Gorkana Notes From Basecamp – May 28th 2014

On 13th May, members of the Gorkana team went to Adam Street Private Member’s Club to attend the London Press Grill with Human Rights Campaigner, Peter Tatchell. Tatchell has been campaigning for over 45 years. He began campaigning in 1967 at the age of 15, against Henry Bolte and the death penalty, as well as conscription and Aboriginal rights. When Tatchell came out in 1969, his campaigns began to focus on ‘queer’ freedom. Tatchell told the story of main career highlights as well as the need for continuing human rights campaigning.

Tatchell’s political career began in 1983, when he stood as the Labour candidate for the Bermondsey by-elections. He knew at the time that Simon Hughes was gay; commentators say that it was ‘the dirtiest and most violent by-election in the 20th century’. Tatchell explains that he received 32 death threats, an arson attack, bricks through his windows and he was physically attacked when out canvassing over 150 times, as well as two attempts to run him down in cars.

Tatchell explained that until around 10 years ago, his life was pretty tough. He was labelled by the media as ‘public enemy number one’, ‘a homosexual terrorist’ and ‘a gay fascist’. He details that public opinion changed when he attempted a citizen’s arrest of Robert Mugabe in 1999. Tatchell believed that opinion changed due to the fact that people then realised he was a Human Rights Campaigner more than just LGBT rights. He continued to explain the story of how he attempted a citizen arrest of Robert Mugabe using torture as his legal standing under the Criminal Justice Act of 1988. An act that ‘anyone who commits, condones, acquiesces acts of torture can be arrested and put on trial’. While waiting for Mugabe to leave the hotel, Tatchell explains that the concierge of the hotel started to get suspicious after two hours of waiting and only 10 to 15 minutes later, a few African looking men started to look in their direction. Tatchell went up to the bodyguards and fooled them by saying that he was waiting for Elton John and his new boyfriend and that they needed a story for next day’s paper. As Tatchell confronted Mugabe, Tatchell thinks that Mugabe thought he was going to be killed.

Papal Nuncio

Tatchell also told the story of when he broke into the Vatican and was jostled by the Papal Nuncio and a group of nuns under the guise of an Oxford journalism student. His protest was against the Vatican’s declaration that gay people were not entitled to human rights and that gay people campaigning were bringing hatred and discrimination upon themselves. When Tatchell unveiled the placards and started protesting, the then Papal Nuncio responded ‘Sister! Sister! This is an outrage!’ (Hence the name). Tatchell and his comrades then replied ‘Yes! We are!’. As he was being jostled by the Papal Nuncio, Tatchell reveals that he ‘let him have his way’.

10 outed Catholic bishops

Tatchell additionally explained the story of when he outed 10 Catholic bishops in 1994. He explained that the outing of the bishops was a big debate within OutRage! and that it took them 6 to 7 months to come to a consensus. The issue that the OutRage! team had, was the hypocrisy and not the fact that the bishops were privately gay. The issue was that these bishops were endorsing the idea that homosexuality was wrong and sinful and that gay people must repent even though the bishops themselves were gay and were in same sex relationships. Tatchell revealed that the team gave the bishops plenty of warning, detailing that if they continued to discriminate against homosexuality, the team would out them. The bishops chose to continue to support anti-gay policies and laws. Therefore they were outed and afterwards none of the bishops continued to support anti-gay laws and that only one bishop denied these allegations but he was the one on whom they had most evidence. This led the House of Bishops to issue its strongest ever condemnation of homophobia:
Eurovision and the Trans Community.

Tatchell then went on to talk about the recent Eurovision victory by Conchita Wurst, the first transgendered winner, as well as LGBT charities and their focus on the Trans community. Tatchell feels that a lot of LGBT organisations do not campaign enough for the Trans community and that it is part of a much bigger problem. Tatchell explained that gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same but they are similar in the sense that people do not conform to traditional ideals of masculinity and femininity and therefore they often get teased and bullied etc whether they are gay or straight. Tatchell thinks that Trans people challenge these traditional ideals and what it is to be a man or a woman. He explains that with regards to Eurovision that it has always been a gay cult event and that with Conchita winning, being ‘a bearded transsexual’, it is an incredible statement about the rise of liberalism across Europe. Tatchell emphasised that the human rights struggle in Russia is not just a case of LGBT rights but for all people in Russia. In Russia today, things are going backwards under Putin almost into the Soviet era.

Same-Sex Marriage

Tatchell was asked whether there was anything else for LGBT people to fight for, with the recent law passing of same-sex marriage. Tatchell explains that obviously it is a great thing since the ban of 1971. He reveals that under the 1949 Marriage Act which is the main marriage law in the UK, there has never been any prohibition on same sex marriage. It just states ‘two persons’. It doesn’t specify that it has to be male and female. So the ban on same-sex marriage was only introduced in 1971, specifically to stop same-sex couples and transgender couples from seeking marriage. The recent legislation and the first same-sex marriages this year end a forty-three year ban; the new law is not actually real equality though as we now have two separate marriage laws. The 1949 Marriage Act is for opposite-sex couples and the 2013 Marriage Act is for same-sex couples. They are meant to be completely equal but are not. For example, if you’re in an opposite sex marriage from the 1949 Marriage Act and your partner has been paying into their pension and suddenly dies, the living partner can claim the pension dating back to the start but if you’re in a same-sex civil partnership or same-sex marriage, you can only claim the pension entitlements back to 2005. So in other words, you’ll lose 25 years of your partner’s pension contributions. Furthermore in terms of equality, although there is same sex marriage, there isn’t equal opposite sex civil partnerships. Same sex couples can get married but the ban on opposite sex couples having civil partnerships remains. So the irony is that today same sex couples have two choices: civil partnership or a marriage whereas opposite sex couples only have one choice which is marriage. Tatchell explains that for him, this is still a fundamental issue of equality that we should be fighting for as the right of same sex couples to marry. Interestingly when the government did its consultation on same sex marriage in 2012 at Tatchell’s insistence, they asked a question whether civil partnerships should be maintained and if they are retained should they be opened to opposite sex couples. When the survey came back, it revealed that 66% respected the right for opposite sex couples to have civil partnerships and 24% disagreed. Tatchell explained that David Cameron has said the introduction of opposite sex civil partnerships will undermine marriage.


Tatchell was then asked about Ukraine and whether the people in the east were entitled to go off and join Russia. Tatchell is a great believer in the right of self determination and he supports the right of the Scottish people to have a referendum on independence and if they choose independence to be independent. Likewise with the people of West Papua that is occupied by Indonesia or Western Sahara that is occupied by Morocco or Balochistan that is occupied by Pakistan. All of these people have a right to determine their own future. The same idea applies to the people in Ukraine. The point is the recent referendums have not been free and fair. There has not been a level playing field; there has been a level of intimidation and threats.

Future of Human Rights Campaigning

Potentially a highlight to come in Tatchell’s career was his meeting with Justin Welby. Tatchell had already met Welby in April 2013 and according to his body language, was not at all comfortable with the church’s stance on homosexuality and same sex marriage. Welby explained that ‘same sex relationships are not the same as opposite sex relationships’ and in his response to Tatchell asking ‘How?’, Welby kept repeating that ‘they’re just different’. Tatchell believes that the church’s stance will change and explains that initially the church supported colonialism and slavery as well as opposing votes for women but on these issues the church has changed. He continues to say that the changes will lead the church to become a more compassionate and liberal institution. He reveals that a poll found 58% of people of faith supported same sex marriage whereas the leaders of all the churches, synagogues and mosques did not support same sex marriage.

Nowadays Tatchell explains that he is campaigning for things like he did in the beginning, issues that are marginal, left field and not well known, for example, Balochistan in Pakistan. Two particular poignant moments in Tatchell’s career include the attempted citizen’s arrest of Robert Mugabe in London and Brussels.

Aside: Tatchell cites his key political inspirations as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Sylvia Pankhurst and to some extent Malcolm X and Rosa Luxemburg.

Read the article on Gorkana Notes From Basecamp site here.