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The LGBT+ activist

The LGBT+ activist

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For more than fifty years, Peter Tatchell has been fighting for LGBT+ rights. His work isn’t done yet

“The 1980s was a period when the LGBT+ community was under attack. The language that was thown at us in the 1980s had echoes of what the Nazis were saying about the Jews in the 1930s. We were effectively designated as the enemy within”

Peter Tatchell, Channel 4

That’s Peter Tatchell – one of the UK’s best known and most controversial LGBT+ campaigners.

He became a household name in the UK in the 1980s, when he ran to be a Labour MP in the London constituency of Bermondsey. 

He faced one of the most vicious and homophobic political campaigns in decades.

“It was a baptism of hell. I had over 150 assaults while out canvassing. Bricks and bottles through the window and even a bullet posted through my front door.”

Peter Tatchell, BBC News

But Peter Tatchell was already familiar with controversy.

A campaigner since the age of 15, on issues including the death penalty and the Vietnam War, Peter Tatchell was one of around 40 members of the Gay Liberation Front who organised London’s first Pride march in 1972.

“We chose the name gay pride as a counter to the predominant mainstream view that we were supposed to be ashamed of being gay, and indeed many LGBT+ people were ashamed of their sexuality or gender identity…gay pride was to affirm our sense of self-worth in who we were..”

Peter Tatchell, Sarah O’Connell Show

At the time, discrimination against LGBT+ people was commonplace.

Gay sex was still illegal in parts of the UK, including Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The age of consent for homosexual couples was 21, while for straight people it was 18.

Same-sex civil marriage wouln’t be allowed for another quarter of a century.

The World Health Organisation even classified same-sex attraction as a mental illness.

And when HIV/AIDS arrived in Britain in the 1980s, gay people felt even more isolated.

“The HIV AIDs pandemic resulted in us being demonised and was dubbed the gay plague.”

Peter Tatchell, Channel 4

Against this background, Peter Tatchell has dedicated his life to fighting for LGBT+ rights, and other human rights, around the world.

That’s often meant putting himself directly in harms way to draw attention to an important cause.

In 1973, he was arrested by East German secret police for staging an LGBT+ protest.

In 1998, when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, was openly against bringing the age of consent for homosexual people in line with the age for heterosexual people, Tatchell stormed the pulpit.

“Dr Carey supports discrimination against lesbian and gay people. He opposes lesbian and gay human rights.”

Peter Tatchell

In 2001, he attempted a citizens arrest of the Zimbabwe dictator, Robert Mugabe, for his regime’s use of torture against critics and opponents.

“I put you under arrest on charges of torture under the United Nations Convention against Torture [inaudible] under international law, President Mugabe, you are under arrest! Ow!”

Peter Tatchell attempting a citizens arrest of Mugabe

A year later, he challenged the boxer Mike Tyson for using a homophobic slur, encouraging the heavyweight to change his language.

And in 2007, he was arrested during a one-man protest in front of the Kremlin, in Russia.

Tatchell’s methods of direct action weren’t popular with everyone. 

He has been arrested more than one hundred times and assaulted more than three hundred times. 

Repeated attacks, including by Mugabe’s security and Russian neo-Nazis, have left him with brain damage. His home has been targeted on more than fifty occasions. All the teeth in his mouth have been chipped and cracked in fights.

There’s even a documentary on Netflix about his life and activism called Hating Peter Tatchell.

At times his life has been, he says, like living through a “low level civil war.”

But after so many years, the impact of his work is clear.

ITV News reporter: “50 years ago a small disturbance in Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, New York, gave birth to a movement that led to this. This is the pride in London parade…”


ITV News reporter: “What does pride mean to you?”

Pride crowd: “Happiness!

“Equality.”

“Love is love, and everyone’s equal”

ITV News report

***

This summer will be fifty years since around 2000 people participated in London’s first Pride.

These days, 1.5 million people visit the city for a parade that’s more like a party, involving 30,000 marchers and dancers of all ages, ethnicities and classes.

Discrimination against LGBT+ people still exists – but it is now illegal.

Many people who were once made to feel ashamed of their sexuality or gender identity can now be open and proud about who they are.

It wouldn’t be like this if campaigners like Peter Tatchell hadn’t fought tirelessly against discrimination.

“It was never just me – it has been the collective effort of our entire community that has brought about the changes that we have won.”

Peter Tatchell, Channel 4

The importance of his work is now being recognised by the same institutions of power he once fought against. 

He was even invited to be declared a “national Treasure” at the Queen’s platinum jubilee pageant next month – but turned it down, arguing that the monarch has ignored LGBT+ rights throughout her reign.

After all, Peter Tatchell’s work isn’t done.

According to Human Rights Watch, in at least 68 countries, same-sex relations between consenting adults is illegal. In seven, it carries the death penalty. 

In at least three countries it is explicitly illegal to “pose as” or “imitate” a person of a different sex, meaning transgender expression is outlawed. In practice, it is banned in many other countries, too.

And though LGBT+ rights have come a long way in Britain since the 1970s, homophobic hate crime is on the rise here too, and trans people are still fighting hard for recognition and support.

It’s a good reminder of something Peter Tatchell knows well: that human rights aren’t simply given out. They are fought for.

Today’s episode was written by Ellen Halliday and mixed by Imy Harper.