This article was first printed in PETRIe 66 (2014). Part one of a three-part article.
“Peter Tatchell. Born 1952. Campaigner for human rights, gay freedom and social justice. Lived here. Voted by the people.” A lifetime dedicated to the pursuit of equality and a compelling political career, summarised in just 19 words. Printed on a prominent blue plaque and fixed high on the wall of a red brick tenement block, this testament to Tatchell marks your arrival to his modest home in Southwark, London. Sir Ian McKellan unveiled the plaque in September 2010 at a poignant ceremony, attended by figures from some of Tatchell’s most testing career chapters.
Alongside McKellen, who is the cofounder of Stonewall - the gay rights charity that refused to support Tatchell’s same-sex marriage campaign for 20 years - was Bermondsey MP Simon Hughes, who won his seat in 1983 against Tatchell in a dirty by-election, notorious for the homophobic slurs and physical attacks that Tatchell suffered. Father Bernard Lynch, an openly gay Catholic priest, also attended the ceremony to bless the plaque.
Despite the past tense of the writing that decorates the plaque, Mr Tatchell, tireless political campaigner of 40 years, still lives here. There is something very humbling about seeing this emblazoned metal sign - a permanent signifier of his life’s work – stamped unashamedly on the side of a council housing block in South-East London.
It is hard to imagine that someone so loved by his supporters, derided by his opposition, admired by the general public and whose name crops up online, in print and on the radio as a spokesperson for a seemingly unmanageable list of humans rights causes, has lived in the same tiny flat for over three decades - surviving on an income well below that of minimum wage.
Inside his home, which doubles up as an office, campaign paraphernalia is stacked in neat piles as high as your knees, covering over half of the room that we sit to talk in. “I have two assistants but we can’t cope with the volume,” Tatchell tells me. “We get thousands of emails, Twitter and Facebook messages every week.”
A brief search for ‘Peter Tatchell news’ on Google reveals that he is leading the UK’s largest Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Pride Festival in Birmingham; has leant support to Rainbow Rising, a report uncovering the damage of austerity measures to LGBT communities; and has had an opinion column on the state of the EU published in The Guardian Online. He tweets hourly in support of his causes: the situation for the LGBT community of Ukraine, charges of apostasy in Saudi Arabia, Palestine, and the controversial Ugandan HIV act. Tatchell has also just won the Berlin Pride Soul of Stonewall Award, alongside Eurovision’s Austrian entry, Conchita Wurst, and Nigerian activist, Dorothy Aken’Ova.
His stamina and unwavering determination for the causes and issues he highlights is inspiring, and yet entirely self-driven. Born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1952, Tatchell never grew up with a political role model. “No one in my family had any kind of political or social engagement - at all,” says Tatchell. “They were apolitical. Our life focussed on the family, and the church. So it’s very odd that I’ve turned out the way I have. Even to this day, I am the only person in my entire extended family who has ever been involved in any kind of campaign.”
Tatchell speaks slowly and very carefully. Decades of misinterpretation by the press have made him cautious, but he has also suffered mild brain damage after enduring hundreds of physical attacks. You cannot help but notice his repetition of sentences and the strain he faces to express himself. He suffers regular debilitating migraines from stress and, five years ago, was forced to abandon his Green Party candidacy due to ill health. Despite this, his voracious attitude to campaigning seems to have barely waned since he first picked up the placard.
In 1967, aged 15 and still in school, Tatchell led one of his first campaigns. Having read that aboriginal teenagers were leaving school prematurely to earn an income for their families, he and his peers decided to raise money for a scholarship that would pay the aboriginal teenagers the equivalent of a salary to stay on at school. Through a sponsored walk - a novel idea back then - they raised the money they needed to set up a scholarship programme.
However, this successful campaign was also to be his first experience of negative backlash: “For my pains, I was hauled before the headmaster and accused of being ‘manipulated by the communists’. This was the 1960s, when Australia was gripped by a McCarthyite-style anti- communist witch hunt.” Undeterred, he joined a campaign to reverse the death penalty conviction of Ronald Ryan. Ryan was due to be hanged for allegedly shooting dead George Hodson, a prison warden, during an escape with fellow prisoner Peter Walker from Pentridge Prison in 1965.
After reading a summary of the autopsy in a local newspaper, Tatchell concluded that the trajectory of the bullet through Hodson’s body, considering Ryan’s position at that moment, would have made it physically impossible for him to have fired the fatal shot. The campaign was unsuccessful and Ryan was hanged. Reports surrounding Ryan’s conviction are still uncertain, but Mike Richards, biographer of Ryan, ascertains that while he was guilty, he did not intend to murder Hodson. Despite the campaign’s failure to save Ryan’s life, the case caused such a public uproar that Ryan was the last man judicially hanged in Australia.
“The case completely destroyed my trust and confidence in authority,” Tatchell reveals. “It made me a life-long sceptic of authority.” This scepticism unquestionably remains ever present. For Tatchell, a successful campaign simply opens another window of opportunity - each success is a stepping stone towards that distant horizon of total global equality.
However, despite the hope he offers the beneficiaries of his campaigns, Tatchell is often filled with self-doubt. “I’ve never done a campaign where I’ve been satisfied and felt like I’ve done a good job. I always self-reflect and wish I’d done things differently and better. I’m a very hard taskmaster, which is emotionally quite a burden, but it safeguards against complacency and arrogance.”
Archive: PETRIe INVENTORY 66
Words: Natasha Slee