Peter Tatchell is a gay, human rights activist whose name was vilified by the right-wing press during the Bermondsey by-election in 1983. The Liberal candidate Simon Hughes’ canvassers wore badges saying “Which Queen are you voting for?” As a new documentary, Hating Peter Tatchell, comes out on Netflix, XINDI WEI looks at the life of the man who organised London’s first gay pride march in 1972.
Peter Tatchell has endured 300 violent assaults because of his campaigns seeking social justice – and his bravery and the great lengths he goes through to fight for his beliefs are often overlooked in coverage of his protests.
Described by British singer-songwriter Tom Robinson in the documentary Hating Peter Tatchell, now streaming on Netflix, as a “brave motherf***er”, the 69-year-old has led a controversial life.
Vilified by sections of the British media as the “most disliked man in Britain” for his ‘outing’ of several prominent Church of England bishops in the 1990s, some commentators have dubbed him “abrasive” and “notorious”.
Nonetheless, he has staged more than 3,000 provocative acts of civil disobedience to make change, challenging tyranny, injustice and inequality throughout his lifetime around the globe – often against misunderstanding, oppression from governments, and hatred from the public and the press.
Born into a Pentecostal Evangelist family in Melbourne, Australia, Peter was constantly beaten by his stepfather.
He said in the documentary: “My stepfather was a pretty old-fashioned patriarchal authoritarian. He’d fly into a rage and go physically berserk.
“I can remember times when he gave me the strap. And the red welt marks would swell up and last for days. Another time in a rage, He swung at me with an axe. If I hadn’t ducked, he probably would’ve hit me on the head.”
His adverse experiences of abuse from his stepfather made Tatchell inclined to stand up to bullies, to resist tyrants, and to confront bigotry.
At school, he was a rebel, who believed that students should have input into the way schools were run, not teachers.
He was called gay by his classmates, although he had girlfriends at the time.
It was also there that Tatchell began his political activity, where he supported Australia’s Aboriginal people.
In 1971, Tatchell moved to London to avoid conscription into the Australian Army.
He became a leading member of the Gay Liberation Front movement.
He organised the first ever Gay Pride Parade in 1972, protesting for the acceptance of homosexuality and against police violence.
In the early 1980s, he made a move into the political mainstream and stood as a Labour candidate in the Bermondsey by-election.
What awaited him was not change, but vilification and a notoriously homophobic smear campaign.
He received constant death threats and needed police protection.
“Two bullets were sent to me, and I had three attempts to run me down in a car,” he said in an interview at the time.
His Liberal rival who won the election, Simon Hughes, even claimed that the election was “a straight choice” between Labour and Liberal.
Tatchell said at the time: “The great tragedy of this election is that prejudice and bigotry triumphed over tolerance and compassion, and that smears and lies triumphed over truth and reason.”
Hughes came out as bisexual in 2006 and apologised for the abusiveness of his campaign.
When asked by actor Sir Ian McKellen in the documentary: “Do you think it was better on the whole you didn’t get elected as an MP?” Tatchell said: “A social movement outside of parliament is often the real vehicle and mode of change. Grassroots movements have been the originators of social change, which parliamentarians have later put into practice.”
Against the backdrop of AIDS deaths, referred to as the “gay plague” at the time and under the “heterosexist normative sexual morality” emphasised by then-Prime Minister Thatcher, Tatchell participated in gay rights campaigns over issues such as Section 28 – the law which forbade teaching in schools that homosexuality was normal.
Stephan Fry, one of the commentators in the documentary said that “any espousal or promotion of gay life, any normalising of the gay existence, [was] prohibited” under the new law.
Perhaps as an unintended consequence of Section 28, gay men and women stood in solidarity together, creating the OutRage! Movement.
Peter also diverted his energies into the radical non-violent gay rights direct action group, aiming for a fundamental transformation of British society.
In the documentary, Tatchell said: “Like every successful social movement in history, we also believed there was a role for direct action and non-violent civil disobedience.”
They pulled publicity stunts and used theatrical forms of protest, taking the fight for equality to the very pillars of the British establishment.
They confronted everyone from Mrs Thatcher to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
With their efforts, public opinion began to shift in favour of LGBT+ equality in the 1990s.
In 1998, Peter and demonstrators scaled the pulpit of Canterbury Cathedral with signs, and he gave a short speech as the Archbishop was giving a televised sermon around the world.
Tatchell was unapologetic in court and said there was a moral obligation to stand up against human rights abuses, but some critics said his tactics were “outrageous.”
The judge fined him the trivial sum of £18.60 – 1860 was the year of the statute used to convict him.
He said in the documentary: “This charge of counterproductive tactics has always been used against every rising social movement.
“It was used against the Suffragettes in Britain, against the black civil rights movement in the US. ”
Defiant, he set another challenge for himself by attempting a citizen’s arrest on Zimbabwean tyrant Robert Mugabe in 1999.
Tatchell protested at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi over the gay rights stance of Russia, comparing the event to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
Tatchell was also arrested at the Moscow Pride parade in 2011 amid a spate of anti-gay violence by neo-Nazis.
Gradually, Tatchell has became a “national treasure”.
Looking back over his life, Peter feels “satisfaction.” He said: “We’ve shown that you don’t have to accept the way things are. I love other people. I love freedom, equality, and justice, and that’s what drives me forward.”
Fry added: “History will judge Peter Tatchell as one of the most interesting, brave, passionate and effective campaigners.”
Even the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, who Tatchell claimed was opposed to legal equality for lesbian and gay people, has praised the campaigner.
Towards the end of the documentary, Carey said: “Here is a man with deep conviction. He’s rocked the boat, and there is a sense in which there is a parallel to Jesus Christ.
“Where some of us might still question his tactics, no one can actually doubt that he is on the right side of history.”
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