Outrageous and proud: Why Peter Tatchell will never stop fighting

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Provocative, unpredictable and uncompromising, Peter Tatchell has made many enemies over the 20 years he has campaigned for gay rights. But he tells Patrick Strudwick why he'll never stop fighting

My father has just died," says Peter Tatchell, Britain's most totemic, polemic gay rights campaigner, on the phone from his house in south London. His voice is flat and brittle with shock.

The week before, Tatchell had agreed to give me unprecedented access to his day-to-day campaigning to mark the 20th anniversary of Outrage!, the notorious "queer equality" pressure group he helped to set up. In the last two decades Outrage! has transformed direct action into blisteringly explosive performance art.

It was Outrage! who invaded the Archbishop of Canterbury's sermon on Easter Sunday 1998. Outrage! who "outed" 10 Anglican bishops (and threatened to "out" dozens of MPs) in 1994. And Outrage! who, between 1999 and 2001, attempted three citizen's arrests on Robert Mugabe. But now, Tatchell says, giving me such access will be more difficult as he has to cancel lots of engagements before the funeral.

Three days later, however, I witness Peter Tatchell's version of compassionate leave.

We meet mid-afternoon on a tube platform to travel to the East End of London where the 58-year-old is to talk to youth workers. He says that since rising at 8.45am he has given a major interview to CNN about the Pope, then given three more interviews, before working through 400 emails. Veins protrude from his neck like taut earthworms. His cheeks are concave, his frame coat-hanger thin.

As he speaks, a rasping sound is coming out as if he's got a fat lip. What's happened? "I've started wearing a brace, with plates on the top and bottom of my mouth because my jaw has come out of alignment after all the beatings I've had," he says. "I'll have to wear it for three years."

An elderly black man with a cloud of white hair sits down opposite him on the train. "Are you standing for election this year?" he asks.

"No," replies Tatchell. "I had to stand down because of all the physical attacks." (He was, until six months ago, the Green Party candidate for Oxford East. Brain damage from hundreds of assaults, including being beaten by Mugabe's bodyguards in 2001 and by the Moscow police in 2007, has left his vision blurred and his balance impaired.)

"Oh. I thought you were a fighter," says the man.

"I am," Tatchell replies, quietly, defiantly.

"But there's only so much you can take?"

Peter nods and looks out the window.

How does the reaction on the street compare to 20 years ago when he started Outrage!?

"Now it's 90 per cent positive," he says. "Then it was 98 per cent negative. People would punch me, spit at me, and try and push me in front of trains."

Minutes later, having removed the brace, he gives, with his reedy, declamatory voice, an impassioned lecture to the youth workers, decrying the legal inequalities that remain for gay people.

We meet up again later that evening. He is taking part in an election debate alongside Harriet Harman MP, Justine Greening MP and Simon Hughes MP. The latter he notoriously stood and lost against in the 1983 Bermondsey bi-election, after a staggeringly homophobic campaign by local liberals. "I don't hold grudges," he whispers before going on.

Despite being at the debate as the Green Party's representative, Tatchell delivers the following plea to the 500-strong audience: "If you live in a constituency where Liberals are the biggest challenger, vote Liberal Democrat so we can break the duopoly of British politics."

It's classic Tatchell: unpredictable, uncompromising and inflammatory.

The following evening I arrive at his poky one-bedroom council flat in Elephant and Castle to find out how these qualities have fuelled Outrage! since it's inaugural meeting on 10 May 1990. I also want to discover who's behind the seemingly impenetrable veneer of hardened protester. Luckily, we have all night.

He offers me the one seat in his living room that isn't festooned with the battle gear of protest: placards, posters and pamphlets. He was, he says, up until 7.30am replying to urgent requests from prisoners of conscience. In the midst of grief, he has therefore worked solidly for 23 hours.

What sparked the formation of Outrage!? "The gay community were being subjected to intense police harassment," he recalls. "And at the same time, there was a rising wave of queer bashings and murders into which the police were only doing half-hearted investigations. There was widespread fury. So about 30 of us met to discuss what to do. It was an incredibly exhilarating meeting. Halfway through I remember thinking, 'This is the beginning of something big.' I could see it in their eyes. We all agreed that that it was no more Mr Nice Guy, no more negotiations, and that we were prepared to use any non-violent method to end homophobia. Including criminal damage."

Outrage! was born. Over a hundred people started attending the weekly meetings. They arranged a "kiss in" at Piccadilly Circus – thus inventing the now quotidian flash mob style of protest – to defy the laws against same sex public affection. They invaded police stations and press conferences held by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. They photographed the "pretty policemen" who had been assigned to entrap men in public lavatories. Within three months, representatives from Outrage! were invited to meet with Sir Paul Condon, the Met Commissioner.

"We thought it would take years," says Tatchell. "But we won most of our demands from the police within 12 months. That gave us a real sense that what we were doing was a having a tangible, positive effect."

By now they were also honing their protest style. "We would deliberately look smart, often wearing ties, to confound expectations of what a gay rights campaigner looks like," he says. "We would deliberately smile at the police and be ultra courteous. We would go up to them and shake their hands. It completely messed with their heads."

Visually, such protests broke new ground too. "We would use theatrical props," Tatchell recalls. "To protest against the laws prohibiting men from meeting, winking and exchanging numbers in the street with a view to a sexual assignation, we had gigantic winking eyes on pullies to make the eye wink. We held up enormous business cards with phone numbers on them." He starts laughing. "They weren't our phone numbers, though. They were for Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street."

More success followed. Outrage! interrupted the Isle of Man's national day with a parade of gay men in prison uniforms to protest against the island's criminalisation of homosexuality. The law was overturned in 1994.

But trouble was about to strike. After months of deliberations, they agreed on their most controversial campaign yet: outing. In November 1994 Outrage! exposed 10 Anglican bishops as being gay. Tatchell became "public enemy number one", as The Sunday Times put it.

"It was vicious," says Tatchell. "I was called a gay fascist and a terrorist." Seventy per cent of the population was against it. Surely, then, Tatchell looks back at this policy as an own goal?

"No," he replies. "Naming those bishops exposed hypocrisy in the highest levels of the church. It prompted the Church of England to set up the first serious dialogue with the lesbian and gay community. About a month later the House of Bishops released one of the strongest statements ever against homophobic prejudice."

But those bishops were human beings, I say, whose lives he was upturning.

"I've never believed that outing is a clear-cut ethical stance," he replies. "We felt for the people, we had compassion, but Outrage! had given notice that gay people in public life who harmed other gay people would be outed. They ignored our warnings."

Tatchell does, however, concede one mistake. "We were not successful in ensuring that the message was that we were only outing these people because of their homophobia and hypocrisy. We did say it, but it got lost."

Does he know what happened to those bishops?

"One privately acknowledged that although it was a painful experience, he now feels better about himself. Another has gone on to discreetly support his local gay community, and in particular, to sponsor a sex education leaflet on gay issues."

Ironically, Tatchell refuses to name them. "Both were private conversations which were on the understanding that it wouldn't go any further."

Outrage! also wrote to 20 MPs, who had voted against equal rights legislation, urging them to come out. None of them did. "But nearly all of them ceased voting against gay equality," he says. So they were never outed. What was the breakdown of those MPs? "Mostly Conservative," he says. He still has the list of names.

Other Outrage! policies merely inflamed antagonism towards the group. Namely, the campaign to have tolerance zones introduced in parks for gay – and straight – people to "cruise" (have sex in). Surely, such a fringe issue was an ill-advised priority?

"Well obviously it was a major issue because hundreds of gay men were being arrested for cruising in public places," says Tatchell. But, I say, you've spoken out about it as recently as 2006, when such arrests were negligible. "This was about finding solutions to a problem. There was a tolerance zone in Amsterdam, which was a designated area separate from the main part of the park. We can't pretend we're all monogamous couples in suburbia. Most gay people have gone cruising."

Have you?

"Of course I have," he scoffs, as if I've just asked if he eats. How recently?

"Last year. I would have gone more recently but I've been so busy."

Another questionable tactic came in 1996, with their ongoing campaign for the age of consent to be lowered to 14 for everyone. Why pursue this when it would play into bigots' darkest beliefs that homosexuality is synonymous with paedophilia?

"We wanted to end the criminalisation of people under 16 who had censual sex. We approached child welfare organisations and privately nearly all of them said, 'We agree with this campaign but we dare not say it because we'd be pilloried as paedophile protectors.' So Tatchell was instead.

But nine years into Outrage!'s history, public support spiked when Tatchell and three of its other members performed a citizen's arrest on Robert Mugabe. Although unsuccessful, the sheer bravery coupled with the savage beating inflicted on Tatchell by Mugabe's bodyguards at the final attempt in Brussels, secured widespread admiration. Even the press thawed, grudgingly. With the Pope's official visit to Britain in the autumn, many are looking to prominent atheists to attempt the same on Ratzinger. Will Tatchell?

"I would like to try to arrest him," he says, "But there's not a clear legal basis to do so. Under British law the Vatican is recognised as a state and therefore technically he has immunity from prosecution. We're planning protests but at the last visit in 1992 Outrage! members were under intense police surveillance."

What would he like to do though?

"Stop his papal mass and float condoms over the cathedral."

President Obama has also been garnering huge criticism, for his lethargy around gay rights legislation. Is this fair?

"Obama is a huge disappointment," says Tatchell. "He has acted in a very cowardly way. He could issue an executive order tomorrow to stop the dismissal of lesbian and gay service personnel. He has refused to do so."

For all the high jinx stunts, Outrage! continues to work diplomatically behind the scenes. The day after our interview, I accompany Tatchell and some gay African lobbyists to a meeting at the Commonwealth Secretariat with its Head of Human Rights, Dr Purna Sen. "We want the Secretary General to issue a public statement specifically condemning the human rights abuses of LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] people," Tatchell urges. Dr Sen expresses her doubt that this would happen. Undeterred, he asks to meet with her again in three months. She agrees.

In the courtyard outside, Tatchell spots something: a huge, official-looking, chauffeur driven car. "I think that's him [the Secretary General]," he whispers to us. "Shall we cause some trouble?" We loiter near the security entrance waiting for the car to pass. "Get your camera out!" Tatchell barks at me. It seems he's about to perform an Emily Wilding Davison-style stunt to try and stop the car. At the very last minute he sees through the vehicle's window. "Oh," he says. "It's the Canadian ambassador." We disperse, somewhat deflated.

Despite such consistent attempts at humiliating various members of the establishment, they have, it transpires, repeatedly tried to reward Tatchell. "I don't know who these people were but people have sounded me out about an OBE, a knighthood and a peerage," he says back at his flat. "I refused all three."

But then, neither accolades nor money have ever been Tatchell's motivation. The son of Australian evangelical Christians subsists on a few thousand pounds a year from bits of journalism and donations, and works a 100-hour week. "I have to slow down," he says. "Something has to give. My doctors have told me to retire." He says that will never happen.

But does he really have to live so meagrely? Why can't he or Outrage! secure the kind of funding that Stonewall, the lesbian, gay and bisexual charity, has? "Outrage! never set out to wine and dine cabinet ministers," he says archly. "And I'm just not very good at schmoozing. But if someone offered me a decent place to live, I would accept it. I don't like living like this." Surely someone would be willing to help Tatchell, Britain's Harvey Milk. How about celebrities – has Outrage! approached any?

"Yes. They don't respond."

What about Elton John?

"He has expressed a willingness to offer, but we haven't gotten round to organising it yet." I suspect this isn't due to laziness. There is a more viable explanation. Money compromises. Tatchell doesn't.

For 20 years, Tatchell has put himself in perilous situations. But when I try to explore what compels him to do that to himself, he makes several attempts to avoid self-reflection. Attempt number one: "By comparison to human rights campaigners in Iran, Zimbabwe or Russia I take very few risks: I haven't been tortured. I've got off lightly."

Attempt number two: when I venture that perhaps it was the physical abuse his stepfather inflicted upon him which normalised violence for him, he replies, "Not in my case. I don't enjoy the risks but I recognise that they are sometimes necessary."

Finally, we get somewhere. It's late, he's exhausted, and starting to stutter. I remind him of something he said when we last met nine years ago, that he was "only just this side of sanity". Is this still the case?

"Probably, yeah," he replies looking down, before qualifying it: "I sometimes feel pushed to the edge of insanity when under extreme, prolonged stress." He says that he sought help from a psychologist in the 1990s, who diagnosed post traumatic stress disorder. "He thought that I was using the campaigning partly as a defence mechanism."

Does he ever feel like giving up?

"Yes, sometimes. I'm not superhuman. For all my determination I'm quite emotionally vulnerable."

Does he think he'll be murdered?

"I have thought that. The last serious threat came in 2004 when Outrage! began the Stop Murder Music campaign [railing against Jamaican Dancehall artists who advocated slaughtering and burning gay people]. The police were very concerned that a hit squad had been sent to London to kill me."

Tatchell has lived alone in his flat for 32 years. When was his last relationship?

"2007. One of the reasons it broke down was because of my intolerable work load." So, through Outrage!, Peter Tatchell has devoted his life to enabling men to love each other freely yet denies himself that same love. Does he see the irony?

"Yes," he laughs, darkly. "It's an awful choice to have to make."

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