I spoke out against Peter Tatchell once, but I'm defending him now

Those attacking the eminent gay rights campaigner ignore the fact that he has always stood for challenging injustice out in the open

John McKee
Tuesday 23 February 2016 17:21 GMT
Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has always openly challenged hatred.
Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has always openly challenged hatred. (Getty)

Respect for elders is an overrated principle; holding it in the scorn that it deserves has ever been a strength of the LGBTQ rights movement.

When a complacent gay establishment sat meekly annoyed by Margaret Thatcher’s assault on “pretended families”, it fell to a young Stonewall to organise. And from the nineties, as Stonewall sat plump and established, activists such as Peter Tatchell demanded that 21-year-olds should not have their freedom robbed for daring to love their 20–year-old boyfriends.

It was in that spirit that I attended the Cambridge Union last November to debate against Peter Tatchell on the betrayal of trans-inclusion by an ossified Gay Establishment. I was uncompromising, and confronted Peter on why trans healthcare, the spousal veto and representation has been left on the backburner by organisations still largely run by white, gay, establishment figures.

Still, I have been taken aback by the incoherent ferocity of recent attacks on the considerate, well mannered man I faced across the dispatch box - a man who has literally spilled blood for my rights, and the rights of many of those who signed that open letter.

The charges are that Tatchell is a hypocrite because he has called for the banning of anti-gay Muslim speakers while criticising NUS LGBT officer Fran Cowling for (in that cumbersome phrase) ‘no platforming’ him. Worse, the letter slithers round the accusation that he is an Islamophobe, a racist, a transphobe and a bully. Not a scintilla of evidence is offered; instead we are treated to so many straw men you could have a straw kiki.

Perhaps the Islamophobia they are referring to is Tatchell’s opposition to Muslim preacher Abu Usamah, who believes gay people should be crucified, speaking at UCL? Or maybe it’s when he urged his supporters to join the anti-EDL demonstration in Tower Hamlets, holding placards saying: “Gays & Muslims Unite. Fight All Hate”?

The primary attack is that Tatchell is hypocrite because resorting to tactics such as “outing” anti-gay bishops is just the same sort of thing as ‘no platforming’ - despite being, well, completely different.

Tatchell considers ‘no-platforming’ to be a legitimate tactic and even said of Cowling: “If she does not want to speak alongside me, that’s her right. I respect her choice.” The accusations made against him are perplexing. It may be that Germaine Greer’s attempts to designate “true womanhood" are still sufficiently nasty to protest her speaking opportunities. But just because a person would rather defeat these notions in open debate, as a tactical alternative, does not mean they condone such views. In the same way that we can support the BNP’s right to stand for election but not associate with their views, we should respect Tatchell’s consistency in advocating uncensored debate does not commit him to be a defender of any one of those views.

Fran Cowling is not, as some have characterised her, a poor student picked upon. She is a student politician in one of the most internecine and political unions in the country. She sought election to take a public platform and represent LGBT students’ interests. It is not an example of bullying to ask her to provide evidence for her claim that a prominent activist is a racist.

If the generational discontent of young activists is to come to its promise of a true progressive equality movement then it must do better than smears and straw. No-platforming may be a legitimate tool to deal with enemies of equality, but so is standing at a lectern, presenting arguments and analysing evidence.

When someone challenges you in the debating chamber to back up your assertions, there is nowhere to flee and there is a tremendous value to that - a value that Tatchell’s critics, who pen righteous condemnations from soft offices about a man protesting on hard streets against harder thugs, might ponder before they dismiss it as capitulation or endorsement.

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