Many-year Battles

Hating Peter Tatchell is a feature documentary about the profound life story of the controversial human rights campaigner whose provocative acts of civil disobedience rocked the establishment, revolutionised attitudes to homosexuality and exposed tyrants in the fight for equality. Peter has been a friend of Fyne since the early days, so we couldn’t not feature him during our 20th anniversary year. Here he tells Sam Bennett about his new film, arduous working hours, and plans for this year’s Pride season.

We must start with your documentary, Hating Peter Tatchell. Great title.
The director, Christopher Amos, early on decided he wanted my name in the title, plus one other word, to make it short and snappy. He settled on Hating when he realised the ferocious hatred that my 54 years of campaigns have generated among homophobes and far right extremists.

The film’s opening is essentially a montage of you being assaulted. What do you feel now when you see such footage?

It’s quite unnerving to see and remember all those bashings. They were frightening and have left me with damaged cognition and eyesight. But I have no regrets. I knew the risks and, somewhat perversely, being beaten up helped expose the human rights abusers that I was targeting.

Of course, it’s about your activism but your personal life too. Is the latter difficult to speak about and do you even separate the two? 

I’ve got no objection to speaking about my personal life in principle. However, the focus of my work is campaigning for the causes I champion. It’s not about me. I’m the messenger, not the message.

Stonewall have disagreed with your tactics in the past. Is it therefore significant that one of its founders, Ian McKellen, interviews you for Hating Peter Tatchell?

I was hugely honoured to be interviewed by Ian McKellen. Although he is aligned with Stonewall, he’s long supported much of my work. Like me, Ian understands that to be successful the LGBT+ movement needs insider lobbyists like Stonewall and outsiders like me who shake up and challenge the establishment. Stonewall is the equivalent of the mainstream suffragists, whereas I modelled my campaigns on the direct action protests of the suffragettes. We need both.

You stood as Labour Party candidate in the 1983 Bermondsey by-election. What’s your relationship to Labour these days and do you view it as a worthy opposition in its current form?

I left Labour in 2000, disenchanted with its rightward drift under Tony Blair. A few years later I joined the Green Party. However, I still feel
an affinity with Labour’s many radical grassroots members – and I collaborate with them on equality campaigns. Under Keir Starmer, Labour has reverted to Blairism lite. Nevertheless, the Tories are the main roadblock to social justice. To oust them, I support a progressive alliance of Labour, Greens, Lib Dems, SNP, Plaid Cymru and the SDLP. Unite the many to defeat the few!

I know you receive 1,000-2,000 messages per day, your huge workload and long hours are talked about in Hating Peter Tatchell, and our most recent correspondence comprises emails sent by you at 2am. Are you going to take a week or two off any time soon?

Sadly not. I’d love to have a proper holiday but the human rights demands are so great and urgent. Despite working 12-16 hours a day, I love what I do and know it helps make a difference.

Do you find any time for self-care?

The closest thing to a break is a movie once a week, a TV series over dinner (I’m currently watching The Great), and a jog to the local nature reserve where I spend 15 minutes quietly contemplating the wild flowers and birdsong.

What are you reading at the moment?

I am re-reading Sheila Rowbotham’s biography of Edward Carpenter, the great 19th-century gay philosopher and LGBT+ campaigner. He also championed feminism, socialism, environmentalism and animal rights. A true trailblazer.

In the film you talk about not dwelling on victories – what constitutes a victory for you?

By victory, I mean a successful campaign like the one that I and many others won when we secured a pardon for Alan Turing and other men convicted under Britain’s past homophobic laws against gay sex.

Are there any battles, personal or political, that you’ve accepted as simply unwinnable?

No battle is unwinnable but some may take many years. When OutRage! and I began the fight for same-sex marriage in 1992, we were told it was unwinnable. Yet, 21 years later, it became reality. I want to see 10% of global military spending switched to fund a UN programme to end hunger, preventable diseases, homelessness, destitution and illiteracy worldwide. I fear it might be decades before this happens but I’m still trying.

For this issue you’ve told us you’d like to see a sexuality and gender revolution in the next 20 years. How do you start such a revolution?

Such a revolution has already started, with nearly a quarter of UK youth having had a same-sex experience and 49% saying they are not 100% straight. Plus we are seeing the explosion of trans, pansexual, non- binary, gender fluid, asexual and other diverse identities. Our main task is to now reform laws and institutions to recognise and accept them.

In the past 20 years, have U schools progressed enough in terms of becoming safe spaces for LGBTQIA+ kids? 

Although things have improved, nearly half of all young LGBTs say they are, or were, bullied at school. Clearly there is a long way to go. The increase in pupil-led LGBT/equality networks is a hopeful sign.

How do you intend to spend this year’s Pride season?

I am coordinating a Reclaim Pride march in London. Pride in London has lost its way. This alternative march will be grassroots, community-based, with no corporations. It will lead with LGBT+ human rights demands like ban conversion therapy, reform the Gender Recognition Act, and support LGBT+ refugees.

Hating Peter Tatchell is out now on Netflix. To find out more about Reclaim Pride, please sign up for free to receive Peter’s weekly email bulletin: petertatchell /join-us

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