Peter Tatchell: Out and about

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The Independent Online

Strange how the wheel of fortune turns. Peter Tatchell was once perhaps the most execrated man in British politics. He was - to restrict ourselves to quotations from just one newspaper, the Daily Mail - "loony", "scabrous", "repellent", "repulsive", "sour", "humourless", "obnoxious" and a "homosexual terrorist".

But that was before, five years back, he tried to make a citizen's arrest on the Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe, on charges against the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture, and was soundly beaten by Mugabe's bodyguards for his pains. He did not give up, but tried again in Paris and in London. Ever since, Tatchell has variously been "a national hero" (The Sunday Times), "a civil rights campaigner we can all applaud" (Sunday Telegraph) and "Heroic ... an example to us all" (Daily Mail). What goes around...

The irony, of course, is that Peter Tatchell has changed not one jot in this process. Rather there is about him a fiery consistency which constitutes both his great strength and his chief weakness. It was there from the very start. He was brought up in Melbourne, Australia, by parents of strict evangelical Christian persuasion - whose religious enthusiasm young Peter adopted so completely he was, even in his teens, a Sunday school teacher.

The sense of dedication it engendered has never left him. When, at the age of 17, he realised that he was gay - he has said he can "remember every detail of that first night" when he decided "if this is what it's like to be gay, I'm gay and it's wonderful" - he expected that his fellow Christians would apply what they had taught him about honesty, truth and justice to his new-found sexuality.

They did not, so he applied his urge for commitment to sexual politics. "My parents taught me to stand up for what was right, even if it was unpopular or personally difficult." It moulded his character.

Two years later, refusing to be drafted into the Australian army to fight in the war in Vietnam, he moved to London and discovered the fledgling Gay Liberation Front (GLF). From the outset, he saw personal liberation in action. Not long after, he was among the 700 activists who marched through London on the first Gay Pride demonstration in 1972. Then he invaded a lecture by the psychiatrist Professor Hans Eysenck, who advocated electro-shock aversion therapy to "cure" homosexuality.

There was always a sense of the dramatic in Tatchell. While other campaigners' idea of direct action was sit-ins in London pubs that refused to serve "poofs", Tatchell went to East Berlin, smuggling in thousands of gay rights leaflets. There he held a one-man demo marching down Alexanderplatz with a "homosexual liberation" banner and was arrested by the secret police, the Stasi.

In those days, gay rights were only part of his politics. He was active in the Labour Party and was adopted as the parliamentary candidate for Bermondsey in 1983. What happened to him is a measure of how far attitudes have shifted in Britain in just two decades. The local Labour old guard resented Tatchell. He was "a bloody foreigner". He was "a dangerous leftie". (Although he was not, by the standards of the time, particularly extreme - he was neither a Marxist nor a Militant - "stop Tatchell" was elevated by right-wingers into a test of the ability of the party leader Michael Foot to make Labour electable.) And he was "a pervert".

The campaign of vilification against him was highly charged. Opponents retouched his posters to give him lipstick and mascara. They wore "I've been kissed by Peter Tatchell" stickers. The constituency was flooded with anonymous leaflets which called him a traitor, queer and extremist, giving his home address and phone number and urging the public to "have a go". His Lib Dem opponent, one Simon Hughes, was presented as "The Straight Choice" - and won by a 10,000-vote landslide.

In the years that followed, Tatchell, traumatised by the Bermondsey experience, threw himself into gay rights campaigning. Homosexuality had been made legal in 1967. But, fuelled by the Aids panic, police were still arresting as many gay men in 1989 (Tatchell's research revealed) as at the height of the anti-gay witch-hunts in the 1950s. Teams of "pretty police", young new recruits, were being deployed in public conveniences to entrap homosexuals.

What was needed, he decided, was a change in public attitudes. In 1990, he founded the direct action group OutRage! to challenge both mainstream attitudes and those of what he saw as a repressed gay community. Scores of gays and lesbians held a "kiss-in" in Piccadilly Circus and then turned up at Bow Street police station, and reported themselves for having had sex below the age of consent or kissing in public - both acts for which the police were still arresting homosexuals.

OutRage! did as its name suggested, turning protest into a kind of performance art intended to shock. In 1994, in pursuit of its campaign to lower the age of consent - gay and straight - to just 14 , Tatchell leapt in front of the car of the prime minister, John Major. Claiming that the PM ducked down as his car swerved, Tatchell boasted: "We got John Major to bend over for gay men."

In 1997, he angered the Royal British Legion by following the official Remembrance Day ceremony at the Cenotaph with a Queer Remembrance for homosexuals who died in the war. In 1998, he climbed into the pulpit to interrupt the Archbishop of Canterbury's Easter sermon in protest at the ban on gay clergy. This year, he turned up at the wedding of the Prince of Wales with a placard proclaiming: "Charles can marry twice but gays can't marry once".

Many, including prominent figures within the gay community, regarded much of this as counterproductive. He came in for the strongest criticism when in 1994 he declared his intention to "out" 10 bishops within the Church of England - individuals he claimed were secretly gay or bisexual yet who supported the church's official anti-gay priests policy. Tatchell maintained the 10 were guilty of hypocrisy but his tactics alienated many who were otherwise sympathetic to his cause.

There was a nasty taste to the incident in which he delivered by hand a letter to the then Bishop of London, David Hope, urging the bishop to be true to what OutRage! believed to be his nature and, by admitting his sexuality, help to convince the church that homosexuality was an honourable estate. Dr Hope called a press conference to admit that his sexuality was a "grey area" but to insist that he was celibate - a fact that few of those who knew him doubted.

Even the gay and lesbian rights group Stonewall condemned this in a statement that used the word "blackmail" to describe Tatchell's tactics. Like Tatchell's campaign to lower the age of consent to 14, it was, said Angela Mason, the executive secretary of Stonewall, "a gift to the opponents" and "absolutely counterproductive". Mason regards Tatchell as "sincere but misguided".

There is inescapably something of the zealot about Peter Tatchell. He lives still in the tiny Bermondsey council flat he had when he was the Labour candidate there. At 54, he looks and lives like a student. His body is thin. His clothes are cheap. He will not wear leather shoes, so strict a vegetarian is he. Guests report being offered carrot soup followed by carrot casserole. He has almost no money - he earns about £8,000 a year from writing and is supported by friends who fund him through a modest trust called www.tatchellrightsfund.org. He sleeps on the floor in a single bedroom, with a fire extinguisher by his mattress in case of arson attacks. It is the life of a monk.

It is from here that he orchestrates his campaigns, and has written his six books and over 2,000 published articles battling not just through nearly every major struggle for homosexual rights in Britain over the past three decades, but also in almost every anti-racist campaign in that time. Plus lobbying President Mbeki in South Africa to make the ANC's first public commitment to homosexual equality. ("Stop Jailing Queers!" said the giant banner he unfurled at the Romanian National Opera's performance of Aida at the Royal Albert Hall.)

He has even offered to testify in court at the appeal of a Christian street preacher Harry Hammond, who was fined £300 for displaying a placard which read: "Stop immorality. Stop homosexuality. Stop lesbianism". It was an infringement of British freedom of speech which Tatchell condemned as "an outrageous assault on civil liberties". Such is the seamless and indivisible web of human rights which Peter Tatchell sees everywhere under assault.

"If I supported the Lib Dems," Tatchell said this week, "I would vote for Simon Hughes as leader because he has a better record on human rights, social justice and environmental issues." Whether Hughes will welcome the endorsement is another matter, but there's no getting away from the Tatchell consistency.

A Life in Brief

BORN: 25 January 1952, Melbourne, Australia. Father (a lathe operator) and mother (a bank clerk) were divorced when he was four.She remarried a taxi driver.

EDUCATION: Mount Waverley High School; West London College (A-levels); Polytechnic of North London (BSc in sociology).

CAREER: Window dresser in Melbourne; 1972, trained as a social worker in London; 1983 Labour Party candidate, Bermondsey by-election. Since then, gay rights and human rights activist; 1987, founded UK Aids Vigil pressure group; 1989, started London Act Up; 1990, formed OutRage!.

HE SAYS: "I am strong enough, or crazy enough, to realise that if I keep slogging away, one day the truth will out and people will realise that a lot of what's said about me is nonsense."

THEY SAY: "He's incredibly brave... doing good work in a world where most people are too timid - he keeps sticking at it." - Elton John

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