This article was first printed in PETRIe 66 (2014). Part three of a three-part article.
At this moment in the UK, Peter Tatchell is a household name for his pivotal role in the implementation of same-sex marriages. His campaign began way back in 1992 with the LGBT group OutRage! - but he had almost zero support from elsewhere. Even his compatriots in the country’s main gay rights lobby organisation, Stonewall, refused to support the campaign for 20 years.
When civil partnerships were legislated in 2004, Tatchell welcomed it as a step forward, but not a solution. In 2010 he coordinated the Equal Love campaign, challenging the UK’s twin legal bans on same-sex marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships. “Separate laws for gay and straight people are not equal laws. Marriage for straight couples and civil partnerships for gay couples - that is not equality.”
Critics have slammed Tatchell for his supposedly never satisfied, unrelenting approach. However, to his beneficiaries, this approach is a lifeline. Tatchell himself does not believe in marriage, homosexual or otherwise. “I share the feminist critique of marriage; its long patriarchal and homophobic history. But as a democrat - as a person who believes in democracy and equality – I defend absolutely the right of other couples to get married if they wish. The issue isn’t about my personal preferences. It’s about the issue of equality for everyone.”
Tatchell attended the wedding of Peter McGraith and David Cabreza, one of the first homosexual couples to marry at the stroke of midnight on March 28, 2014, as same-sex marriage became legal in England and Wales. “It was a momentous, historic moment. Even for me, as someone who is not a great fan of marriage.”
I ask Tatchell three times whether he feels frustrated by a lack of support; not necessarily from his contemporaries, the government or fellow campaigners, but from the general public - you and I, who believe same-sex marriage is a deserved right, but choose not to actively voice it or publicly fight for it.
“It was often a very lonely struggle,” he concedes, not just of the 22-yearlong campaigns for equal marriage, but for LGBT rights as a whole. “But over time we began to build the support. By the mid-1980s, there were 15,000 people on gay pride parades, compared to 700 in 1972. That wasn’t a lot, given the size of the LGBT population.”
The continued rise in support, from both the LGBT community and the general public, can largely be credited to the passing of Section 28 by Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative party in 1988. Section 28 effectively declared homosexuality an unjust lifestyle, stating that local authorities “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality,” or promote teaching of “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” Although some LGBT support groups within educational institutions collapsed in fear of the Act, it drove those who had never marched or lobbied before to join Tatchell and the core LGBT movements. Participants in the 1988 Pride Parade in London reached 40,000.
To many, Pride is now a street party as engrained in the London calendar as the Notting Hill Carnival, with more than half a million attendees. Yet with each beaming, rainbow-painted face seen along the streets on parade day, one cannot help but remember the suffering and continued physical abuse that Tatchell and many like him have endured to make such a movement happen. He has simply stood up for what we all know to be fundamentally right, and yet has had to take a battering as a result.
“In the 1980s and 1990s, when I was perhaps the best-known spokesperson for LGBT rights, I was deluged not just with death threats and hate mail, but with actual physical violence.” Tatchell lists his experiences, calmly and flatly: “I had dozens of attacks upon my flat, including bricks through the windows, three arson attempts, and even a bullet through the front door. I’ve been attacked on the tube, in the street, in shopping centres, in railway stations and trains. Nearly all my teeth are chipped and cracked from various assaults.” He pauses. “By British standards, what I’ve experienced is shocking and exceptional, but compared to human rights defenders in many other countries, I got off lightly.”
He refuses to be overcome by such attacks or let them overshadow his campaign goals. Even after his last assault two years ago, where a gang of Muslim youths attacked him in broad daylight on Brick Lane - and despite no offers of help from passers-by – he refuses to give up on equality. This equality is not for the individual or even for himself, but for all of us, so that we may live in a fairer world. His foresight is far greater and all-encompassing than any of us could imagine. “At the age of 17, when I realised I was gay, I resolved that I would commit to helping overturn homophobia and secure equality and freedom for LGBT. I calculated it would take about 50 years. So I was in it for long haul.”
As the interview comes to a close, Tatchell recites one his favourite quotes: “Don’t accept the world as it is. Dream of what the world could be and then help make it happen.” If only there were more dreamers as great as he.
If you enjoyed reading this series, you will also like: “Categorising Hate”.
Words: Natasha Slee