A word with Peter Tatchell
You’ve been a prominent activist for human rights since the late 1960s – what keeps you going?
I love other people and love justice, equality and freedom. These ideals, and my natural optimism, sustain me. Despite some setbacks, the trajectory of history is to triumph over oppression. There are many campaigns that I’ve been involved with where our collective action has won great victories, such as the movements against apartheid in South Africa, the US war in Vietnam and against communist tyranny in the Soviet bloc.
Plus, I’ve had the joy of assisting thousands of victims of human rights abuses to secure redress. It has often been hard, exhausting work, but these successes energize and inspire me to keep going. The positive feedback I get from people I’ve helped and worked with is also a great motivator.
What were your early inspirations?
As a teenager growing up in the 1960s, I was inspired by the courage and defiance of the black civil rights movement in the US – especially by Martin Luther King and the freedom riders. I embraced their tactics of nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience as a means to secure political change.
Other inspirations include Mohandas Gandhi and Sylvia Pankhurst. I adapted some of their ideas and protest methods to my own contemporary struggle for human rights – and invented a few of my own.
What was it like growing up in a conservative family?
My family were working-class conservatives bordering on Christian fundamentalists, very similar to the family depicted by Jeanette Winterson in her book, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Life revolved around the family and the church.
My parents had no social conscience or interest in politics. They did not approve of my teenage activism. My stepfather would quote St Paul: the powers that be are ordained by God. I retorted: What, even Hitler and Stalin? I got a beating for answering back. But after about 30 years, my parents began to understand and respect my work.
How do you feel about the upcoming British elections?
The general election will be a farce because of the unfair, anti-democratic voting system
The general election will be a farce because of the unfair, anti-democratic voting system. First-past-the-post worked fine when there were only two parties. But it’s unfit for purpose when we have five-plus significant parties.
The next parliament, like its predecessors, will not be representative of all voters. Millions of people who vote for smaller parties like the Greens will get few MPs. From 1955-2005, not a single British government won a majority of the popular vote. In 2005, Labour won 35 per cent of the vote but bagged 55 per cent of the seats. That’s not democratic. We need a form of proportional representation like they have in the Scottish elections – and a new Chartist-style movement to make it happen.
What do you think is the biggest struggle for human rights at the moment?
There are many huge challenges: to end global poverty and stop climate destruction. To empower women and girls, who represent half of humanity and are the single largest oppressed social group on the planet.
To support Muslims worldwide, who are the victims of Islamist extremism. And to defend civil liberties that are under attack in the name of defending democracy against terrorism. You don’t defend freedom by undermining it.
Why do you think so many are still against LGBTI people?
Organized religion is the major global force against LGBTI equality. It pushes homophobic values and laws that discriminate against LGBTI people. I find this odd.
Love and compassion are at the heart of most faiths, yet when it comes to matters of sexuality, most religious leaders promote prejudice and discrimination. They cherry-pick and distort relatively minor bits of holy text to justify their bigotry.
Another factor is the scapegoating mob mentality. Many people seem to need a minority to despise, to make them feel superior and to blame for the ills they suffer. The rejection of ‘the other’ and their persecution as ‘the enemy within’ recurs a lot throughout history.
Minority races, faiths, ethnicities and sexualities have all been victims. Leaders such as [Vladimir] Putin in Russia and [Yoweri] Museveni in Uganda are cynically colluding with the demonization of the LGBTI community as a way of distracting public attention from their government’s failings.
What are you most proud of?
The two attempted citizen’s arrests of the Zimbabwean tyrant Robert Mugabe. I did not succeed, but they helped raise public awareness about his human rights abuses.
The work you do requires a lot of time and energy, and you’ve had your share of unpleasantness along the way. Do you ever feel lonely?
I am too busy to get lonely. My many campaigns involve working with lots of interesting, kind-hearted people. I tend to work 14 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and have not had a holiday for seven years. I live with never-ending hate mails and death threats from human rights abusers and their allies. It’s a tough life but a rewarding one. Thankfully, I have wonderful, supportive friends.
When were you most afraid?
In Brussels in 2001, when I was beaten unconscious by President Mugabe’s minders as I tried to make a citizen’s arrest on charges of torture. And again in Moscow in 2007, when I was bashed by neo-Nazis while supporting the bid by Russian LGBTI activists to hold a Gay Pride march. Both times, I thought I was going to be killed. Luckily, I escaped with just some minor brain and eye damage.
Who would you like to banish from the planet?
I don’t want to banish anyone. But I would like to banish prejudice, inequality, war, and poverty. I’d prefer human rights abusers to see the wrong they are doing and become human rights defenders. I believe in redemption and forgiveness.