Photo by Richard Saker
To shadow gay rights activist Peter Tatchell, one must double as designated photographer. Outside the Royal Courts of Justice in Central London, where I met the 63-year-old campaigner, a lesbian couple asks for a picture with their tiny dog, Hercules. More supporters of Aderonke Apata, a Nigerian lesbian whose asylum case Tatchell is here to lend his weight to, come forth for snaps. Inside, a security guard shakes his hand and says, “Nice to see you again. You’re an inspiration.”
Tatchell works on nearly 80 LGBT asylum cases every year, which may explain why this wiry, self-contained native Australian in a black beret and sensible walking boots enjoys rock star activist status in the United Kingdom. But there are signs, too, that the British establishment has embraced this longtime thorn in its side. Inside court number two, Apata’s counsel points to Tatchell’s support in a bid to shore up the case. “Nowadays most adjudicators seem to take a favorable view of me and what I say on behalf of asylum applications,” Tatchell says.
It wasn’t always so. Until the turn of the millennium, Tatchell was a political renegade, memorably demonized by the Daily Mail as a “homosexual terrorist.” Radicalized by watching the American black civil rights movement from afar in his home city of Melbourne in the 1960s, he came out at 17 and, after moving to London, made LGBT rights his fight, tied to the broader spectrum of human rights. Following early days in London in the Gay Liberation Front, he tried mainstream politics in 1983, standing as a Labour candidate for the British parliament. He lost the election after a viciously homophobic campaign, and by the 1990s embraced being an outsider once again.
He outed 10 Church of England bishops in 1994, and interrupted the archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter sermon in 1998 to protest the church leader’s stance on homosexuality.
The tide turned, Tatchell thinks, after his two attempted citizen arrests of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe for human rights abuses, in 1999 and again in 2001, when even the Mail was moved to call the protester “heroic.” “Because I stuck to my guns for 15 years, even some of my critics seem to have developed a grudging respect,” says Tatchell.
We catch the 172 bus across the Thames south to Tatchell’s flat in a social-housing block in Elephant and Castle, a part of Central London that has yet to be gentrified. He’s lived there since 1978, not, he says, by choice but due to poverty. His one-bedroom flat is a museum of a life’s work, overwhelmed with protest placards and crumbling piles of manila folders. He says his home has been attacked over 100 times with bricks, several arson attempts, and once a bullet through the letterbox. “I live with death threats all the time,” he says, “mostly from far-right extremists.”
The latest attack on Tatchell, though, sprang from a surprising quarter: the trans community. In February, after co-signing a letter to the Observer newspaper calling on universities to resist efforts to ban feminist writers, including Germaine Greer, who had criticized the trans movement, Tatchell was assailed on social media. When we meet, he’s had nine days of it and very little sleep. He’s been diligently responding to each message.
Tatchell was most shocked at being misrepresented. “I’ve supported the trans freedom struggle for 44 years when it was very unpopular. The letter did not criticize trans people, or trans rights, nor did it support feminists critical of aspects of the trans agenda. It was simply a letter defending free speech,” he says, adding that he’d only ban speech when it incites violence. Does he feel that the quality of debate has suffered from this insistence on toeing the LGBT party line? “Maybe a bit. I follow my conscience and do what I believe to be right. I could be wrong, but all you can ask of anyone is to do what they feel is right.”
Despite the photo requests and endorsements, Tatchell continues to plow a lonely furrow. “The ultimate aim of LGBTI liberation is to make our identity, community, and movement redundant,” he says. “My vision is of a new sexual democracy where sexual rights are known as human rights.”