Interview: Peter Tatchell

Peter Tatchell’s front door, possibly the most forbidding I have ever stood at. A police notice, warning me that Tatchell’s flat is under 24 hours surveillance, presumably to deter have-a-go homophobes. Even in the dim December evening light, the message clearly stands out: Tatchell is a protected individual.

Fortunately, the man himself is far more welcoming. He invites me in to his study to discuss his campaign to improve the plight of his fellow human being. The study itself is a testament to the sheer breadth and scope of that campaign. Rainbow LGBT flags jostle for space alongside placards denouncing Ahmadinejad.

Somehow, this isn’t surprising. Tatchell first came to mass public attention as a tireless opponent of the infamous Section 28, which banned local councils and schools from ‘promoting’ homosexuality, and his arguably ill-fated attempt to put Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe under citizen’s arrest. In between, he’s championed everything from lowering the age of consent to 14 to self-rule for Cornwall. So what is the common link in all his campaigns?

“The core thing that motivates me is a love of other people and a love of social justice. I’m not driven by hate or anger; love is the driving force. I don’t want to see others suffer, for the same reason that I myself don’t want to suffer.

“To me, wherever we live on this planet, we’re all part of the same vast human family. The fate of a person in Bangladesh or Sierra Leone is just as important to me as that of my neighbour next door.”

The antithesis of his worldview, he claims, is organised religion, “the biggest single threat to human rights is organised religion, no doubt about it.

“Wherever you look in the world, fundamentalist Christians, Judaists, Muslims and Hindus are wreaking havoc and destroying people’s lives by the imposition of dogmatic religious morality.”

But Tatchell reserves his most intense criticism for the Pope, slamming Benedict’s opposition to contraception, fertility treatment and abortion in no uncertain terms: “He is not a moral leader, he is unfit to be Pope, he is unfit to be even a parish priest.”

Tatchell’s strong words, controversial as they are, bring to the fore a salient feature of his campaigning work: the sheer amount of backlash he has faced for being so vocal about his beliefs. Tatchell recently announced his withdrawal as the Green Party’s candidate in Oxford East in the upcoming parliamentary elections, putting it down to health problems following a series of physical attacks he has been subject to over in the years. Attacks that his front-door sign stand testament to.

Best known of these attacks was the beating he suffered after his attempted citizen’s arrest of President Robert Mugabe. Still, it is clear that he has no regrets. He speaks without hesitation, firm in his decision to bring Mugabe to international attention: “I knew it was risky, I knew there was a risk of arrest, a beating, possibly even getting shot, but I calculated it was a risk worth taking in order to focus international attention on what Mugabe was doing.”

Next to his international work on human rights, Tatchell seems, if anything, a little uncomfortable with discussing the causes he first gained public attention for, that of LGBT rights: “People over-focus on my LGBT stuff. It’s not unimportant, but it’s not the only story. To me, the right to love and have sex with the person of one’s choice, without prejudice or discrimination or violence, is a fundamental human right.”

While conceding that Britain has made huge steps to move away from the bigotry of his years as a young man coming to terms with his sexuality, Tatchell lets me know that he isn’t going to stop putting up the pressure, in spite of the pain, injuries and beatings he may receive. Which probably means that the sign on his front door is going to stay there for some time.