Peter Tatchell on his role as a key political figure in the LGBT+ movement, and being inspired by Dr Martin Luther King

Peter Tatchell is best known for being a key political figure in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movement – and helping to change what it means to be a LGBT+ person in Britain today. Peter began campaigning for human rights, global justice and democracy at the age of 15, after being inspired by the work of Dr Martin Luther King. And today, at age 68, he says that his work is far from over.

After more than 50 years as a human rights activist, Peter’s highlights include becoming a founding member of two LGBT+ rights groups – The Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and OutRage! – in 1970 and 1990 respectively. During their active years, both groups made significant progress in achieving equality and justice for people around the world. Of particular note, is the first Pride march that Peter and his founding GLF members set up in 1972, which gave LGBT+ people hope and confidence, and shone a light on the discrimination that they had been facing for centuries.

To date, Peter has participated in more than 3,000 LGBT+ and other human rights protests, been arrested 100 times and suffered 300 violent assaults. This includes being bashed by neo-Nazis in Moscow during a Gay Pride parade while supporting Russian activists, and being beaten unconscious in Brussels, after attempting a citizen’s arrest on Robert Mugabe, in response to his regime’s use of torture against critics. Although Peter considers himself quite tough, he admits that he has felt fearful for his safety over the years. However, it was (and still is) his fierce passion and determination to tackle inequality that continues to drive him forward.

In this candid interview, Peter speaks to Rest Less about the motivations behind his role as an human rights activist, how he has seen attitudes change over the years, and why there is still plenty of work left to be done.

Peter, we understand that you helped to set up the first Pride March in London in 1972. What were the events in your life that led up to this moment? What inspired you to get involved?

I began campaigning for human rights in 1967, when I was 15 and still at school. My inspiration was Dr Martin Luther King and the black civil rights struggle in the US. I came out as gay two years later and was outraged by the fact that I could be jailed for two years for a consenting relationship with my male partner.

Back then, the medical and psychiatric profession said that as a gay man I was suffering from an illness and disorder. I could be sacked from my job and evicted from my flat for being gay. Homophobic discrimination was lawful. Queer-bashing violence was rife and the police did little to stop it or to bring the perpetrators to justice. That’s why I became a LGBT+ rights campaigner.

Do you feel the first Pride March had a significant impact on LGBT+ rights?

The first Pride march gave hope and confidence to LGBT+ people and alerted straight people to the scale of discrimination that we faced. It became the template for subsequent Pride events, which have helped produce greater public understanding and empathy towards LGBT+ people.

We understand that you were a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), which was set up in 1970. Can you tell us a bit more about what the group’s original aims were, and what it’s aims are today in 2020?

The Gay Liberation Front (GLF) began the modern movement for LGBT+ rights in the UK. It led to the first mass coming out of LGBT+ people, the first LGBT+ protests and the first serious challenge to homophobic discrimination. Our aim was not just equal rights but to transform society to end homophobia – and all other discrimination. Although our prime concern was LGBT+ rights, we wanted a better life for everyone, especially for women, black and working class people. GLF folded in 1974 but it’s been revived in recent years by a new, younger LGBT+ generation. They are working with older veterans from the early 1970s to champion its original ideals. 

You were also one of the founding members of the LGBT+ rights group OutRage! which was formed in 1990, two decades after homosexuality was partially decriminalised in the UK. What was life like in the UK for LGBT+ people at the time OutRage! was created? And what did the group achieve when it was active between 1990 and 2011?

Even as late as 1990, same-sex couples could be arrested for kissing and cuddling in public. The police said we were outraging public decency. Nearly 2,000 gay and bisexual men were convicted every year for consensual behaviour that was mostly not a crime between heterosexual men and women. Two men chatting up each other could face two years jail. The age of sexual consent for gay men was 21, compared to 16 for men and women. We were outraged, hence the name of our campaign group, OutRage!

Our successful achievements include challenging the police harassment of the LGBT+ community, which resulted in a two-thirds fall in the conviction of gay men for consenting behaviour. We also, at last, got the police to record homophobic hate crimes for the first time and to properly investigate the many murders of gay and bisexual men.

What was it like to be identified as a leading member of these human rights groups, at a time when LGBT+ people were facing a lot of oppression?

Together with others, I was determined to help turn LGBT+ people from victims to victors. In the early days, it was tough. Being out and visible as LGBT+ campaigners put us at risk of police harassment and gay-bashing violence. But our passion and determination for justice overrode our fears.

We understand that your role as an activist has led you to a few traumatic experiences over the years. For example, being bashed by neo-Nazis when you went to Moscow to support Russian activists who were trying to hold a Gay Pride parade. You were also beaten unconscious after attempting a citizen’s arrest on Robert Mugabe in Brussels over his regime’s use of torture against critics. You ended up with brain and eye damage. Looking back at these events, how do they make you feel? Did they ever put you off activism?

In the course of the 53 years of my LGBT+ and other human rights activism, I’ve participated in over 3,000 protests, been arrested 100 times and suffered over 300 violent assaults – mostly by homophobes and far right extremists. I never wished any of it to happen. There were many times when I felt afraid – and tearful. I was sometimes despairing and wondered if the personal price was worth enduring. But somehow my strong belief in equality and justice got me through the hard times and kept me going.  

What are some of the highlights of your role as an LGBT+ rights activist?

Actions where I’ve helped make a difference include staging the first LGBT+ rights protest in a communist country, East Germany in 1973; organising the world’s first HIV human rights conference in 1988; and interrupting the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter Sermon in 1998, in protest at his support for legal discrimination against LGBT+ people. These actions, and many others, helped highlight injustice and aided the push for social change. 

How have you seen attitudes to LGBT+ rights change?

From the early 1970s to the mid-1980s, public attitudes became more supportive of LGBT+ equality. But the advent of AIDS, section 28 and Margaret Thatcher’s anti-gay rhetoric put that into reverse. By 1988, more than two-thirds of the public thought that same-sex relationships were mostly or always wrong. Thanks to LGBT+ campaigns since then, that figure is now, at last, down to only 16%. But that is still one in six of the British public. There is more work to do. 

What changes to LGBT+ rights would you like to see in the future, and do you have any plans in place to help implement these changes?

I am working on a number of campaigns to get a better deal for LGBT+ people. Stop the Home Office detention and deportation of LGBT+ refugees fleeing persecution. Amend the Gender Recognition Act to allow people to define their own gender identity – not doctors or the state. Mandatory LGBT+ education in every school to support LGBT+ pupils & tackle homophobic bullying. End the blanket three month restriction on gay and bisexual men donating blood: test the blood not the sexuality. Prohibit the ineffective, harmful and unethical practice of gay conversion therapy which seeks to ‘cure’ LGBT+ people. And support efforts to decriminalise homosexuality in the 72 countries where it remains illegal and in the 10 countries where loving a person of the same sex is punishable by execution. 

What are your views on age discrimination in society generally, and what do you think can be done to address it based on what you’ve learnt from your work on LGBT rights?

Age discrimination can adversely affect young people, such as denying employed, tax-paying 16-year olds the right to vote. But mostly older people are the victims. And this happens despite legal protection against age discrimination. It’s often covert. People over 50 get overlooked for jobs, denied medical treatment and penalised with higher premiums for car insurance. We can be victims of jokes or pranks because of our age. Many people seem to think older people don’t have sex or feel squeamish at the thought that we do. What’s needed are more campaigns to highlight insidious subtle age bias and the way older people are often stereotyped. There should also be more positive publicity about high achieving seniors and those who are everyday heroes by being good neighbours and stalwarts of their local communities. 

Where do you see yourself in five year’s time?

More of the same. Retirement would be boring. I’m 68 now and, bar any unforeseen health issues, I plan to carry on campaigning for LGBT+ and other human rights for another 30 years. It’s enjoyable, rewarding, keeps me active and young at heart – and it helps make a positive difference. My motto: “Don’t accept the world as it is. Dream of what the world could be – and then help make it happen.”

Peter Tatchell is Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, which seeks to promote and protect the human rights of individuals, communities and nations across the globe, in accordance with human rights laws. To find out more, you can visit their website, here.

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