Peter Tatchell, the LGBTQ+ activist that organised the London Pride 2020

Peter Tatchell is a human rights campaigner, a member of the gay rights group OutRage! and the left wing of the Green party. He is also director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, a human rights organisation 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.

Peter Tatchell was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1952 and has been campaigning since 1967 on issues of human rights, democracy, civil liberties, LGBT equality and global justice. In 2009, he co-proposed a UN Global Human Rights Index, to measure and rank the human rights record of every country – with the aim of creating a human rights league table to highlight the best and worst countries and thereby incentivise governments to clean up their record and improve their human rights ranking.

He has proposed an internationally-binding UN Human Rights Convention enforceable through both national courts and the International Criminal Court; a permanent rapid-reaction UN peace-keeping force with the authority to intervene to stop genocide and war crimes; and a global agreement to cut military spending by 10 percent to fund the eradication of hunger, disease, illiteracy, unemployment and homelessness in the developing world.

Peter has a lot to tell about his life, his experiences, and the London Pride 2020 that he organised during the pandemic with the London Gay Liberation Front to mark its 50th anniversary.

How would you describe yourself and identify?

Gay man, human rights campaigner, green left politics, non-religious, mountain trekker, dance music aficionado and ally of trans people and Black Lives Matter.

How was living through the Margaret Thatcher Section 28 and also the HIV years?

Living through the 1980s AIDS pandemic was like living through a war; so many young men I knew died ghastly deaths. Almost every time I went clubbing someone would be missing – sick or dead. It was traumatic. The Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made it worse with her ceaseless attacks on the LGBT+ community. She pursued us with her family values and Victorian values campaigns and then Section 28, the first new anti-LGBT+ law in Britain for a century. This was an era of rising queer-bashing violence and escalating arrests of gay and bisexual men. We were demonised and treated like the enemy within.

What does activism mean to you? You have devoted a big part of your life campaigning for LGBTQ+ rights and equality

An activist is an LGBT+ person who has got up off their knees, stood tall and proud and refused to be kicked around anymore. My activism began in 1967 when I was 15 years old and still at school. That’s 53 years of human rights campaigning. I was involved in the Gay Liberation Front in London, 1971-74, and then later in the incredibly effective direct action protests by OutRage! from 1990-2011. By getting LGBT+ issues in the news and on the political agenda, OutRage! helped raise public awareness about the vast scale of anti-LGBT+ discrimination and put the straight establishment under pressure to change.

How different was London life when you were a young gay man compared to now?

Until I was 15 years old, homosexuality was illegal and punishable by life imprisonment in the UK. I remained a criminal until I reached 21 – which was the then lawful age of consent for gay men (it was 16 for heterosexuals). Back then, there were no public figures who were openly LGBT+. The medical and psychiatric professions labelled homosexuality an illness. The only time gay people ever appeared in the news was when they were exposed as spies, murderers or sex abusers. There was no mention of same-sex relations in school sex education lessons. Gay life was on the margins of society. We were outcasts. But we had great resolve and survived, despite all the bigotry thrown at us.

When did you decide to become part of the Gay Liberation Front?

I joined GLF in 1971. I was a thrilling experience to join with thousands of other out, proud and defiant LGBTs. We were taking on the homophobia of centuries, with our revolutionary slogan: “Gay is Good!” It challenged the prevailing view that LGBTs were bad – and sad and mad! GLF was the first time that thousands of LGBT+ people came out and protested in the streets for our rights. It had never happened before in the UK.

Was it difficult to be gay in the 60s?

There was always the fear of arrest or blackmail. It was legal in the 1960s to sack a gay person from their job or evict them from rented accommodation. The National Health Service was giving some LGBTs electric shocks to cure their “perversion”. There were few gay bars and no sizeable clubs anywhere in the UK. There were no gay magazines and only three gay organisations in the whole of the country. Same-sex couples could get arrested for merely kissing or dancing together. Nevertheless, some LGBT+ people, including me, were able to lead happy lives, albeit with some degree of self-censorship and discretion. All that changed with the advent of the Gay Liberation Front. Discretion and self-censorship went out the window.

How did people flirt in the 60s and 70s?

Back then, gay people met via cryptic dating ads in obscure magazines, public toilets, gay bars if you lived in a large city, private gay parties in people’s homes or at gay cruising places like Piccadilly Circus or Hampstead Heath. But it was risky. You could get arrested or gay-bashed. Blackmail was a danger too. A straight guy could catfish you and then threaten to tell your neighbour or employer, or turn you over to the police, unless you paid him money. 

When did you come out?

I began to come out when I realised I was gay in 1969, aged 17. At first, I did not tell my parents. They were Christian fundamentalists and I was worried they might call the police or force me into psychiatric treatment. Coming out back then was risky. You could be refused employment, straight friends might dump you and homophobic insults were frequent.

How did you decide to establish the “Peter Tatchell Foundation”? What is your mission and how has it evolved over the years?

The Peter Tatchell Foundation was not started by me. It was set up by friends and supporters in 2011. They were concerned that I had been working on LGBT+ and other human rights issues for four decades without a salary, office or staff. I was paying for everything out of my own pocket and was being held back from campaigns by a lack of funds. Our mission is to promote human rights for LGBTs and everyone in the UK and worldwide. Given our limited resources, we tend to work mostly on issues that many other campaigners are not, such as solidarity with LGBTs and democracy campaigners in places like Russia, Hong Kong, Zimbabwe and Iran.   

How was the first pride different to what it is now?

I was one of about 40 people who organised the UK’s first Pride parade in London in 1972. In those days, few LGBT+ people were open about their sexuality or gender identity. Only 1,000 turned up. It was a celebration march but also political, with calls for the repeal of anti-LGBT+ laws. Some of the police on duty were openly homophobic and heavy handed. We received a mix of public approval, indifference and hostility. A few people shouted insults and threats, spat at us and threw cans and coins. The police let them do that. They were not arrested. But we were proud, defiant and undeterred.

Do you think that Pride marches are something that should continue to exist?

Pride will be necessary for as long as there are people who think same-sex love is wrong (currently about one in six of the UK population), and as long as we face unequal treatment and violence. The blood service still discriminates against gay blood donors. LGBT+ asylum seekers are often put in detention centres, refused refuge and ordered back to countries where they are at risk of jail, torture and murder. A third of LGBT+ people have been victims of hate crime and nearly half of LGBT+ pupils at have been bullied at school. There are still battles to fight and win.

Do you think LGBT people are more privileged now than people in your generation?

Today’s LGBT+ generation are so lucky, compared to my generation. As well as the right to get married and adopt kids if they wish, they have legal protection against discrimination and can enjoy so many gay cubs, magazines and support organisations. 

How has this global pandemic affected the LGBTQ+ scene in the UK?

LGBT+ venues have had to close for three months and even now can only reopen with restricted service. I fear that some will eventually close completely. Like the rest of the population, LGBT+ people have not been able to socialise with friends during the lockdown. It has been too risky to physically meet new friends made via online apps. This has left many LGBT+ people, especially those who do not live with partners, feeling very isolated. There have been reported rises in anxiety and depression.

What made you decide to participate in a Pride march parade this year with the Gay Liberation Front?

I felt it was important to mark the 50th anniversary of the London Gay Liberation Front, which pioneered the modern LGBT+ rights movement in Britain. It organised the UK’s first Pride march in 1972. I also wanted to reclaim Pride as both a celebration and a march with political demands for LGBT+ human rights. The main Pride parades have just become a big party. They are wasting the opportunity to use Pride as an event to challenge anti-LGBT+ policies and push for improved rights: such as LGBT+ education in every school and the right of trans and non-binary people to define their own gender identity.  

Do you feel proud?

I feel proud and honoured to be gay. But I am also working for the day when I won’t need to say that – when LGBT+ has become accepted as part of the spectrum of life and when no one cares who loves who. I want to see a post-homophobic society where people of all sexualities and gender identities are free and equal.

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What are your plans and your dreams for the future?

I plan to carry on campaigning for LGBT+ rights for another 30 years and semi-retire at the age of 98. We have achieved so much but there is still more to do, especially globally where 72 counties and jurisdictions still criminalise same-sex relations. Ten of these countries have the death penalty for homosexuality. My dream is to help make homophobia, biphobia and transphobia history!

·        Peter Tatchell is Doirector of the Peter Tatchell Foundation: www.PeterTatchellFoundation.org.

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