Interview by Jack Nichols
Tatchell and Outrage! call them to account for their hypocrisies.
International News Correspondent Rex Wockner points out how some say the gay movement lacks a super-inspirational figure – like a gay Martin Luther King. But Wockner confides that he has his own gay hero, Peter Tatchell, to which this interviewer shouts Bravo!
Peter Tatchell is today's living embodiment of the direct action tradition. News gatherers note how he moves speedily and fearlessly, taking on one anti-gay opponent after another. GayToday's archives are full of news stories recounting the exploits of Outrage! of which Peter Tatchell is the de facto leader.
Jack Nichols: Peter, You came out in your hometown, Melbourne, Australia, in 1969 when you were seventeen. You were inspired then by press reports of the gay and lesbian protests in New York. It was surely an inspiring timeframe. Tell me what caught your attention in that year and what it led to your doing next.
Peter Tatchell: In late 1969, aged 17 and not long after I first came out, I read a small news report in a Melbourne newspaper about a gay liberation march in New York City. My first reaction was "fantastic!", and my second was "we need something like that here too".
At the time, in my hometown, male homosexuality was totally illegal and queers could be sentenced to enforced psychiatric treatment. The police would go gay-bashing for kicks--raiding gay beats (cruising areas). They terrorized us at will--and they got away with it! There were no gay rights organizations to defend us - not even any helplines or advice services - nothing!
I wanted to do something to stop this victimization, but all my friends were too scared. They feared police victimization. To them, I was a crazy 17 year old. Their attitude was to resign themselves to living in a homophobic society. I could never accept that fatalistic defeatism.
But what could I do as an individual? Not much. So I wrote letters to newspapers challenging the denigration and persecution of gays and lesbians. It was not until I came to London in 1971, and joined the newly-formed Gay Liberation Front, that I had my first opportunity to get involved in a queer rights organization. I jumped at the opportunity. After all my solitary campaigning in Melbourne, it was a great personal liberation to join with other lesbians and gays to fight for queer freedom.
Members of Outrage! speak out against homophobia in the Anglican Church
Jack Nichols: You're a prolific writer, your books published by the Gay Men's Press in London and by Cassell. I note how you give focus to how the queer rights movement helps transform society at large. I wish we had more of this refreshing viewpoint in today's sexually repressive gay movement in America. I'd like to know which of your books elaborates on this theme most and I'd like to hear directly from you what you mean when you say that our movement is helping to create a more sex-positive culture benefiting everyone, gay and straight.
Peter Tatchell: My book, We Don't Want to March Straight: Masculinity, Queers & the Military (Cassell, London, 1995) is a good example of the anti-assimilationist queer politics that I have been trying to articulate for the last 31 years.
Offering a critique of the "gays in the military" campaign, this book questions straight institutions and values - such as the armed forces and militarism - arguing that queers should maintain a skeptical, dissenting attitude towards the dominant heterosexual culture. Some aspects of straight life are fine, others are not.
It is important for our own sense of self-worth and welfare that we are discerning about which bits of hetero society we accept and which we reject. Not everything straight is wonderful, and there are elements of queer culture that straights could learn and benefit from.
Much of the OutRage! agenda is explicitly non-conformist. We don't want to "fit in" with a screwed up, oppressive system. We want to change society in ways that will liberate people of all sexualities.
Britain's repressive anti-pornography laws are a classic case of repressive legislation that hurts straights as well as queers. It is illegal in the UK to show erect dicks or any kind of sexual penetration. Being against the whole sex-hating, puritanical dogma of orthodox morality, we want to end this censorship of sexual imagery. That would be a positive gain for everyone - gay and straight.
The legislation against porn highlights the flaws and limitations of the limited agenda of "equality". What self-respecting queer wants to be equally oppressed and censored as our straight brothers and sisters? Not me!
Equality is a good start, but it is not sufficient. Equality for queers inevitably means equal rights on straight terms, since they are the ones who dominate and determine the existing legal framework. We conform--albeit equally--with their screwed up system. That is not liberation. It is capitulation.
Jack Nichols: Your recent attempt to conduct a citizen's arrest of President Mugabe, the homophobic dictator of Zimbabwe, inspired many of us here in the States. Could you tell me what it was like to look into the face of this fellow? You managed to confront him in his automobile while he was on the way to Harrod's Department Store, right? And you were arrested by London police although all charges against you were dropped. Mugabe then attacked Britain and Tony Blair at an International Conference as having a government of queers. What have been some other results?
Peter Tatchell: Homophobes who refuse to listen to reason and show compassion have to be confronted, not appeased. Mugabe is totally intransigent in his opposition to queer human rights. We had to show him - and warn others - that they will not get away with abusing lesbians and gays. When I did my citizen's arrest, Mugabe's reaction was one of shock and horror. His face paled and his jaw dropped. He sat motionless in a state of disbelief that he was being confronted by a bunch of fags.
Mugabe is a ruler with almost absolute power. He is unused to being challenged. An radio interviewer recently asked me if I thought he was frightened. Probably he was....but I bet he was not half as frightened as the people his government has tortured and killed.
The consequences of our actions inside Zimbabwe have been immensely positive. In the weeks that followed, there were over 300 media reports about our attempted citizen's arrest and about gay rights issues.
That is extraordinary for Zimbabwe, where queer rights had been previously invisiblized and ignored by press, radio and television. It has given the local gay rights movement, GALZ (Gays And Lesbians of Zimbabwe) their highest ever public profile.
As well as highlighting gay human rights abuses, we also drew attention to Mugabe's other human rights violations (such as the torture of journalists and the masscares in Matabeleland). This approach won GALZ new respect, credibility and esteem in the broader human rights movement, which had previously been quite cool and aloof with regard to queer freedom.
Jack Nichols: GayToday will run an article tomorrow about a gay Zimbabwean professional, a Mugabe sympathizer, no less, who thinks that the dictator is not personally prejudiced but is merely mouthing typical African views. This professional man, Herbert Mondlani, formerly with GALZ (Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe) thinks GALZ ought to be educating everyday Zimbabweans first and that this will lead to changes at the political top. I'd assume that you'd see things differently?
Those many new stories and phone-in programs helped raise awareness, challenge homophobic attitudes, and begin the process of changing hearts and minds.
That is the power of direct action, as the suffragettes and the black civil rights movement also learned and proved. An OutRage!-style zap gets human rights issues onto the news agenda, which forces public debate, which in turn puts politicians under pressure to change their policies.
Jack Nichols: You have a truly international perspective. All humanity is one family, right? Not only do you care what happens to gay Zimbabweans, but you were also instrumental in the struggle to change the status of gay South Africans. Could you tell me a little about that?
Peter Tatchell: The struggle for queer rights is a universal one. It knows no boundaries.
Those of us lucky enough to operate in the relative freedom of broadly democratic nations have a special moral responsibility to do whatever we can to support our queer brothers and sisters living in more repressive states. That is why I have, over many years, helped organize solidarity campaigns to support the struggles of queers in many different countries, including Romania, Cuba, Nicaragua, China, Israel, East Germany, Iran and Russia.
From the late 1960s onwards, I was active in the anti-apartheid movement. My first direct action on that issue was disrupting the South African Surf Life-Saving Tour of Australia.
But after a while, I got fed up with the rampant homophobia of leading members of the ANC (African National Congress - the main South African anti-apartheid liberation movement). In 1987 I decided that the only way to change things was to publicly expose and condemn the ANC's homophobia.
My aim was to embarass the ANC and shame it into changing its policy. Simultaneously, I wrote a conciliatory letter to Thabo Mbeki (then ANC Director of Information - now South African President) arguing that support for queer liberation was consistent with the emancipatory principles of the ANC's Freedom Charter. Hugely embarrassed by the bad publicity over their anti-gay attitudes, but also persuaded by my arguments, in late 1987 the ANC declared for the first time its support for the human rights of lesbians and gays.
Two years later, when the exiled ANC leadership sent a team to London to draft a provisional post-apartheid constitution, I used my contacts to propose that they should include a clause giving constitutional protection against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Initially, they were a bit resistant. At that time, no constitution in the world gave such a guarantee.
So I wrote a draft clause, which helped convince the ANC that it was a practical proposition. Then I arranged for gay activists from South Africa to come to London to meet secretly with the ANC. That meeting cemented the leadership's commitment to including a ban on anti-gay discrimination in the post-apartheid constitution - a world first!
Jack Nichols: You also worked hard to change conditions throughout Europe. It seems just like yesterday that you lodged a formal complaint against the European Community. What was that about?
Peter Tatchell: The nations of Europe are in a slow process of integration, which began in the 1950s and will probably lead, eventually, to the creation of a United States of Europe. Back in the early 1990s, no gay groups in Britain were taking this emergent united Europe seriously.
Soon afterwards, the first European directive on equal rights for queers was passed. This was a small milestone that subsequently opened doors to much bigger and more positive European initiatives for gay equality.
Jack Nichols: One of my favorite stories about you is how, when you were only about twenty, you disrupted a lecture by Professor Hans Eysenck, at a conference of psychologists. He'd endorsed the use of electric-shock aversion therapy on homosexuals saying its "just like a visit to the dentist". Tell me a little about that event.
Peter Tatchell: Prof Eysenck was one of the world's most prestigious --and homophobic-- psychologists in the early 1970s. For years, he had been allowed to abuse queers with impunity.
The Gay Liberation Front got a tip off that he was going to be speaking at a big psychiatric seminar in central London. So we planned to zap him. The only trouble was that on the day, I was the only one who turned up. Although annoyed to be let down by my colleagues, I was undeterred. Sneaking into the conference room and passing off myself as a medical student, I got a good seat near the front.
When Eysenck started spouting his nonsense about "curing" homosexuality with "electric shock treatment", I interjected with polite but determined questioning. He hated being challenged, especially since he could not give convincing answers.
I was grabbed, knocked about, dragged out of the seminar, and dumped in the street. A rather ignominious end to my little protest, but not long afterwards--following other demonstrations and lobbying by progressive doctors--the medical profession abandoned its nakedly homophobic stance.
Jack Nichols: In the old East Germany, you unfurled a banner in 1973 that read "Homosexual Liberation!" This was the first gay protest in the communist countries. Could you tell mea little about what happened?
Peter Tatchell: When I was 21, I went to the 1973 World Youth Festival in East Berlin, as part of the British delegation. This Festival was a five-yearly get-together of liberal, progressive, radical and leftist youth movements from all over the world, attracting about 140,000 people.
A perfect opportunity to promote lesbian and gay liberation! Smuggling thousands of gay rights leaflets over the border from West Berlin, I was able to get the queer freedom message across to people from many different lands, which later led to some of them setting up gay groups in their own countries. But it was not all plain sailing.
My attempt to lay a pink triangle wreath at Sachsenhausen concentration camp - where many gay prisoners died - was blocked by the East German authorities. They said it was offensive. More trouble ensued when I spoke at a youth rights conference at Humbolt University.
As soon as I mentioned gay liberation, the microphone went dead and all the translations stopped. Communist officials tried to drag me off the podium, but I clung on so hard they could not move me. Eventually, fearing bad publicity (many in the audience were taking photos), they allowed me to continue, but the translations were deliberately very poor and misleading.
Another day, I was arrested and interrogated by the Stasi (the East German secret police), when they caught me handing out some of my smuggled leaflets in a park.
Fortunately, there were other British delegates with me and a big crowd of local people soon gathered to stare at this mad queer who was daring to defy the authorities. They began shouting "let him go". Again, afraid of adverse media coverage in the West, the Stasi reluctantly freed me.
On the last night of the Festival, I tried to march in Alexander Platz with a banner calling for "Homosexual Liberation". Fat chance! I was chased by the Stasi and attacked by a communist mob who ripped my placard to pieces. I had to flee back over the border into West Berlin. What an adventure! And how lucky I was not to end up incarcerated in an East German jail.
Jack Nichols: You've often been placed under police surveillance. Britain's right-wing newspapers and politicians have called you a "terrorist", a "subversive" and an "extremist". You've been threatened by neo-Nazis, and subjected to physical assaults and attacks. In short, you've lived a very exciting and satisfying life. It would make as good movie. Did you sort of write the script before it all happened-- when you were young? Did you somehow know then what you wanted to do? How did you decide on such a course in life?
Peter Tatchell: I never intended to be a queer rights activist. It was not my goal in life. When I left school, aged 16, I worked doing design and display, in Melbourne's biggest department store, Myer. Art was my main passion. I helped design and make international award winning windows and interiors. My hope was to use the skills I acquired at Myer as a stepping stone to theatre and film set design.
The Vietnam War and the draft radicalized me, as did my experiences as a gay man living in a savagely homophobic society. But my activism was, initially, just a part-time, after-work commitment.
During my period in the London Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in the early 1970s, I proved myself to be a very adept organizer, and I was extremely creative in thinking up new ways of doing protests. Many of those early GLF zaps were highly theatrical, with fabulous costumes and props.
Jack Nichols: What are some of the campaigns in which you feel most involved right now?
Peter Tatchell: Queer Remembrance Day is one of OutRage!'s very high-profile, on-going campaigns. It has helped end the official silence and indifference over the huge contribution of lesbians and gays to the defeat of Nazism. More than 500,000 queers enlisted in the British armed forces to fight Hitlerism, comprising about 10 percent of fighting strength.
Victory over fascism was also aided by the work of several notable gay individuals, such as the mathematician Alan Turing who helped break the Nazi war codes.
Queer Remembrance Day also commemorates the many homosexuals murdered by the Third Reich. The Homo Holocaust is ignored or skated over by most of the major World War II historians, such as William Shirer. His book, The Rise & Fall of the Third Reich, is rampantly homophobic.
To combat this historical revisionism, OutRage! holds an annual ceremony at the national war memorial, the Cenotaph. It takes place immediately after the national Remembrance Sunday service led by The Queen, Prime Minister and military leaders.
We claim the sacred Cenotaph as a place of queer reflection and remembrance, and lay pink wreaths in commemoration. We had to fight long and hard to win this right. Initially, gay wreaths and ceremonies were banned. We were threatened with arrest, and our wreaths were removed.
Even today, Queer Remembrance Day remains controversial and is condemned by much of the popular press. But it has been very successful in raising awareness of a previously hidden, unacknowledged dimension of queer history and sacrifice.
Members of Outrage! march in London's Pride Parade
Jack Nichols: You're a socialist. This means that you must be concerned--as I am-- about the effects of the ethics-blind profit motive on our lives generally. How Big Business Tycoons run roughshod over the earth's environment, for example. What are some of your primary views on the evils of runaway capitalist overkill?
Peter Tatchell: As someone on the democratic green left of the socialist spectrum, I have a political commitment that extends beyond queer rights. Our victimization as queers is just one aspect of a deeply unjust, oppressive society, where millions of people get a raw deal. Love and compassion compel me to want an end to all prejudice and social exclusion, and to extend my solidarity to others who are also being victimized.
Low wages, environmental pollution, bad housing, racial discrimination, second-rate schools, women's inequality, lack of disabled access and inadequate health-care: these are all terrible injustices. And they impact on many in the queer community.
We are not all white, professional men living in exclusive suburbs. Poorer gays and lesbians who live on inner-city, working class housing estates (projects) are much more likely to experience homophobic harassment by neighbors and the police.
With low incomes, they have greater difficulty in getting legal aid to fight their victimization and are probably unable to afford to move to a safer district.
Although our common experience of homophobia unites all queers, anti-gay discrimination effects us in very different and unequal ways, depending on our race, age, sex, profession, income and HIV status. That is why we need a perspective that goes beyond the gay agenda, to encompass a much broader vision of a society where there is social justice for all.
Jack Nichols: You were first to campaign for the civil rights of Britain's HIV-positive people. You coordinated a 12,000-strong candlelight procession in London to support the human rights of people with HIV. You wrote a pioneering book about sex and AIDS too. What were some of your finest successes in the battle against AIDS, a battle I often call World War III. Do you agree that AIDS deserves such a designation?
Peter Tatchell: The 12,000-strong candlelight march in 1987 had a dramatic result. It was held on the eve of the first World Health Minister's Summit on AIDS. This Summit took place in London in an atmosphere of moralizing hysteria. There were worldwide calls to lock up people with HIV and ban international travel by those with the virus
Our march put the human rights of people with HIV on the political agenda for the first time. After lobbying the Summit leaders, their final declaration was amended to include a commitment to oppose AIDS-related discrimination.
This marked a turning point in the policies of many governments, from panic and repression to education and support. It is true that the last two decades have been like living through a war. Many of our brightest and most beautiful youth have been lost to HIV. It is usually only wars that cause so many deaths among young men.
You call it World War III; I call it the HIV Holocaust. Whatever description we use, the inescapable fact is that HIV has wrecked havoc on a global scale that is in many ways comparable to the horrors of wars and holocausts.
Jack Nichols: A great grandfather of gay liberation, in my opinion, was the Englishman, Edward Carpenter. He too was a socialist, and he was the first liberationist I ever read-- at age 15. When I visited London in 1976, none of the activists I spoke to then seemed to know about him. Since then, however, he's been republished by the Gay Men's Press. How do you feel about him?
Peter Tatchell: Carpenter was far-sighted visionary who makes many of today's lesbian and gay rights campaigners look very conservative and un-ambitious. His agenda was way beyond mere equality and civil rights. Carpenter wanted what we would now call queer emancipation.
He had a critical, questioning attitude towards the values and ideology of mainstream, heterosexual society. In particular, he dared to suggest that gay men had a unique contribution to offer for the liberation of all humanity.
Carpenter recognized that gay men not only rebel against the heterosexual focus of traditional masculinity, but also often reject the rough, aggressive nature of straight maleness. Most of us tend to be gentler and more in touch with our emotions. That it why a disproportionate number of gay men work in the arts and caring professions, such as teaching and nursing.
We make a huge - but largely unacknowledged - contribution to the social good by redefining what it means to be a man. By showing that masculinity doesn't have to involve machismo, gay men lead the way to a kinder, more humane version of maleness.
Jack Nichols: Your 1994 book, Safer Sexy, was the most explicitly sexual book ever published in Great Britain. I haven't read it. Tell me about it. Were there drawings or photographs? Erections? Or what?
Peter Tatchell: My book Safer Sexy - The Guide to Gay Sex Safely (Freedom Editions/Cassell, London 1994), was a milestone. It helped push back the boundaries of state puritanism and censorship, being the most sexually-explicit book ever published in Britain.
In full, glorious color, it features photos of 65 erections and 23 acts of oral and anal penetration. There is even a fisting shot. Such images are illegal under Britain's draconian anti-pornography laws.
We only managed to avoid prosecution by promoting the book as a sex education and HIV prevention manual. Safer Sexy has pioneered a path to greater press freedom, helping ease the previously very harsh and repressive way the obscenity laws were interpreted.
Jack Nichols: GayToday regularly reports on the shenanigans of the Religious Reich. I notice how your group, Outrage! unembarrassedly invades church services, something which makes middle-of-the-road Americans a bit nervous, or, in fact, outrages them. What are some of your views about the effects of conventional religions on our queer lives?
Peter Tatchell: While Churches all over the world recently marked the Millennium by celebrating 2,000 years of Christianity, OutRage! mourned the existence of two millennia of Christian homophobia, which has inflicted terrible pain on homosexual people.
Over the last 2,000 years, church homophobia has led to hundreds of millions of homosexuals worldwide being rejected and reviled by their families, driven to depression and suicide, discriminated against by anti-gay laws, and condemned to death for sodomy.
The Churches have never expressed any remorse for their persecution of queers. The millennium was an opportunity for them to atone for the genocide inflicted on us. We asked Christian leaders to express their sorrow for the church's crimes against queer humanity, and to offer their apologies to the lesbian and gay community. They refused.
The churches have a long and bloody history of victimizing queers. In The Bible, Leviticus 20:13 demands that homosexuals be put to death. For over 1,800 years, Christian leaders followed this Biblical injunction, sponsoring a Homo Holocaust involving the mass murder of queers.
We were stoned to death in antiquity, burned alive during the medieval era, and, in Britain, hung from gallows until the mid-nineteenth century. This slaughter of homosexuals took place with the official blessing of Popes, Cardinals and Archbishops.
While churches no longer advocate the death penalty for gay lovers, they still preach a gospel of sexual apartheid, arguing that homosexuality should not be accorded the same moral or legal status as heterosexuality.
This straight supremacist doctrine is used to justify the abuse of queers as second class citizens. Most Christians continue to support legalized discrimination against lesbian and gay people with regard to the age of consent, marriage, employment, and the fostering and adoption of children.
Jack Nichols: Peter, you've lived through decades of rapid social change on gay issues. There are openly-gay cabinet members today. The British military has just recently buckled under--being forced to grant fairness and equality in its ranks. The generals were pushed screaming NO almost all the way, weren't they? What kinds of feelings pour over you when you look back on the successes of your self-chosen career?
Peter Tatchell: My queer human rights activism is a crusade, not a career. I did not consciously "choose" to be a campaigner. It happened, slowly over many years. One success encouraged me to strive for others.
As I got more effective, my enthusiasm burgeoned and activism took up more and more of my energy. Eventually, in 1983, it became a full-time, but unpaid, cause. For the last 10 years I have worked 40-60 hours a week for OutRage!.
We are all volunteers. None of us get paid. Most of us have made huge personal sacrifices, in terms of our career and income, to fight for queer liberation. But the emotional reward of contributing something towards queer freedom far outweighs any financial difficulties we experience. We fight the good fight with gladness and joy.
Jack Nichols: When Lige Clarke and I took part in the 1965 ECHO conference, we met Boston's first gay activist, Prescott Townsend. We were having lunch when he leaned close and told us in a whisper: "It's the culture we've got to change, the culture." What do you think about that?
Peter Tatchell: Changing discriminatory laws is important, but it counts for little if we don't also change homophobic attitudes. Formal legal equality does not mean acceptance and equal treatment, as the black communities know only too well.
Despite more than three decades of racial equality legislation in Britain, black people still suffer racist bias in employment, policing, education and housing. Their experience of the limitations of equal rights legislation is something the queer community should learn from. It serves to highlight the importance of securing a much deeper change in cultural values and institutions.
The end result is that straight people reassess the way they think about and behave towards their queer family members, neighbors and work colleagues. That makes a huge positive difference to our lives - often even bigger and more substantial than formal changes in the law.
Jack Nichols: You are a visionary. What are some of the hopes you have for developments in the future? What do you see coming down the road--in Britain— in the world?
Peter Tatchell: My ultimate objective is help create a society where people no longer define themselves as gay, straight and bisexual. When all three orientations are deemed equally valid and all intolerance is eradicated, there will be no need to differentiate between people of different sexualities.
True queer liberation is when nobody cares who's hetero, homo or bi; when we can love whoever we want - man or woman - without fear of ostracism, prejudice, discrimination or violence.
Jack Nichols: Thank you, Peter, for agreeing to this interview. I consider it a marvelous coup for GayToday. And here's wishing you a long life making the too-comfortable bourgeoisie sit up everywhere and take notice, with the lives of others much-bettered as a result.
Peter Tatchell can be reached at email@example.com or at the OutRage! Web site: www.tatchell.freeserve.co.uk