The improbable anarchist

Radical campaigner Peter Tatchell, pictured, has granted the Sentinel an in-depth interview ahead of the screening of a new documentary about his life and work at Queer Screen’s Mardi Gras Film Festival in Sydney. Photo: © WildBear Entertainment/supplied.

Human rights activist to some, controversial antagonist to others. Now, a new documentary acknowledges both the hate for this polarising figure, and some of the reasons behind it. Editor-at-large Gary Nunn meets veteran radical campaigner Peter Tatchell.

Peter Tatchell doesn’t look like your typical radical.

He’s wearing the classic Peter Tatchell outfit: long sleeved, purple shirt, tightly buttoned to the very top, with a neatly knotted tie. A solitary rainbow flag dangles behind him, in his flat. 

With his earnest delivery and friendly yet austere demeanour, the vibes are more accountant than anarchist. 

These almost oxymoronic traits have become as much a part of his brand as the plain font on his protest posters. He holds them politely at places where you’d expect, like London Pride, the first march of which he co-founded in 1972, but also more precarious locations: Moscow’s Red Square; outside mosques and synagogues. 

Yet the conservative appearance belies a human rights activist hailed as a hero by some and public enemy number one by others.

Haters

A nod to this divisiveness is the title of a new Netflix documentary, Hating Peter Tatchell.

Directed by Christopher Amos, the film will be presented by The Sydney Sentinel at a special community screening on Sunday, 27 February as part of Queer Screen’s 29th Mardi Gras Film Festival. Amos will attend the screening and take part in a Q&A directly afterwards.

There’s a sense the titular hate energises Tatchell; has become part of his brand.

He certainly recognises the invitation of drama which, as Stephen Fry describes in the documentary, makes him a “performance artist”.

Tatchell says he has always conceived of protest as performance.

“I’ve tried to adapt the camp tradition of theatricality in protests like the mass queer wedding, the same-sex kiss-in and the turning in at police stations of gay men for crimes related to having sex with other men,” he tells The Sentinel. 

Many most closely associate Tatchell with LGBT protest group OutRage! which ran such non-violent civil disobedience direct actions from 1990 to 2011. Whilst a prominent member, he never led the group. 

Prior to that he’d been active in the radical Gay Liberation Front.

But his activism started before that in his home country: Australia. 

Official trailer for Hating Peter Tatchell. The Sentinel will present a community screening of the film at 2.30pm Sunday, 27 February at Event Cinemas George Street as part of Queer Screen’s 29th Mardi Gras Film Festival. Video: WildBear Entertainment/YouTube.

Leaving Australia

Growing up in Melbourne, Tatchell was political right from school, when he, as school captain, campaigned in favour of Aboriginal rights.

The hate was clear early on. In response, his headmaster claimed he’d been manipulated by communists.

Undeterred, the teenage Tatchell continued campaigning, an anti-Vietnam War stance his next chosen cause. Protest at the draft was ultimately why, aged 19, he left Melbourne for London in 1971, where he has lived since. Nevertheless, he today describes being Australian as a “fundamental part of my being”.

He was last in Australia in 2019 and very much hopes to return for his mother’s 95th birthday in August.

But the country’s record on equality disappoints him.

“I’m astonished by the Religious Discrimination Bill and by the failings of LGBT+ relationships in schools,” he says.

Whilst watching his homeland celebrate the introduction of marriage equality in 2017 was a “joyful moment”, he adds that “it should’ve happened years previously. The way it was held back was truly disgraceful.” 

He also describes as “shameful” Australia’s “harsh, draconian asylum system, which puts LGBT refugees at risk and treats them like criminals”.

Tatchell’s relationship with his elderly, evangelical Pentecostal mother is one of the more moving and surprising moments of the documentary.

He’s had to face the same homophobia within his own family as he has, in many ways, on the streets. 

Yet for his mother, he’s found empathy, navigating the relationship with tenderness: “Coming out should never be revenge,” he says. “It should be a process of truthfulness with the aim of bringing family and friends with you.”

As devout Pentecostals, Tatchell’s parents believed homosexuality was “a terrible sin almost on a par with murder and rape”. He chose to drop hints he was gay rather than come out with it. “If I just blurted it out, apart from possibly turning me and my boyfriend [in to] the police, they probably would’ve had a nervous breakdown,” he says.

Since leaving Australia, Peter Tatchell – pictured with pop star, DJ and television presenter Boy George at a London protest – has become the world’s most famous (or infamous) gay rights activist. Photo: Peter Tatchell/Facebook.

“He’s like Jesus”: former Archbishop of Canterbury

But he has been known to lead religious figureheads to a volte-face. Another surprising moment in the documentary comes in the interview with former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, now 86.

Tatchell famously interrupted his Easter sermon in 1998 in protest at his anti-gay stance.

Carey says in the documentary he has changed his mind about Tatchell, once viewing him as a “bullying kind of chap” but now seeing him as a “figure for good and equality”. He even compares him, in that sense, to Jesus Christ.

Tatchell found that comparison “over the top,” but says the generous reassessment shows “that people who are enemies don’t have to remain that way”. Carey’s journey towards acceptance is, he says, although not yet fully complete, “a great testament to the power of protest and persuasion”. 

In a departure from his usual tone, he adds wryly that he certainly hopes his life won’t end in crucifixion. 

It’s not a complete exaggeration; he has faced up to violence in a way some describe as courageous and others see as crazy.

Russian thugs in Red Square, along with Mugabe’s brutal bodyguards when he attempted a citizen’s arrest for human rights abuses, brutally bashed Tatchell, leading to lifelong brain-related injuries which affect his concentration today.

They haven’t, however, affected his work ethic; it’s nearly midnight and the 70-year-old is patient and considerate in his responses after a full day of activism work for the Peter Tatchell Foundation, which he founded in 2011.

Activists, led by Peter Tatchell, gatecrash then Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey’s Easter sermon in 1998. Carey has since had a volte-face and has compared Tatchell to Jesus Christ. Video: AP Archive/YouTube.

“Of course the police and Liberals should be banned from Mardi Gras”

A sense of Tatchell’s dogged agitating radicalism is given by his support of radical left wing group Pride in Protest, which has a seat on the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras board and pressures the organisation to ban the police and the Liberal Party from marching in the Mardi Gras Parade.

“Of course they should be banned from Mardi Gras,” he says. “Individual members should be welcomed but not as an organised political grouping until they give up their homophobia. Mardi Gras should be inclusive for everyone. But not those who oppress our community.”

He compares the group to his own Reclaim Pride march, which he has used in recent years to “challenge the ways Pride has put the corporate and commercial agenda before the human rights one”. He has also argued the police shouldn’t be able to march in London Pride “until they make a public apology for the harassment and persecution of the LGBT+ community”.

Peter Tatchell explains the motivations and core demands behind the Reclaim Pride London march. Video: Peter Tatchell/YouTube.

His critics

The documentary features some of Tatchell’s critics who come from within his own LGBTQI community.

One is Angela Mason, former CEO of UK lesbian and gay equality lobbying group, Stonewall, who confesses she occasionally thought Tatchell was “on a bit of an ego trip” and describes his “angry mode of politics” as “verging on the self-righteous”.

Stonewall co-founder Sir Ian McKellen, who interviews Tatchell in the documentary, says OutRage! “erected the barricades” whilst Stonewall “sat down and had a cup of tea”.

Tatchell tells the The Sentinel, “You need both the radical and the conservative. That’s been proven by every successful social movement in history. Stonewall could then step in and say, ‘You don’t have to deal with those nasty OutRage! people; come and speak to us, we’re nice, polite and respectable.’” 

For someone so anti-system, a curiosity is Tatchell’s unsuccessful attempts at joining it; he has run for Labour in Bermondsey (1983) and, later, the Greens in 2007, but gave up his aspiring political ambitions in 2009 due to brain damage sustained in part by violence at protests. 

He names campaigning for civil partnerships for straight couples who “don’t necessarily want to enter the patriarchal, sexist institution of marriage” as another fundamental difference. “That was discrimination,” he says. “We got no support from other LGBT+ organisations. They were just in a little gay bubble, without any concern for anybody else. I think that was pretty disgraceful.”

Similarly, Tatchell will step in to support Christian preachers who “simply say homosexuality is wrong” and then are “arrested, dragged to court and convicted”. He describes such behaviour as “an abuse of their right to free speech”.

This steadfast radicalism led OutRage! to undertake some controversial actions, most notably a 1994 ‘outing’ campaign of closeted gay bishops for their “hypocrisy” of preaching homophobic sermons. In some cases, he was contacted by angry former partners, who told him they were gay. 

When asked if he has any regrets, the only one he names is not outing “more hypocrites, sooner”.  

He wishes he’d used that “queer self-defence tactic” on LGBT+ MPs who voted against equalising the age of consent in 1994 and later came out as gay. He names Conservative former MP Michael Portillo, who he says was “responsible for witch hunting LGBT+ people out of the armed forces”.

One such MP died of a heart attack the day a newspaper planned to out him.

Peter Tatchell wishes he had outed British journalist, TV presenter and former politician Michael Portillo (pictured) who, he says, was “responsible for witch hunting LGBT+people out of the armed forces”. While Portillo does not identify as gay and is married to a woman, he confirmed in 1999 that he has had “homosexual experiences”. Photo: Fremantle Media UK.

Some 1997 comments have followed Tatchell around after he told The Guardian that some of his friends had sex with adults from the ages of nine to 13, yet don’t feel they were abused, and that this was a conscious choice that “gave them joy”.

He went on to say: “While it may be impossible to condone paedophilia, it is time society acknowledged the truth that not all sex involving children is unwanted, abusive and harmful.”

He later said: “I was not endorsing their viewpoint but merely stating that they had a different perspective from the mainstream opinion about intergenerational sex.”

To this day, the comments remain deeply controversial. But Tatchell continues to pursue a reduction in the age of consent to 14, with some qualifiers. 

He says that, as increasing numbers are having sex before 16 in Britain, the consent age should be lowered “providing there’s no more than two or three years difference in the partners’ ages. And it goes hand in hand with better education in schools against abuse, to encourage young people to say no to unwanted sex and to report abusers.”

Sir Ian McKellen, Peter Tatchell and Hating Peter Tatchell director Christopher Amos (left to right) behind the scenes filming in London, February 2020. Christopher Amos will attend the Sentinel’s community screening of Hating Peter Tatchell on Sunday, 27 February at Queer Screen’s Mardi Gras Film Festival and participate in a Q&A afterwards. Photo: © Christopher Amos/supplied.

Postponed party

We finish on a lighter note. 

Due to Covid, Tatchell’s 70th birthday party has been postponed.

I ask if Elton John and David Furnish, executive producers of the documentary, along with those featured in it (Stephen Fry, Ian McKellen) will be on the glittering guest list.

He allows a small smile. “Maybe,” he says. “We’ll have to see if schedules align.”

Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. He used to work for Stonewall. Twitter: @garynunn1.

The Sentinel will present a $10 community screening of Hating Peter Tatchell at 2.30pm Sunday, 27 February at Event Cinemas George Street, Sydney as part Queer Screen’s 29th Mardi Gras Film Festival. The event will feature the film’s director Christopher Amos live in person for a post-screening Q&A. For tickets and further information, visit https://tix.queerscreen.org.au/Sessions/Hating-Peter-Tatchell-In-Cinema-.

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