“It’s worth remembering that until 1999, Britain had [ ... ] the largest number of anti-gay laws of any country in the world, some of them dating back centuries. Yet, by 2014, just 15 years later, every single one of those laws had been repealed. That has got to be the fastest, most successful law campaign in British history, if not world history.”
The legal moves began under prime minister Tony Blair, fitting New Labour’s projected image of Cool Britannia modernity and continuing with the change of government to David Cameron’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010. In the thick of the activism and campaign work spurring those changes to British law was Melbourne-born Peter Tatchell. He explains the seemingly sudden legal and cultural about-turns on a video call from his long-since adopted home in London.
I have called the 68-year-old campaigner because I’m on a journey to learn how we, regular folks, might engage in issues more deeply to help advance positive change in our own small ways. For myself, my ability to take more part in “politics” has been limited partly on professional grounds – the informal code of journalists that says practitioners should bury their personal opinions to avoid being biased. It’s also a product of privilege – I haven’t needed to learn the details of issues that did not directly affect my own wellbeing.
But recent realisations that I’m more politically illiterate and not quite the anti-racist champion of my self-idealising imagination have prompted me to attempt two things. The first is to learn how to stick with political conversations I may barely understand and the second is to learn from communities of which I am not a part – particularly those people and groups working at the coalface of systems change.
How does a social justice campaign win?
Daylight brightens the space behind Tatchell, his figure framed by glass doors giving on to a small outside space. Clean shaven and with a neat, close crop of greying hair, the veteran LGBTQ+ activist cuts a focused figure on screen. From Tatchell, I’m hoping to glean a better understanding of identity politics – the political approach of people organising around a particular issue that concerns them or their communities directly.
I have come with questions about whether sticking to single-issue campaigns – usually along identity lines such as race, gender, class – obscures that bigger picture, while simultaneously closing down the space for shared support, collective struggle and mutual empathy. I want to know what Tatchell, who’s spent more than half a century in vocal defence of human rights, global justice and LGBTQ+ freedoms, thinks on these matters.
His answer is resolute but also nuanced: “Single-issue campaigns can be very successful,” he says. “In fact, over the last 50 years, single-issue campaigns have been more effective than generalised campaigns for social and economic justice.”
‘Over the last 50 years, single-issue campaigns have been more effective than generalised campaigns for social and economic justice’ – Tatchell
“The gains for the black, women’s, LGBT and disabled movements have been quite extraordinary, although more is needed to be done, compared with, let’s say, working-class and trade union movements,” he adds. “Although it seems that economic injustice is one of the hardest to crack whether that be here in Britain, or other western countries, or the global south.”
Some issues pose unique challenges to affected groups, ones they might best tackle alone.
“It’s right and necessary for black people to organise around their own communities and to specifically challenge racism. Likewise, LGBT+ people need to organise and challenge homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. Where I have some criticism is how sometimes those social movements become atomised and exclusive to the point where they don’t recognise that other people are also disadvantaged and discriminated against and they don’t make a common cause for our shared liberation. Identity politics was a necessary and valuable evolution, but I’ve always argued that we mustn’t lose sight of our common humanity.”
A lifetime fighting for justice
Tatchell, born in 1952, grew up in what he describes as “a very conservative, white, working-class, evangelical household ... My parents were totally disinterested in politics and, in their own way, had quite right-wing points-of-view,” he says.
It is in this context – and at a time when homosexuality is illegal in Australia’s state of Victoria – that the 17-year-old Tatchell realised he was gay. “Back then, you could be punished with several years’ imprisonment and even, in some cases, enforced psychiatric treatment.”
In his early teenage years, with a deeply rooted sense of injustice, the young Tatchell actively campaigned for Indigenous people’s rights in Australia, against the death penalty and his country’s armed involvement in the Vietnam War. Despite an upbringing he describes as “borderline Christian fundamentalist”, he says at that time he took inspiration from black US civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr, a Baptist pastor.
“I immediately, instinctively understood that he was putting the Christian gospel into action,” Tatchell explains. “He was a living embodiment of ‘I am my brother and sister’s keeper’, ‘be a good Samaritan’, and all those other, basic fundamental Christian tenets. I saw Martin Luther King and the Freedom Riders as modern-day heroes who were challenging a grave injustice.”
Tatchell twice attempted to place former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe under citizen’s arrest
Having become aware of his sexual identity, Tatchell instinctively turned his political attention to gay rights. The risk of prison and public hostility meant no one around him was keen to join with efforts to create any sort of LGBTQ+ support group or organisation. “They were horrified,” he says, chuckling at the memory.
So Tatchell, motivated by his previous efforts, wrote letters to newspapers making the case for decriminalising homosexuality and challenging reports that demonised LGBTQ+ people, all the while fearing for his safety. “I was afraid of a policeman’s knock on the door. I thought that there was a possibility that the newspaper might hand over my letters to the police and I would get arrested. So initially, I didn’t dare give my address. It took me probably two or three months to summon up the courage to do that. It was quite nerve-racking.”
In 1971, to avoid being drafted to fight in Vietnam, which he opposed, Tatchell headed for the UK on what was a well-trodden route for many young Australians. He quickly became an active member of the Gay Liberation Front and was among the cofounders of the queer human rights direct action group OutRage! in 1990. Four years later, OutRage! infamously outed 10 Church of England Bishops, calling on them to “tell the truth” about their sexuality. The activists accused the clergymen of hypocrisy and homophobia for publicly colluding with anti-gay policies despite their own homosexuality.
Tatchell is a fan and advocate of direct action and citizen’s arrests. Since the early 1970s, the campaigner has participated in 3,000 direct action and civil disobedience protests, ranging from championing anti-imperialist struggles, defending freedom of speech and arguing for better sex education. He twice attempted to place former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe under citizen’s arrest – once in London and again in Brussels. The charge was that the late president, who died only in September 2019, was guilty of torture. Tatchell’s efforts have seen him arrested, subjected to several violent assaults that left him with lasting injuries, and targeted with countless threats to his life.
Why equality is not enough
While some people grow tired of campaigning and others stop or lower their guards once their goals are achieved, Tatchell seems to just keep on going. For him, the political battle is not so much for LGBTQ+ rights per se but rather for universal human rights. No struggle can ultimately thrive in isolation, not least when societies’ most marginalised groups are usually also among its poorest.
“I certainly think that a lot of identity politics not only fails to recognise that people can have multiple identities – ie, someone can be a woman, black, disabled and LGBTQ+ – but it also fails to address economic inequalities that often transcend and impact on all different identities,” he says.
“If you look at the black civil rights movement in the United States, once formal legal equality was won, the movement fragmented and dissipated. That is one of the great reasons I’ve always said equality is not enough. Changing the law to end discrimination is very important, but it’s insufficient.
“Today in America, black people are locked out of prosperity just like they were in the 1950s and 1960s. That is why Martin Luther King, in his later years, understood that economic justice was pivotal to racial justice.”
‘All throughout human history, it is cooperation and collaboration that have made things better’ – Tatchell
Always choosing his words carefully, correcting a phrase where needed, Tatchell exudes focused intelligence and a long practice of political reflection. Watching other interviews he has given over the years, it is remarkable to note the near-identical sentences he uses to describe his early years as an activist, his family and coming out in Australia.
Something of the fundamentalist evangelist rings out in Tatchell himself, a relic of his upbringing, no doubt. His campaigning zeal is accompanied by a deep scepticism of how the state behaves. But after a lifetime of building, leading and joining campaigning organisations, Tatchell is also pragmatic. He stresses the need to hold in balance collective goals and individual freedoms.
“It’s great to have a desire to change things for the better, whether it be in your own personal life, in your community or the wider country or the world. But desires and aspirations alone aren’t going to make it happen. You need to find a way of engaging with others who share similar ideas because it’s only through collective action that we succeed in bringing about social change.”
“All throughout human history,” he adds, “it is cooperation and collaboration that have made things better, whether that’s the end of apartheid, votes for women or advancement of LGBT+ rights. It’s been a cumulative, collective effort. That’s how we make change.
“At the same time, we have to remember that all progressive change comes about through collective action but all successful change must be for the sake of the individual. We must never lose sight of each individual person. That’s where communism went wrong – it put the collective above the individual. It said the individual could be sacrificed for the greater good. But the whole purpose of the greater good is to liberate the individual.”