Tatchell told to retire after life of campaigning

by
20 May 2010

by Simon Jones

PETER TATCHELL is the kind of campaigner who belies the myth that activism wanes as one ages. He started early: at school in Australia, the son of a Pentecostalist couple, he led campaigns in support of the indigenous aboriginal population. Aged 13, he raised more than $A100,000 for children’s scholar­ships. It is an issue to which he has returned recently, now nearing 60, proposing that Australian cities should be given their original Abor­iginal placenames.

In between came the infamous outing of ten Anglican bishops in 1994 with the “queer equality” group OutRage!, and his invasion of Dr Carey’s Canterbury pulpit at Easter 1998. This year is the group’s 20th anniversary, and Mr Tatchell’s profile as a gay activist has made his invitation to Greenbelt controversial in some quarters.

The Anglican campaign led to his being labelled “public enemy number one” by The Sunday Times, but he is un­abashed. “Naming those bishops exposed hypocrisy in the highest levels of the church. It prompted the Church of England to set up the first serious dialogue with the lesbian and gay community. About a month later, the House of Bishops released one of the strongest statements ever against homophobic prejudice.”

More recently, he remarked: “It’s very sad to see a good man like Rowan Williams going to such extra­ordinary lengths to appease homo­phobes within the Anglican Com­munion.”

Homosexuality, though, has been just one a series of issues in which Mr Tatchell has sought to defend human rights. Installed as the Green Party candidate in Oxford East, he had to withdraw after a diagnosis of brain damage caused by his numerous beatings.

One of those came from the body­guards of Robert Mugabe, whom he tried to arrest in 2001. Two more came from the Moscow police. “I don’t enjoy the risks,” he says, “but I recognise that they are sometimes necessary. By comparison with human-rights campaigners in Iran, Zim­babwe, or Russia, I take very few risks: I haven’t been tortured. I’ve got off lightly.”

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The arrest of Mr Mugabe was unsuc­cessful, and Mr Tatchell was charged with criminal damage, assault, and breach of the peace. When the Pope visits later this year, many are ex­pecting a similar attempt on a man Mr Tatchell describes as “the ideological inheritor of Nazi homophobia”. He has said he would like to “stop the papal mass and float condoms over the cathedral.

“I would like to try to arrest him, but there’s not a clear legal basis to do so. The Vatican is recognised as a state, and therefore, technically, he has immunity against prosecution.”

But even those who oppose Mr Tatchell’s methods recognise that his life as a provocateur is not an incon­sistent one. As his intervention in the McAlpine case demonstrates (see news pages), he opposes legislation that made it illegal for Christians to say that homosexual practice is a sin, for example. “Freedom of speech has to be safeguarded even if that means tolerating bigotry.”

Equally, his life is not a comfor­t­able one. He lives alone in a small flat, and typically works a 100-hour week. “I have to slow down,” he says. “Something has to give. My doctors have told me to retire.” Given the list of topics that animate him, it is hard to see that happening.

Peter Tatchell and the Dodge Brothers are appearing at the Greenbelt Festival, Cheltenham Race Course, 27-30 August.

www.greenbelt.org.uk

Peter Tatchell and the Dodge Brothers are appearing at the Greenbelt Festival, Cheltenham Race Course, 27-30 August.

www.greenbelt.org.uk

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