Civil rights campaigner Peter Tatchell celebrates 50th year of activism

By Jamie McKay

Peter Tatchell, the Australian-born human rights campaigner, will celebrate his 50th year of activism. Over the years he’s protested against Australia’s historical mistreatment of their Aboriginal peoples, the Vietnam War and the death penalty, among various other causes. He is probably most famous for his dedication to various LGBT campaigns. Tatchell accepted that he was gay when 17, in 1969, by 1971 he had moved to London to avoid being conscripted into the Australian Army and became a leading member of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). A brave move given the prevailing social attitudes of the time. In 2001, he famously attempted to perform a citizens arrest on Robert Mugabe, and was left permanently injured after being attacked by his bodyguards.

Tatchell frequently placed himself at the forefront of the push for LGBT rights in the UK, organising sit ins at pubs who refused to serve ‘poofs’, protesting police harassment and the medical classification of homosexuality as an illness. By the late 70s and well into the 1980s he was heavily involved in campaigns against the racist and often-violent National Front and the British National Party.

Given this proud record in campaigning for equal rights, making great advances along the way, it may come as a surprise to hear that the national LGBT representative for the NUS has accused Tatchell of racism and transphobia. NUS representative Fran Cowling has refused to share a platform with Tatchell at Canterbury Christ Church to discuss “re-radicalising queers”. Cowling failed to provide any evidence to back up her attack on Tatchell but claimed she was speaking for ‘the membership’ who ‘believe’ Tatchell shows these bigoted attitudes. When pressed further the NUS admitted the membership had never decided against Tatchell.

Though it may be that, like many other activists, was angered by Tatchell signing a letter to the Guardian on Valentines Day last year in which he defended the right of controversial feminist speakers such as Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel and Kate Smuthwaite to speak their minds. The Unions current policy of ‘no-platforming’ has seen these speakers barred from Universities across the United Kingdom, Greer gave a lecture at Cardiff University last year amid great controversy and attempts by students to have her banned. Tatchell has long been an advocate of trans rights but has been unsettled by the banning of individuals purely on the basis of their views.

Tatchell has dealt with attacks from his supposed ‘comrades’ before. He travelled to what was the German Democratic Republic (DDR), or East Germany, in 1973 to attend the 10th World Youth Festival in East Berlin. Representing the GLF Tatchell was subjected to abuse from the Communist Party of Great Britain and the National Union of Students. He was banned from conferences, had his leaflets confiscated or burned and even interrogated by Stasi agents.

Even in recent years Tatchell has found that some progressive circles still have trouble with LGBT rights. In 2004 he and some LGBT Arab friends from his current campaign group, Outrage, attended a pro-Palestine rally in central London carrying signs reading ‘Israel: stop persecuting Palestine! Palestine: stop persecuting queers!’ Other marchers attacked Tatchell, calling him a racist, a Zionist or a CIA agent.

Tatchell’s record as a human rights campaigner is impressive. He has consistently proven that, unlike some other activists, he believes that Universal Human Rights are Universal. Certain student politicians could learn from this attitude.

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