Peter Tatchell has been a LGBTI and human rights activist since the sixties. I got an opportunity to interview him about events that have shaped the LGBTQIA movement over the years.
You have been a human rights activist since the 1960s and are passionate about your work. When you began you were one of very few activists in the UK. What made you begin on this journey?
PT: My passion for human rights began when, aged 11, I heard about the bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, in 1963. Four young black girls my own age were killed by white racists. I was horrified that anyone could kill another human being, let alone four young girls in a church on Sunday morning. That triggered my support for the black civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King.
But my first active campaign was not until 1967, when I was 15. It was against the death penalty in my hometown of Melbourne, Australia. A prisoner, Ronald Ryan, allegedly shot dead a prison warder during a jail escape. I read a newspaper report about the autopsy, which mentioned the bullet’s trajectory through killed warder’s body. I worked out that it would have been almost physically impossible for Ryan to have fired the fatal bullet, given where he and the warder were standing when the shot was fired. Ryan was hanged anyway, even though there was reasonable doubt about his guilt. I was shocked. Up until that time, I believed the government, the police, and the courts, were there to serve the people, but from that moment onwards I had an abiding scepticism towards authority. I thought to myself, what else are they doing that is wrong? I also campaigned, while still in high school, for the rights of the Aboriginal people and against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
It was not until 1969, at the age of 17, that I realised I was gay and began to campaign for LGBT rights – very much modelled on the ideas and methods of the black civil rights movement, including their tactics of non-violent direct action and civil disobedience. When I came to London in 1971, aged 19, I immediately immersed myself in the newly formed Gay Liberation Front, helping organise many of their daring, provocative protests, such as sit-ins in pubs that refused to serve ‘queers’, and against the Christian anti-LGBT movement the Festival of Light.
I’m aware that you have met legends such as Quentin Crisp, Peter Wildeblood and I believe you were a good friend of Dudley Cave. Do you feel that these pioneers are in danger of being lost in history?
PT: Sadly many of the pioneers of our movement are forgotten – not just the ones you mention but also Tony Dyson, Allan Horsfall, Jackie Forster, Antony Grey, Esme Langley and many others. We are in danger of a new generation of LGBT people who know nothing of the past heroes and heroines who took great personal risks to trail-blaze the freedoms we now enjoy.
Quentin Crisp couldn’t understand the need for equal rights. Is this true and do you think this a mindset of a different generation? Can you shed some light on this way of thinking?
PT: I love and admire Quentin Crisp in many ways. It took incredible courage to be an out and flamboyant queer (his word) in the 1940s and 50s. But he never embraced the LGBT movement. He hated it. I only ever met Quentin once. It was a brief encounter in Charing Cross road in 1974. I was 22 and wearing a gay liberation badge, which prompted Quentin to retort: “What do you want liberation from?” He continued in a similar vein, dismissing the idea of gay pride: “What is there to be proud of? I don’t believe in rights for homosexuals.” This sad conversation sums up what Quentin Crisp had become by the 1970s: an often self-hating, arrogant, homophobic gadfly. He denounced the gay rights movement and slammed homosexuality as “a terrible disease.”
“The world would be better without homosexuals,” he declared. In 1997, he told The Times that he would advise parents to abort a foetus if could be shown to be genetically predetermined to be gay: “If it (homosexuality) can be avoided, I think it should be.” Other notorious Crispisms include his suggestion that gay men are so self-centred that they are incapable of love, and lack the capacity to care about the welfare of other people. This supposed lack of altruism is, according to Quentin, because most gay men have “feminine minds.” He was a misogynist, as well as a homophobe.
One of my earliest memories of you was the bitter election of Bermondsey by election in February 1983, when you fought hard against a backlash of homophobia. At the time how did this make you feel and looking back what did you learn?
PT: I was the left-wing pro-LGBT rights Labour candidate, at a time when most politicians opposed LGBT equality. Described by many commentators as the dirtiest, most violent and homophobic by-election in modern British history, I faced an anti-gay onslaught by the Liberals, four fascist candidates, Real Labour, and the tabloid press. It was like living through a low-level civil war. I was assaulted over 100 times in the street and while canvassing. There were 30 attacks on my flat, two attempts by car drivers to run me down, an arson attack on my home and a bullet was posted through my letterbox in the middle of the night. I received hundreds of hate letters, including 30 threats to kill me. Anti-Tatchell slogans were painted throughout the constituency, on dozens of walls, hoardings and bridges, including: “Tatchell is queer”, “Tatchell is a communist poof” and “Tatchell is a n*gger-lover”. I had to board up my flat. There was a neo-fascist lynch mob mentality stirred against me. At many moments I feared for my life. The anti-LGBT hatred bought home to me the scale of savage homophobia that still existed. It prompted me to give up work and volunteer full-time unpaid for LGBT rights for the next 28 years.
In Part two: Peter talks about Outrage, overseas projects and transgender issues.
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