This article was first printed in PETRIe 66 (2014). Part two of a three-part article.
Read part one here.
Peter Tatchell has devoted his life’s work to fighting the corner of injustice, sacrificing comfortable employment, living and leisure. Selflessness on such an encompassing scale can be difficult to comprehend, and some may wonder where his motivation lies. The answer, it seems to me, is in his LGBT work. This is where you finally see some personal benefits for Tatchell.
“At the age of 17, in 1969, I realised I was gay. Late that year, I read a small news report about thousands of homosexuals who had marched through New York to demand civil rights. As soon as I read that story I thought - ‘that’s what we need here!’” A flame was ignited; one that would both burn Tatchell and light his way.
“At the time, in the state of Victoria, homosexuality was still totally illegal. It could be punished by several years’ imprisonment, and by enforced psychiatric treatment. Gay-bashing was rife, sometimes even perpetrated by the police. There were no gay organisations, help lines or counselling services. I decided I wanted to do something,” explains Tatchell.
When initially consulting his friends with his intentions, they denounced him as “crazy,” themselves fearing arrest. So he began a quiet, anonymous yet unrelenting, campaign against the demonisation of Australian homosexuals. “I did what I could - writing letters to newspapers, critiquing homophobic stories and reporting incidents of gay-bashing attacks. Initially I was too scared to give my name or address, as I feared the letter would be handed to the police. But eventually I did.”
While Tatchell persevered with his early and tentative gay rights campaign, another cause was gaining momentum under his watch. At 16 he had joined a minority campaign to halt the conscription of young Australian men into the forces, and end Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. He believed the war to be a deeply corrupt regime and, what began as a small but persistent leaflet campaign, grew exponentially until it attracted nationwide attention and support.
“We devised a strategy to undermine the war effort by encouraging young men to refuse the draft. We secretly printed leaflets encouraging them to do so, and offering support. This was illegal, punishable by two years’ imprisonment,” Tatchell says of their early efforts. He and his small team of “students and radical Christians” evaded arrest through “zap squads,” handing out leaflets in 20 minute stints, disappearing before the police arrived. They discovered that the police had no power on federal property and so began handing out leaflets stood on the steps of the general post office.
The state police could only stand and watch, until they resorted to pushing the campaigners off the steps in order to arrest them. “Within two years we completely changed public opinion. We devised the ‘Stop Work To Stop The War’ demonstrations and appealed to people from all walks of life to attend a street protest demanding that the government end the war. Almost 100,000 people - 10 per cent of the entire population of Melbourne - turned out. Similar protests took place in other cities, like Sydney. That was the turning point. The government realised they had lost the hearts and minds of the Australian people.”
Although the government persisted in arresting the hundreds of young men who refused to comply with conscription, and despite Tatchell repeatedly and miraculously evading arrest, it was not enough to create the government crisis they had hoped. There were two options left: To stay home, or to go abroad for a few years and wait the war out.
“I chose the latter,” Tatchell says of the moment he made the decision to move to London, aged 19. “I remember, as I waited for the ship to leave the port of Melbourne, wondering whether the police would come on board and take me off!”
The move to London allowed Tatchell’s personal interest in LGBT rights to finally shift to the forefront of his activist agenda. On his second day in the city, Tatchell spotted a sticker on a lamppost, advertising the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). Within five days he attended his first GLF meeting - within a month he was organising the protests.
“I thought to myself - ‘wow! I’d been fighting for all these other causes. Now’s the chance for me to fight for LGBT rights as well’. My plan was to stay until the war was over. But in the end, I got heavily involved with the GLF, fell in love, got a good job, a nice flat. Unintentionally, a temporary stay became permanent.”
Much of this happened without the support of his family: “My family disagreed with almost everything I did. Although, they accepted I was acting according to my conscience.” While conscience, empathy and, in some ways, guilt are present in all of us, very few of us allow our conscience to drive us like Tatchell’s does. It is visible in the weariness behind his eyes, the paper debris that litters his desk, the self-inflicted schedule that means he has not taken a holiday since 2008, and in the fact he enjoys only four or five nights off a year.
Words: Natasha Slee