is a lifelong campaigner for human rights. In 1995, he was described as a ‘prize pervert’ by the Daily Express and ‘public enemy number one’ by the Sunday Times. Four years later, the latter called him a ‘national hero’ and the Daily Mail declared him ‘an example to us all’.
Steve Turner met him at his flat in south-east London on 20 March 2002.
Photography: Andrew Firth
You seem in your public pronouncements to see things very much in black and white. Is there a degree of fundamentalism in your background?
My parents are very devout Pentecostals. I was never a fundamentalist, but I was brought up in the Christian gospel. But from the age of 12 or 13 I began to question the very dogmatic approach of that particular denomination, and around the age of 17 or 18 I rejected it all and came to a scientific-rationalist understanding of the world. Science is far from perfect and it has led us to many dark and dangerous places, but a rational explanation has got to be closer to the truth than that of a witchdoctor or a priest.
In what ways has ‘the Christian gospel’ shaped you?
My parents brought me up to do to other people what I would want them to do to me. I was taught the parable of the good Samaritan, which was interpreted as meaning that we should help strangers in need, and that was very influential in the development of my beliefs. I also embraced the idea that everybody was responsible for his or her actions – and also for what others do in their name.
There are certain values from my childhood that I retain, but they are universal, humanistic values, not Christian values. When I see people suffering, I feel a moral responsibility to do what I can to help.
How do you think most people regard you?
As someone obsessed with gay rights to the exclusion of everything else.
As rational, intelligent beings, we have the capacity to make reasoned ethical judgements about how we should behave towards each other and towards other species
And what is the truth about you?
I have always been committed to universal human rights. In the last 20 years I have tended to specialise in sexual equality because it is an area of particular neglect and of very grave injustice. Amnesty International only took up lesbian and gay human rights in the Nineties. Until 1991, homosexuality was still classified as an illness by the World Health Organisation. Until I helped to expose it in 1998, there had been a massive conspiracy by Western governments to disguise and protect Nazis who had been involved in the most horrific experiments on gay concentration-camp prisoners.
Unlike a group like Stonewall,1stonewall.org.uk which has always argued for gay-rights legislation, I’ve always pushed for broad-based, comprehensive human-rights laws to protect everyone, including lesbians and gay men. My proposal for an Unmarried Partners Act would give new legal rights to all unwed couples, both gay and heterosexual. I recognise that unmarried men and women who live together and love each other have very few rights in law, and that’s wrong, too.
How did you first become active in campaigning for human rights?
I initially became involved when I was 13, in Melbourne, over the issue of capital punishment. An escaped convict was sentenced to death for shooting a prison warder during his escape.2See wikipedia.org/Ronald_Ryan. I worked out that he couldn’t possibly have shot this warder, because of the trajectory of the bullet through his body, so I joined the campaign against capital punishment. It’s almost certain that the man who was hanged was innocent.
When I was 16, I helped to organise a sponsored walk to raise money for scholarships for aboriginal children and raised over 100,000 Australian dollars, which in 1968 was a phenomenal sum. I have been involved in the battle for aboriginal land rights ever since.
Other issues over the years include exposing the genocide in East Timor and in the neighbouring territory of West Papua, which is still under Indonesian occupation. Well over 100,000 people in West Papua have been murdered by the Indonesians in the last 30 years, but the world has pretty much turned its back on the people there.
Since you have a scientific-rationalist worldview, on what basis do you think it is meaningful to say that human beings have rights?
As rational, intelligent beings, we have the capacity to make informed, reasoned ethical judgements about how we should behave towards each other and towards other species. The aim must be to minimise pain and suffering and maximise happiness and fulfilment. That to me is the basis upon which all ideas of human rights are founded.
When there is a conflict between rights, as there often is, how do we decide which takes precedence?
In 1999, my OutRage! colleagues and I ambushed Robert Mugabe and I had him physically under arrest. We had all the legal documentation necessary – but the police let him go and arrested us
Based on those principles, there is no conflict – they provide the ethical framework for resolving conflict. For instance, the blood-sports lobby claim that hunting with dogs is their right. My response is: No, it is not. There is no right to inflict cruelty on other living, sentient things.
How do you know that?
I don’t know it: it’s a belief. Ethics isn’t in the realm of knowing, it’s in the realm of belief.
When you attempted to carry out a citizen’s arrest of Robert Mugabe, what were you hoping to achieve?
The aim was simply to raise public awareness about his abuse of human rights and to press the case for his prosecution under international human-rights laws. I was always conscious that I might not succeed but I hoped that my actions would draw attention to his tyranny and the need for the world to get tough with his regime.
There were two incidents, the first in London and the second in Brussels. In 1999 in London, my OutRage!3See outrage.org.uk. colleagues and I ambushed President Mugabe’s motorcade and I had him physically under arrest. I grabbed him and read him the charge: ‘President Mugabe, I am arresting you for torture. Torture is a crime under international law.’ Even though we had all the legal documentation necessary to prosecute him under Section 134 of the 1988 Criminal Justice Act, the police let him go and arrested us.
If the Government had listened to us then, Robert Mugabe would probably [have been put] on trial and the people of Zimbabwe would have been spared much suffering.
Did that incident change public perceptions of you?
Yes. Suddenly, a lot of the papers that had demonised me started praising me as a national hero.
You discovered that you were gay when you were 17. Was that traumatic?
I was brought up to believe that homosexuality was one of the worst possible sins, almost on a par with murder; but when I began to realise that I was gay and had my first gay experience, the rational part of my personality immediately understood that it was perfectly natural, wholesome and fulfilling. I didn’t have any crisis whatsoever.
Did that surprise you?
A bit, but I was able to see that, set against the dogma of Christianity, with its fierce condemnation of homosexuality, the reality was utterly different. It brought me and the man that I loved supreme mutual fulfilment and happiness. That was another factor in my rejection of religious fundamentalism and dogmatism.
How did Christians react when you came out?
The big difference between me and the Archbishop of Canterbury is that he wants to impose his morality on me but I don’t want to impose my morality on him
My family found it quite difficult to deal with, but eventually they came to the reconciliation that I was their son and they had a duty to love me – and that nothing in Christ’s teaching countenanced the persecution of gay people.
Do they support you now?
They still think that homosexual acts are wrong but they are very supportive of my campaign to challenge homophobic discrimination, because they believe it is fundamentally anti-Christian. My mother is aghast [that] the Archbishop of Canterbury4Dr George Carey, who was interviewed for High Profiles in October 1997 [is openly] preaching the gospel of discrimination. This man poses as the leader of a Christian church and yet he is advocating something without any foundation in Christ’s gospel of love.
What should he be advocating if – like your mother – he believes that homosexual acts are wrong? Is that belief itself, in your view, discriminatory?
No. Discrimination is an action. I respect entirely the right of Christians to disapprove of homosexuality. I think that they are misguided and intolerant, but I respect their right to hold those views. I’m not trying to compel any person of any religion to approve of homosexuality. All I want is for Christians to stop crucifying queers. The big difference between me and the Archbishop of Canterbury is that he wants to impose his morality on me but I don’t want to impose my morality on him. I’m prepared to live and let live. I don’t think he has a right to seek to use the law of the land to impose his morality on me and everyone else. That is the road to theocracy, not democracy.
But how can he (for example) recommend people for ordination who are committing acts that he believes are fundamentally wrong?
That’s another example of him seeking to impose his morality on everyone else. I don’t think that imposing discrimination is something anyone should ever do. I have never sought to discriminate against anyone. I was the person who pioneered an attempt to get the Crime and Disorder Bill amended in 1998 to give protection to people of faith who were being subjected to hate crimes.
At the same time, the Archbishop of Canterbury and his friends were campaigning in Parliament to block the equalisation of the age of consent and to retain Section 28. If the Archbishop was to say that black or Jewish people were not entitled to human rights, there would be an absolute outcry. He would be forced to resign. But when he said he was opposed to an equal age of consent, what he was saying was that the law should remain as it is – and, as it was, 16-year-old men involved in consenting gay relationships could be imprisoned for up to two years. Is that a Christian attitude? I don’t think so.
Christians are perfectly entitled to live their lives according to their particular beliefs. What they are not entitled to do is demand a theocracy where their views are imposed on everyone else by force of law.
People shouldn’t express hatred towards queers, but I don’t think hateful ideas and language should be a crime. Freedom of speech has to be safeguarded even if that means tolerating bigotry
Are you not trying to influence the law yourself?
I am not trying to force any Christian to live a gay lifestyle. I am not proposing that a Christian should be penalised because of their beliefs or lifestyle.
Can you see a day when it is illegal for the church to say that homosexual practice is a sin?
I can imagine it, but I wouldn’t support it. People who express homophobic attitudes diminish themselves and cause great distress and offence to lesbians and gay men, but free speech is so important that this is something that the queer community has to put up with. People shouldn’t express hatred towards queers, but I don’t think hateful ideas and language should be a crime. Freedom of speech has to be safeguarded even if that means tolerating bigotry.
If someone says that homosexual acts are wrong, is that ‘expressing hatred’?
No, I don’t think I would go that far. There are laws against incitement of hatred in a number of European countries, which are well intentioned but open to abuse. Just recently a Muslim cleric was prosecuted in the Netherlands for inciting hatred against homosexual men and women. I don’t know precisely what he said, but I’m not in favour of that unless his words directly incited violence or were likely to invoke attacks. If someone says that homosexuals are sinful, it’s offensive but I don’t think they should be prosecuted.
Do you think that anyone who disapproves of homosexual practice is automatically homophobic?
Yes, in the same way that I think that anyone who disapproves of black people is a racist.
Dr Carey and his colleagues believe that heterosexuality is superior to homosexuality and from that they argue that it is right for the law to discriminate against gays. It is a form of heterosexual supremacism which is analogous to the white supremacism of apartheid.
Surely there’s a difference? Every sexual act has a moral and spiritual dimension and involves a choice. No one chooses to be black or white.
No difference whatsoever. Discrimination is wrong on whatever basis it is perpetuated. It doesn’t matter whether you are born gay or choose to be gay: as a human being you have a right to respect and dignity full stop. If you were brought up as a Muslim but choose to be a Christian, does that mean it is right to discriminate against you because you choose your religious faith? No, it doesn’t.
Would you expect Christians to revise their theology just because some people find it offensive?
Well, the church has changed its theology on the issue of the ordination of women. Why shouldn’t it change its attitude on homosexuality?
Is there any theology that is not negotiable?
Yes: Jesus’ gospel of love and compassion. That is a core, inviolable principle.
How do you know that?
That is the essence of his teaching.
Isn’t it a bit rich to accept the bits of the Bible that fit your lifestyle and reject the bits that challenge it?
The church itself says that lots of things in the Bible are no longer relevant. Centuries ago, it endorsed colonialism and slavery, citing St Paul’s injunction that Christians have a duty to obey authority. No Christian leaders nowadays take that view.
You have written that ‘if in childhood we all have the potential to choose homosexuality … it follows that in a more enlightened society a much higher proportion of the population might take that option.’5See petertatchell.net/lgbt_rights/psychiatry/freud.
Do you mean that there are children who in the normal run of things wouldn’t consider homosexual practice who might consider it if it were presented as a perfectly wholesome alternative to heterosexual sex?
No. Everybody has a homosexual and a heterosexual component – no one is 100-per-cent straight or gay. In a more liberal, tolerant society, some people who have a homosexual desire within them that is repressed may feel more comfortable about expressing feelings that they have hidden and suppressed.
Do you want children to be taught that homosexual and heterosexual practice are morally equivalent?
Children should be given information on all forms of human sexuality and emotions, which should be presented in a moral framework emphasising the importance of mutual consent, respect and fulfilment. Beyond that, they should be given the choice to make their own decisions at whatever age they feel appropriate. I don’t think parents have any right to keep children in ignorance. That is a form of child abuse.
Is there any sexual practice that ought to be illegal?
The moral framework for all sexual relationships should be mutual consent, respect and fulfilment. Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you. If you wouldn’t want to be raped, don’t rape anyone else. There is no right to fulfil yourself by abusing other people.
Do you think Christians misinterpret what the Bible says about homosexual behaviour, or do you think it means what they say but it happens to be wrong?
I think the Bible is very explicit in Leviticus. It says that homosexuals are an abomination and should be put to death.6‘If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads’ (Leviticus 20:13, NIV) And so for 1,800 years the church endorsed the mass murder of homosexuals, particularly during the Middle Ages and during the Inquisition. It only stopped in the mid 19th century. For gay people, the Bible is pretty much the equivalent of what Mein Kampf is for Jews.
Christian homophobes seize with pleasure on those bits of the Bible that demonise lesbian and gay people and then very conveniently ignore the adjacent passages when it comes to their own personal lives. In Leviticus, there are also demands that followers of God should not eat shellfish and that men should not cut the corners of their beards or wear clothes of mixed fibres.7See Leviticus 11:9–12, 19:27 and 19:19. But if those instructions are no longer meant to be followed, why do Christians so often cite the Old Testament’s condemnation of homosexuality? Jesus condemned many sins, but he never once condemned homosexuality. There is no basis in his teaching for homophobia.
I have had bricks through the windows, three arson attempts, bomb plots and even a bullet through the door. I have been attacked with fists, iron bars, bottles, bricks, hammers and baseball bats
How do Christians tend to treat you?
If they attack me, it tends to be verbal, sometimes in the street but more often by letters or emails, which either urge me to repent or threaten that I’ll be killed (quoting Leviticus). I presume that they think God will kill me rather than they will. I don’t for one minute think they are representative of Christian opinion.
Have you met Christians who have been compassionate and understanding?
There are many individual Christians who show exemplary standards of love and compassion towards people of other faiths and other sexualities; but the leadership of the church does not.
I believe that you’ve suffered a great deal of violence over the years.
Since I stood for Parliament as the Labour candidate for Bermondsey in 1983 I have had well over 500 attacks on my home and personal assaults in the street. There have been bricks through the windows, three arson attempts, bomb plots and even a bullet through the door. I have been attacked in the street with fists, iron bars, bottles, bricks, hammers, baseball bats and other makeshift weapons. These are attacks that specifically target me because of my stance on human rights, particularly the rights of lesbian and gay people.
When Robert Mugabe’s bodyguards attacked me I was beaten unconscious. The vision in my left eye was damaged, and I have minor brain damage which causes memory loss and moments of slight incoherence.
Are these attacks less frequent now?
Yes. It’s now down to maybe two or three a month. I think many people would find that extremely difficult to deal with, as I do. My local council, Southwark, refuse to move me, even though the local police commander says it’s the worst case of harassment and victimisation he has ever come across. According to his records, people have been moved overnight with less than 10 per cent of the attacks that I have experienced. My local doctor says it’s amazing that I haven’t committed suicide.
Have you ever thought about it?
No, but it has caused me considerable stress and depression. There have been periods when there have been attacks almost every day. Nearly all my teeth are chipped and cracked from the way I have been beaten up by queer-bashers. Often when I eat I am in constant pain because all the nerves are exposed.
Where do you get the strength to keep going?
I am inspired by the commitment (as well as by the politics and tactics) of people like Sylvia Pankhurst, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
Perhaps there is a bit of stubbornness, not wanting to be thwarted by the hate campaign against me.
Also, the successes I have helped to bring about have been a deep motivation. In the late Eighties, the number of gay men being convicted for consensual homosexual behaviour was almost as great as at the peak of the anti-gay witchhunt in 1954–55. So, OutRage! began a very high-profile direct-action campaign of invading police stations and busting undercover operations. Within a year, the police were sitting down to negotiate, and within three years the number of gay men convicted for consensual behaviour fell by two-thirds, the biggest, fastest fall ever. That kind of success spurs me on to do more.
I have a sense of moral responsibility. I love other people and I loathe injustice – whether that injustice is against gay people or anyone else. There is no point professing a commitment to human rights if you don’t do something about it.
A longer version of this interview was originally published in the May 2002 issue of Third Way.
|⇑4||Dr George Carey, who was interviewed for High Profiles in October 1997|
|⇑6||‘If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads’ (Leviticus 20:13, NIV)|
|⇑7||See Leviticus 11:9–12, 19:27 and 19:19.|
Peter Tatchell was born in Melbourne in 1952 and educated at Mount Waverley High School, which he left at the age of 16. Three years later, he came to Britain to avoid being conscripted to fight an ‘unjust and genocidal’ war in Vietnam.
He did A-levels at night school at West London College before studying sociology at the Polytechnic (now the University) of North London. At the same time, he emerged as a leading activist with the Gay Liberation Front.
He joined the Labour Party in 1978, and stood for Parliament in 1983 in a by-election in Bermondsey. The constituency was flooded with anonymous leaflets denouncing him as a homosexual, extremist and traitor, giving his home address and urging the public to ‘have a go’. He lost the previously safe seat by 10,000 votes.
He devoted himself then more or less full-time to campaigning for ‘queer human rights’, undertaking a major research project from 1985 to 1992 which documented the legal status of lesbians and gay men throughout Europe.
In 1987, he founded the UK Aids Vigil Organisation, the first movement in the world to campaign for the civil liberties of people with HIV. Two years later, he was one of the founding members of its successor, Act Up London. He also drafted the world’s first comprehensive charter on Aids and human rights.
In 1990, he co-founded the ‘queer rights’ direct-action group OutRage!, in reaction to the murder by ‘queer bashers’ of the gay actor Michael Boothe. Its distinctive style of campaigning has included gay weddings and crucifixions, and the exorcism of the ‘demon of homophobia’ outside Lambeth Palace.
In 1991/92 and 1998, he was involved in OutRage!’s sex-education campaign ‘It’s OK to be Gay’. In 1995, after OutRage! outed 10 Church of England bishops that it alleged were hypocrites and homophobes, he was described as ‘pure poison’ by the Evening Standard, a ‘homosexual terrorist’ by the Daily Mail and a ‘Fascist’ by the Daily Telegraph.
In 1996, he proposed his Unmarried Partners Act, which offered the same legal rights as marriage to unwed gay and straight couples, allowing partners to pick and mix from a menu of rights and responsibilities to create their own agreements.
In 1997, he was the prime mover in OutRage!’s ‘Queer Remembrance Day’ ceremony at the Cenotaph, immediately after the official service. It was condemned by the British Legion as an insult to the dead. In 1998, with other members of OutRage!, he disrupted the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter sermon in protest at Dr Carey’s alleged support for discrimination against lesbians and gay men. He was charged and convicted under the Ecclesiastical Court’s Jurisdiction Act of 1860, and was fined £18.60.
He has also campaigned for the age of consent to be lowered to 14 for everyone, gay and straight, on the grounds that that is now the average age of first sexual experience and it is wrong to criminalise people involved in consenting, victimless relationships.
He is the author of over 2,000 published articles, and six books: The Battle for Bermondsey (1983); Democratic Defence: A non-nuclear alternative (1985); Aids: a Guide to Survival (1986); Europe in the Pink (1992); Safer Sexy: the guide to gay sex safely (1994), ‘the most sexually explicit book ever published in Britain’; and We Don’t Want to March Straight: Masculinity, queers and the military (1995).
Up-to-date as at 1 April 2002