Britain’s most famous human rights campaigner talks about his daily routine and how it’s rare that he ever gets a night off from his constant work.
I go to sleep every night with a siren alarm, fire extinguisher and rope ladder beside my bed – in case of another attack. I’ve had hundreds of attacks over the years: bottles and bricks through the windows, three fire bombs and a bullet through the letterbox.
My flat is a fortress, with iron bars over the windows, a steel-reinforced front door and the hallway is fire-proofed.
During my 46 years of LGBT and human rights campaigning I’ve challenged and upset a lot of dictators, fascists, homophobes and racists. Hate mail and death threats are a regular part of my life.
There have been plots to kill me by neo-Nazis, Islamists, agents of the Mugabe regime and supporters of the Jamaican ‘murder music’ dancehall singers who incite the killing of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. For periods, I’ve been under armed police protection.
Fortunately, the worst that’s happened to me is a bloodied face, smashed teeth and some minor brain and eye damage from the beatings by President Mugabe’s goons in Brussels in 2001 and by far right nationalists in Moscow in 2007.
I’ve got off lightly compared to heroic human rights defenders in countries like Iran, Russia, Pakistan and Zimbabwe. Many of them have been jailed, tortured and killed.
Despite the menaces I’ve experienced, I enjoy what I do.
My daily life is an exhilarating rollercoaster of excitement, chaos, improvisation, crisis, idealism and fulfilment. It’s often stressful and exhausting but I love human rights work. It is much more rewarding than any cushy, well-paid professional job.
Being under-funded and with only one assistant, I have to do most of the hard graft and routine tasks myself. I make placards, deliver leaflets and organise my own travel.
Usually, I work 14-16 hours a day, seven days a week. No wonder I am single. What man would put up with me?
In the middle of a busy campaign, like the current movement for marriage equality, I sometimes get by on one hour’s sleep. I last had a proper holiday in 2008. I often joke: holidays and nights off are for wimps.
I mostly work from my tiny one-bedroom council flat, which is on a huge sprawling municipal housing project about a mile south of Big Ben in a neighbourhood called Elephant and Castle. I’ve lived there for 34 years – not by choice but by poverty. Having been unpaid for most of my last four decades of campaigning, I haven’t been able to afford to move to something better. Never mind!
A typical day starts at around 9am, after having gone to bed at 3am to 5am and having had way too little sleep. I work a lot in the after-midnight hours to meet early morning deadlines to deliver articles for publication, and to prepare campaign briefings and news releases for the coming day.
I operate on a 24-hour clock; constantly connecting with activists and media in different time zones. At 12 midnight in London, I am hooking up with campaigners in New York (five hours behind London) and in Sydney (10 hours ahead of London). It sometimes gets confusing.
I begin my day with a raw lemon juice detox, which is also a big energy boost, and then do a workout in the hallway: sets of 60 push ups and 120 sit-ups on alternate days. Keeping fit makes me a more effective activist. If I did not look after myself, I’d be quickly worn down by the stress and workload.
Most days I receive around 800 emails, phone calls, tweets and facebook messages. Some are requests for help from victimised individuals – mostly concerning asylum, discrimination and hate crimes. A volunteer, Raks, now does most of this individual casework.
There are also lots of invitations to speak, write and be interviewed. It is such an honour to be asked. I feel so humbled.
But a majority of the messages relate to my several simultaneous campaigns in the UK and abroad.
As well as equal marriage, my UK campaigns include economic democracy, alternatives to austerity, asylum reform and challenges to homophobia in sport, religious fundamentalism and far right extremism.
My international work involves supporting democracy, human rights and LGBT movements in countries such as Uganda, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Baluchistan, West Papua and China. To me, it is really important that campaigners in rich, democratic countries support and empower our brothers and sisters who are campaigning in poor countries and in dictatorships.
LGBT rights and other human rights are universal and indivisible. Everyone’s freedom is important.
Either I or my assistant James try to answer the daily deluge of messages but it is impossible to keep up with the vast volume. I want to say ‘yes’ to everyone but sadly I can accept only a tiny fraction of the invitations I receive. I feel bad that I am letting people down.
At around 12 noon I have breakfast-lunch: normally oats with yogurt, nuts and mixed fruits; plus a multi-vitamin pill. I’m quite fierce about eating healthily. Sometimes the phone rings almost non-stop. I often end up eating only one mouthful between calls. Finishing a meal can take an hour or more.
The rest of the day involves either writing an article, giving a speech, doing media interviews, organising campaigns or joining a protest – and sometimes doing a bit of all of them. There’s never a repetitive or dull moment.
I am always rushing from one task to the next. So many campaigns, so little time. I’m trying to cram too much into every day. Invariably, I nearly miss trains and planes, and arrive at speaking engagements and interviews at the very last minute. I am time-impoverished.
The pressure of so many tasks to cram into each day means that I often eat way too late – at 10pm or midnight. My evening meal is usually lots of fresh uncooked vegetables with a mix of nuts, cheese, eggs (no meat) and pasta or bread drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with crushed garlic. Washed down with a glass of red wine. Delicious and nutritious.
Then back to work for another few hours.
By bedtime, I am knackered. I’m so tired that I never have problems sleeping, despite all the strain and pressure I am under. In two minutes, I’m out like a light.
What keeps me going day after day? Idealism, passion and a belief that something better is possible. My motto and inspiration is this:
“Don’t accept the world as it is. Dream of what the world could be – and then help make it happen.”
This article was first published in the Huffington Post.