“The motivation of all my human rights work is love,” says Londoner and political campaigner of 42 years Peter Tatchell.
“I love other people, I love freedom, liberty, justice and equality. What keeps me going through all the ups and downs, gains and setbacks of campaigning, is a simple idea: Don’t accept the world as it is, dream of what the world could be and then help make it happen.”
Brimming with zeal and dedication, the founder of the Peter Tatchell Foundation embodies this principle. Born in Melbourne, Australia, he was just 15 when he took his first foray into the world of campaigning in 1967. Prisoner Ronald Ryan was due to be hanged for shooting dead a warder while trying to escape from jail. Tatchell read about the autopsy report in a newspaper and worked out it would have been almost impossible for him to have shot the bullet. But Ryan was hanged anyway, the last person in Australia to be legally executed.
“That destroyed my trust and confidence in authority: the government, the police the courts,” says Tatchell.
“It made me a lifelong sceptic of authority and led me to question other things that were being done in our name: the way the Aboriginal people were being mistreated, Australia’s involvement in the war in Vietnam. And from the age of 17 when I realised I was gay, the persecution and oppression of gay people.”
Working tirelessly to secure better rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community is what Tatchell is best known for. But his comprehension of the world as one global, connected family has informed a huge variety of campaigns in all sorts of political and humanitarian directions. Counting Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Sylvia Pankhurst, “and to some extent” [writer and activist] Rosa Luxemburg and Malcolm X among his inspirations, Tatchell has joined their ranks in pushing against oppression, injustice and tyranny, charting a course for universal human emancipation.
“It’s impossible for me to identify any single one campaign as a high point in all the many campaigns I’ve done. But speaking personally, I’m very proud to have been involved in direct action campaigns such as the two attempted citizen’s arrests of President Robert Mugabe on charges of torture in Zimbabwe and the interruption of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter sermon in 1998 in opposition for his support of anti-gay discrimination. Of all the campaigns, the one that probably had the most direct and substantial effect on people’s lives was the Outrage! campaign against police harassment of the LGBT community.”
Tatchell has called London home for more than four decades, returning to streets which were familiar to his great grandfather before he left the city in the 1850s as part of a wave of Australian gold rushes. Tatchell loves the capital, thriving on the energy and many diverse expressions of life to be found here.
“It’s a great city: an incredible diversity of people and cultures, an enormous arts scene, a vibrant capital in terms of politics and campaigning,” says Tatchell.
But the nature of his work and wholehearted approach often leaves little room to sit back. “Under-funded and under-resourced”, it is not unusual for him to clock up 18 or 20-hour days, which he admits are incredibly stressful, but which also offer huge fulfilment.
Tatchell’s work has always been incredibly tough, with campaigns often seeming entirely unwinnable: to begin with at least.
“The biggest challenge in all my diverse different human rights campaigns has been to win hearts and minds and change government policy,” he says.
“Nearly all the campaigns I’ve been involved with have started out as fringe, minority issues. When I first began campaigning for LGBT freedom back in the late 1960s, there was very little public support and certainly no support at all from governments. Likewise with the initial campaign against apartheid, or the campaigns to secure independence for East Timor, those were initially very much on the outside, on the margins.
“I began campaigning for LGBT human rights way at the age of 17 and it’s taken half a century for us to end all the major legal discriminations. That has been a long, time-consuming, often heartbreaking process. For a lot of the time, public opinion was firmly against us and so were the governments of the day. But we persevered. And it was through our patience and determination we ultimately did change public attitudes and we did change government policy.”
Still, Tatchell shows no sign of taking his foot off the accelerator. He points to evidence that about half of all young LGBT people suffer from bullying in school, from teasing and name-calling to physical violence. Yet only some schools have an anti-bullying policy which specifically addresses homophobia and transphobia.
“I would like to see the introduction of mandatory lessons in equality and diversity to tackle all forms of prejudice from the very first year of primary school,” says Tatchell.
Peter on the cover of Gay lifestyle magazine Attitude.
“We know that young people are not born bigoted. They become bigoted because of the bad influences of peers and adults around them. Education in equality and diversity are key to tackling not only homophobic bullying in schools but also in creating a kinder, gentler, more compassionate society.”
While single mindedness has characterised Tatchell’s approach, he notes the enduring importance of listening to one’s critics, despite living in a society where online trolls are making their presence ever-felt.
“Valid, reasoned criticism is welcome and it’s important to take that on board. But there are some who spend all their time criticising, undermining, basically slandering and attacking others,” he reasons.
“That’s really hard to deal with. I’ve seen so many good, dedicated activists driven away because of sectarian infighting, smears, slurs and slanders. It’s got nothing to do with human rights.”
But these are a small, unrepresentative minority, he concludes, with nothing constructive to add, and Tatchell refuses to give them his attention.
“For me, the way to cope is to keep focused on the achievements, the support, the positive change. That ultimately outweighs any negative stuff that gets thrown at me, that’s what sustains me.
“The Peter Tatchell Foundation is all about striving to create and empower active citizens, people who can take an idea and ideal, a policy or a principle, and put it into practice.
“People who can make a difference. People like you.”
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