to seek asylum in the UK?
We support the right of LGBT people in homophobic countries to be granted asylum in Britain. But the asylum system in the UK is deliberately rigged to fail as many refugees as possible. It’s a completely shameful, irresponsible and cruel denial of asylum of people who have a genuine fear of persecution. It’s even worse for LGBT asylum applicants. They are routinely detained in detention centres, which are little
more than glorified prisons. Their sexuality is almost always questioned and disbelieved even when they present evidence from partners, ex partners, family and friends. It’s a shocking way to treat people who’ve often fled countries that arrest, torture and imprison and attempt to kill them.
David Cameron and Nick Clegg need to listen less to the ill-informed bigoted demands to cut asylum numbers, and judge each application on the evidence. It’s clearly unsafe for LGBT people to be forced back to severely repressive countries like Iran and Uganda. It’s a shocking betrayal of Britain’s obligations under the refugee convention.
It’s really hard to single out any one campaign. Obviously I do feel proud about my two attempted citizens arrests of President Mugabe of Zimbabwe but I’m also very glad that I named the ten Anglican bishops and called for them to tell the truth. It was a direct challenge to hypocrisy and homophobia within the church. I think confronting the then archbishop of Canterbury Dr George Carey in 1998, was another seminal moment that helped shine a spotlight on the church’s active opposition to gay equality.
Are there any particular low points?
For the first three decades it was often a lonely, desolate and very tough battle. We never made much progress in terms of legal equality although we did begin to change public opinion and the way in which institutions like the government and the education system treated LGBT people. I never for a moment thought about giving up. I just kept my eyes firmly fixed on the prize of equality. I kept going and ultimately, together with many other people, we have secured some amazing changes. In 1999 Britain had by volume the largest number of anti-gay laws of any country in the world. Today we’ve got some of the best.
Have you had any personal backlashes to your campaigns?
Yes in the 1980s in particular. Because of my high-profile queer activism, politicians and newspapers regularly vilified me. As a result, for many years I suffered with attacks on my home, including bricks through the window, arson attempts and even a bullet through my front door. I’ve been physically attacked over 150 times. Nearly all my teeth are chipped and cracked from the various assaults. When president Mugabe’s bodyguards beat me up in Brussels in 2001, it left me with permanent minor brain and eye damage. All of these injuries were made worse when I was beaten up by neo-nazies in Moscow in 2007. I carry on but with some difficulty.
Considering you’ve spent your entire life campaigning, do you find time for relationships?
I’m married to the campaign, so I haven’t got a partner at the moment.
Do you think you’ll always campaign?
I’m a restless soul. I can’t sit quietly and do nothing while other people are suffering. For me, it’s a moral imperative that we all speak out and campaign to end social injustice and human rights violations. I’ve been campaigning for human rights for 47 years. I’m hopeful that I can perhaps stretch to another 30 or so. It would be nice to cluck up 80 years of campaigning if I live that long. My Motto is don’t accept the world as it is, dream of what the world could be and then help make it happen.
You can find out more about Peter’s work or donate to the cause at www.petertatchellfoundation.org