Peter Tatchell is not a new name for those who have been involved or interested in the campaign for human rights. Asiya Islam got a chance to hear him in person, here she writes about the inspiring story Peter Tatchell told.
Peter Tatchell is a name strongly associated with the international gay rights and human rights movement. You think of Peter, you think of courting arrest, you think of Pride march, you think of being unafraid. To then see the man in person, humble despite being extraordinary, was an amazing experience. After admiring him for years, I got a chance to hear Peter speak at Campfire organised by ditto TV (ditto TV has a fantastic line up for future Campfires, their ‘storytelling night’ on the third Thursday of every month).
Knowing Peter and his work, it was no surprise that he had come to Campfire just after a meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury to discuss the Church’s involvement in the issue of equal marriage rights. He nonchalantly recalled a time when he and other activists had gate-crashed the premises of Archbishop of Canterbury and ambushed him in order to get an audience; “shows how much has changed”, Peter reflected.
Peter was born in Melbourne, Australia in what he describes as a “conservative family”, not a typical leftist or radical background for someone to grow into a human rights activist, but a family that nevertheless taught him to always follow the right path, instead of blindly following the herd. Peter’s mother had chronic asthma and was often in hospital and Peter took charge of the household, including his younger siblings, when his mother was ill, learning to take responsibility from a very young age.
The younger teenage version of himself that Peter recalled seems to quite extraordinarily show signs of the man he is today. He started getting involved in activism from the age of 15, initiated by his reaction to the racially motivated bombing of a church in Alabama, Birmingham in 1963 which killed four black girls, all about Peter’s own age. This bombing marked an important point in the civil rights movement in the US, which Peter became involved with in due course.
The other event that affected Peter and brought him closer to activism was the hanging of Ronald Ryan, the last person to be legally executed in Australia. Ryan was convicted of killing a police officer during a prison escape, but defence argued that there were substantial discrepancies in the accusation of Ryan. The hanging was met with huge public protests in Australia and led to the abolition of the death penalty in the country.
Despite being a bright student at school, Peter couldn’t continue studying further because his family couldn’t afford it. He started working for a store in their art and design department. It was at his workplace that he first met other gay men, and it wasn’t until he was 17 that he realised that he is gay. He beautifully described his thoughts after his first experience of relationship with a man, “This is completely normal. What the hell is all this fuss about?!”
Peter was heavily influenced by the Black civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr, and was also inspired by Mohandas Gandhi and his strategies of non-violent civil disobedience in the Indian independence movement, and Sylvia Pankhurst because she “understood the complexity of women’s inequality”.
It was then only expected that he refused to enlist in the Australian army for the Vietnam war, and therefore left the country and moved to the UK in 1971. A few days after moving to the UK, he saw posters of the Gay Liberation Front in Oxford Street. The Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was founded in 1970 in a basement classroom at the London School of Economics and remained at the forefront of the gay rights movement in the UK for some time. Peter went along to the meeting of the GLF and, as they say, the rest is history.
Thereon, Peter participated in and led many protests, sit-ins in pubs, international demonstrations and so on. He went to Germany to attend the World Youth Festival on GLF’s behalf and caused a bit of stir by speaking about gay rights when given an opportunity to go on stage. Suffice to say, he was almost dragged off the stage. Peter also has an important history of activism in Zimbabwe. In the 1970s, he supported the black liberation struggle in the country. In 2001, when Mugabe visited Brussels, Peter attempted a citizen’s arrest. He was beaten up by Mugabe’s bodyguard, which left him with permanent eye and brain injuries.
His activism in the UK has similarly spanned many years. He recalled pub sit-ins of the 1970s, and referring to the ‘kiss-in’ outside John Snow pub after it ejected two men for kissing, Peter said he didn’t expect to be back at the same sites 40 years later. The case, as Peter rightly says, shows “how much remains to be achieved”.
Despite a lifetime of courageous championing of human rights, Peter doesn’t see himself as ‘brave’. He says he hasn’t been killed or tortured (as gay rights activists have been in other countries) and that risks are quite low in the UK. Peter’s humility, his non-acceptance of his own extraordinariness, makes him the exemplary human being that he is. It is summed up in his quote, which is as inspirational as he is: “Don’t accept the world as it is. Dream about what the world could be – then help make it happen.”
Peter Tatchell is Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation which seeks to promote and protect the human rights of individuals, communities and nations, in the UK and internationally, in accordance with established national and international human rights law.
Asiya Islam is a feminist blogger (www.whyamiafeminist.blogspot.com) and currently works as Equality and Diversity Adviser at LSE. She graduated with Master’s in Gender, Media and Culture from LSE in 2010.