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The Interview: Peter Tatchell – human rights campaigner

Cambridge, U.K. – 05/102010 – as published in Varsity

Talking to Peter Tatchell is like trying to get blood from a stone, which is surprising considering he has so much to say. Like all successful campaigners, Tatchell has an agenda and a ruthless knack for shaping his media coverage, something that he does not fail to implement in this particular instance in the plush environs of one of the Union’s reception rooms.

Born in Australia in 1952, Tatchell escaped conscription to the Vietnam War in 1971, coming to England on the eve of the Gay Liberation Front movement in which he became a prominent member. Finishing his education in London, Tatchell became a freelance journalist focusing on foreign news, before 22 years of involvement in Labour politics during which he was defeated as the Labour candidate in the 1983 Bermondsey election.

In 1990 Tatchell became one of the founding members of Outrage!, the controversial LGBT social movement campaigning group, known for their extreme publicity stunt-style campaigns such as ‘FROCS’ (Faggots Rooting Out Closeted Sexuality) and their work on confronting religious homophobia in the Church of England. Tatchell’s involvement in this group brought him to the fore of LGBT rights activism in the UK and his glittering array of awards, including last year’s Liberal Voice of the Year Award, are a testament to his influential status. Tatchell, as I soon discovered, is a person who cannot fail to make a noise: that is, after all, his job.

One of the few topics that Tatchell is keen to talk to me about is his Equal Love campaign which began on Tuesday 2nd November. In this campaign, eight couples – four same-sex couples and four heterosexual couples – will file applications for civil marriages and civil partnerships respectively at their local register offices.

Every week until December 14 one couple will make an application. Tatchell is “confident” that, following the register offices’ letter of refusal which will be used as evidence in court at a later stage, “the twin bans on same-sex civil marriage and opposite-sex civil partnerships will eventually be declared unlawful”. The first of the eight same-sex and heterosexual couples to challenge the UK’s marriage laws, Rev. Sharon Ferguson and her partner Franka Streitzel, have already been denied permission to marry in Greenwich.

Despite there being, according to Tatchell, “little difference between civil marriage and partnerships in terms of the rights and responsibilities they confer,” the Equal Love campaign is representative of the fundamental belief that “in a democracy we should all be equal before the law”. “No one would accept it if Jewish people were denied the right to civil marriage and were instead fobbed off with civil partnerships,” Tatchell tells me, as a means of explaining the overriding human rights dimension of this campaign.

Important for Tatchell is the assertion that he has “never been merely a gay rights activist” but “a campaigner for the human rights of all victimised peoples and nations”. Such a statement rings true when we look at Tatchell’s impressive record of activism abroad which includes, along with opposition to Israel’s occupation and campaigning against imperialism in his native Australia, two attempts at a citizen’s arrest of President Mugabe, the second of which resulted in a serious case of brain damage which forced him to step down from Green Party prospective candidacy in 2007.

While many believe the Equal Love campaign to be a quibbling over terms, Tatchell, however, finds this argument far from compelling. “People would not accept an academic system that called male university staff professors, but the equivalent female staff senior teachers,” he says. “That would be sexist.” Denial of civil marriage to same-sex couples is a similar form of discrimination “that signifies and symbolises the second-class legal status of LGBT people,” Tatchell claims. With this as the main thrust of the argument behind the operation, Tatchell has denounced this “twin ban” as a “form of sexual apartheid” condemning the existence of two separate laws.

What some might find puzzling about this campaign is not the continuing cry for legal equality regardless of sexuality, combined with a typically Tatchell publicity drive to challenge social attitudes, but the simple and somewhat curious question as to why a heterosexual couple would want a civil partnership at all.

Tatchell explains: “Many heterosexual couples don’t like the patriarchal history of marriage. They want a more democratic, modern system of relationship recognition. Others are motivated by a refusal to avail themselves of the opportunity for civil marriage while this option is denied to their lesbian and gay friends. For them it is a gesture of solidarity.”

Perhaps rather worryingly then, the Equal Love campaign is not interested in an assessment of the existing social institutions of civil partnerships and civil marriage, but rather Tatchell’s “point is that all couples should have a free and equal choice.” The idea that relationships are shaped more by the connotations attached to their official classification than by the unique individuals involved has, in some critics’ eyes, reduced this campaign to nothing more than an unimaginative splitting of hairs and a waste of taxpayers’ money.

Not only will this campaign use tax-payers’ money in, rightly or wrongly, bringing this issue to the courts’ attention, but Tatchell’s supporters and friends have set up a personal fund in order to finance his activist work. Having approached 1000 members of the LGBT community, they are requesting “people to give £5 a month or more by standing order” to the Peter Tatchell Human Rights Fund in order to provide an office space and extra staff to help Tatchell answer the deluge of requests that he is inundated with everyda. The target sum for the fund is £60,000 a year.

The appeal for funds on Tatchell’s various websites is candid. “Because I lack sufficient staff support,” Tatchell writes, “I am working 12 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week. I’m often tired and ill.” The cost of campaigning seems to be taking its toll: this request comes from an activist who has already been championed a hero for the multiple wounds he has received in the line of duty, most notably being punched in the face and nearly knocked unconscious by Russian police while on a Gay Pride march in Moscow in May 2007.

Tatchell’s fear of coming under either verbal or physical attack seemed to dog our conversation. When I asked about his ongoing commitment to try to lower the age of consent, he declared the topic to be a “waste of our time” before brusquely pulling up his left trouser leg to expose a thumb-sized scab on his shin, evidence of BNP and Catholic sentiment, apparently, that branded Tatchell a paedophile for speaking out on the issue.

The palpable proof of the opposition that Peter Tatchell comes up against on a daily basis did leave a rather unpleasant taste in my mouth following our parting. It did not, however, explain Tatchell’s unwillingness to engage with the more philosophical issues at the heart of human rights activism. It seems to me that Tatchell has, with his most recent campaign, relinquished the change he wanted to make in favour of the headlines he wanted to make. I can’t help feel that perhaps, if Peter Tatchell were to pick his battles more carefully, not only would he emerge from the tussles intact but he might also safeguard a reputation which both preceded and overshadowed my meeting with the man himself.

Peter Tatchell spoke last Thursday at the Union debate: ‘This House believes that the Free Market has failed’. To find out more about Equal Love and Mr. Tatchell’s other campaigns visit: