PinkNews.co.uk’s editor, Benjamin Cohen meets Peter Tatchell of the human rights group OutRage! to discuss gay rights, the progress made in Britain and whether Robert Mugabe could be considered a closet case.
Climbing the steps of a slightly dingy south London housing estate, you have little sense that you are on route to the headquarters of one of Britain’s foremost human rights campaign groups. But it is from his council estate flat that Peter Tatchell, leader of OutRage!, the gay human rights organisation, plans and executes his often daring, colourful campaigns.
The door to Peter Tatchell’s flat is adorned with a discreet notice from the Metropolitan Police warning would be vigilantes that their actions are being monitored. Walking through the recently installed door, one finds a mound of papers, covering every clear space. The whole of the small one bedroom flat is an office with full of newspaper cuttings, books, files and placards. There’s a tiny gap, carefully freed of paper on the sofa for me to sit on and a wooden chair that Tatchell lowers himself onto as we begin a lengthy chat about the work that he does.
For those outside of Britain, it is worth pointing out that for twenty years, the name “Peter Tatchell” has put the fear of god inside the hearts of men and women who have acted in an anti-gay manner. He has become a legend, both feared and respected by the establishment, responsible for the public outing of many a bishop and politician.
A native of Australia, I began by asking how he found his way to a council flat in a south London housing estate: “I wanted to travel anyway but leaving Australia was about my refusal to be drafted into the Australian army to fight the war in Vietnam. I felt it was an unjust, immoral and genocidal war. I was not prepared to fight it and so I skipped the country and came to London in 1971.
My intention was to stay for a couple of years and then return but I fell in love, got a good job and became heavily involved in the newly formed Gay Liberation Front.
By 1980, Tatchell had established himself as a leading member of his local Labour party, rising to the post of secretary. The following year he was chosen to contest the Bermondsey Southwark seat. The by-election took place in 1983. In a bitter election, eventually won by the now openly bisexual Simon Hughes (then of the Liberal party), Tatchell established his place in the public consciousness.
But what if he had of succeeded and been elected? Would he have come out of the closet immediately? “If I had of been elected, my plan was to get together with a few other MPs and issue a joint declaration confirming our gayness and our commitment to work for lesbian and gay human rights.
“If the other MPs were not willing to do that, my plan was to come out anyway. Chris Smith came out shortly after that.”
In an interesting exercise in political what-ifs, Tatchell speculated on his likely career as an MP: “There are two options, I could have remained a back bench rebel like Jeremy Corybn or another more frightening prospect is that I could have got sucked into the New Labour project, maybe even as a cabinet minister.” How does it make him feel to realise how close he came to being an establishment figure?” It’s scary, yes. Scary, very scary.”
I ask him if he considers that he is an establishment figure in any case, as most of the political elite, have changed their views on homosexuality or in the very least respect him as a political figure: “It shows that if you remain consistent over a long period of time then even your most harsh critics will eventually develop a grudging respect. It’s taken a bloody long time. But there’s sweetness in the vindication that I have received in recent years.
Despite cutting his ties with Labour and switching to the Green party, he does heap some praises on Tony Blair and his government for the changes that have occurred in recent years. “There is no doubt that the Labour government has brought in some very positive and welcome reforms. Without a Labour government those reforms would not have happened. We owe a great deal of debt to the Labour MPs.
“But that doesn’t excuse the ongoing blocking of LGBT rights and welfare by the government. Labour wants to ban lesbians from receiving fertility treatment on the NHS. It refuses to prosecute Muslim clerics who openly incite the murder of gays and lesbians. These people say we should be killed. That is a crime against British law. Why aren’t they being prosecuted? It’s quite monstrous. A Muslim cleric who advocated the killing of Jews got put in prison.”
Tatchell gained much notoriety through his public outing of religious and political figures in the 1990s. However, he has been unusually quiet of late.
“We haven’t done it recently, but we haven’t thrown away the tactic. If people in public life are abusing their power and authority to hurt and harm gay people, while themselves leading secret gay lives, then that hypocrisy deserves to be exposed.
We’ve never outed anyone because they are gay, only because of their hypocrisy and homophobia. The bishops we named were not harmless innocents. They were people who endorsed the Church’s anti-gay stance and in many cases quite ostentatiously condemned and attacked gay people. When people behave in that way they deserve to be exposed.”
I ask him why there are still gay MPs who vote against equality but he has yet to out. “Are there?” he asks, “do you want to name them? Perhaps you could send us their names in a brown envelope.”
Surprised, I say: “You weren’t aware of any left?” “No,” the stark reply, but his eyes lighting up he adds: “If you advise me, I’d be very happy to send them a polite letter.”
“A decade ago, when we wrote a letter to 20 MPs warning them that they would be exposed for their anti-gay stance, two of them got in contact pretty promptly and said we were making a valid point, and that hence forth they’d vote for equality, which they did. Several others didn’t contact us but they did begin switching from voting in favour of discrimination to voting for equality. So the threat of outing had a positive effect. We’re not ashamed at all that we used a bit of leverage and pressure to encourage them in that direction.”
I ask him why he thinks that people behave in such a manner. “I think it’s often because they see it as a defence mechanism, to deflect suspicion and rumours away from their own sexuality. It’s also a form of over-compensation for people who can not deal with their own same sex desires and therefore lash out by pointing the finger at others.”
Tatchell points to research conducted by Professor Henry Adams of the University of Georgia. He split a group of 100% heterosexual men into two groups, one comfortable with gay people and one aggressively bigoted against gay people. “He then put them in a video suite and wired them into a plethysmograph, an elasticated penile circumference measuring device, which records sexual arousal. He showed them gay porn videos and found that 80% of the anti-gay men got aroused. His conclusion was that that homophobia is often an expression of a latent homosexuality that the person can not recognise or accept.”
The subject neatly follows onto a discussion of Zimbabwe president, Robert Mugabe who Tatchell mockingly describes as the “Queen of Tyranny.”
“He’s obsessed. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mugabe is himself a closet, self loathing, repressed queen. He fits the archetype. His demonstrative, ostentatious, anti-gay tirades, must lead us to question why he is so obsessed with homosexuality.
“When you meet him in person, he is mildly effeminate. I know that doesn’t mean anything, but he is not a macho type at all. If you saw Mugabe in a café or in a social gathering, you might assume he is gay.”
Tickled pink with laughter, Tatchell adds: “the way he holds his tea cup, his little pinky finger sticks out. When you meet him in person, he comes across a bit soft and quite pernickety, like a prissy queen.”
Does Tatchell then believe that Mugabe is gay? “Who knows? I suspect he could be one of Professor Adams’s 80% of homophobic men who are secret, repressed, self-hating fags.”
Mugabe certainly has Tatchell on his mind. He recently claimed that the gay rights leader was plotting to stage a coup in Zimbabwe.
“Mugabe’s government has spun this story about a coup plot in order to discredit the opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). I’ve been woven into the plot because Mugabe’s cronies think that associating an openly gay person will help discredit the MDC.
“In October 1999, four of us from OutRage! ambushed Mugabe’s motorcade in London. I opened the car door and placed him under arrest. Then in 2001, I attempted another citizen’s arrest, this time in Brussels whilst he was on a state visit to see the Belgian prime minister. I ambushed him in the Hilton Hotel lobby. I was beaten unconscious by his bodyguards. This has left me with minor brain and eye damage.
“The fact that it was gay people who have attempted to bring Mugabe to justice has resulted in many Zimbabweans rethinking their attitudes to homosexuality. I think our actions in defence of the Zimbabwean people have helped break down homophobia. Most Zimbabweans now seem unfazed by Mugabe’s gay smears.”
His other opponent of late appears to be the Respect MP George Galloway who has also taken part in this series of interviews. “Respect is, by their own admission, courting the Muslim vote. No problem with that. But they have made the erroneous assumption that all Muslims are sexist and homophobic. For that reason, they tend to down play their support for women’s and gay rights. Whenever the gay community is attacked by Islamic fundamentalists, Respect nearly always sides with the fundamentalists against the gay community. It shows their opportunist politics. They are not true and reliable friends of LGBT people.”
But surely George Galloway is a friend of the gay community I ask. “He used to be a good friend until a few years ago. He had a very good voting record on LGBT issues. But since he’s formed Respect and attempted to court the Muslim vote, he has quietly sidelined his support for gay rights.”
Turning back to his crowded, life I ask him what a typical day is like. “It runs to 16 hours, 7 days a week. It’s not a way of life I want to live. It’s having a very damaging effect on my emotional and physical health.” I ask him if he’s happy: “Not really, there are moments of happiness when we publicise a terrible injustice, win an asylum case or overturn a conviction, but it’s unbelievably stressful.”
But surely, I ask, having spent most of your life fighting for these causes, you would miss it? “Sometimes, I think I wouldn’t. Sometimes I day-dream about running away to some far flung island – not to Zimbabwe – somewhere like Mauritius maybe.
“The big thing I need is an office with at least 2 or 3 paid staff to help me copy with the phenomenal workload. I would love to have evenings and weekends off. I think I deserve it, I’ve been doing human rights campaigning for nearly forty years.”
“You can see this is not a home; this is an office. There are papers piled up everywhere, I can hardly move. I have to tip toe and navigate around the piles. There’s no space for any more filing cabinets. I dream about one day reclaiming my bedroom as a bedroom and my living room as a living room.”
I ask him if he can switch off. “I want to but it is hard. A couple of days ago, I got three new asylum claims in a single day.” Regaining his energy, he bounds into a passionate argument pointing out: “these (asylum claimants) are people who are facing imminent deportation unless I do something. They are in mortal danger if they are returned to their home countries. The government bears direct personal responsibility for turning away genuine asylum seekers. With all the asylum applicants I’ve dealt with, only one has had proper legal representation. That’s why they fail and get sent back. The legal aid system for asylum seekers is wholly inadequate. For £286, no solicitor can prepare a proper asylum case.”
Peter Tatchell, partly through choice and partly through circumstances beyond his control has found himself a spokesperson for the gay community. Some might argue that he is a self appointed guardian who is unrepresentative of the community, even I used to think that.
Having met Peter now a number of times, you can see that whilst he is clearly passionate about his causes, he is not always enjoying himself. He is exhausted from decades of campaigning and is yearning for a rest. Perhaps the many people who have benefited from his efforts owe him something to keep him going. He is clearly not a young rebel any more. Whatever he thinks, if he’s not yet an establishment figure, he’s loudly knocking on the window to be let in.