‘We won’t go away': So So Gay interviews Peter Tatchell (Part One)
It is a beautiful spring day in south London. The R&B pounding from a passing car mingles with a distant ice cream van tinkling its way through ‘Whistle While You Work’. A brick-red block of council flats sits on a long, straight road with one end dominated by a view of the nearby Strata building and the other by the climbing hulk of the Shard. The effect is that of a cartoon cottage sandwiched between two skyscrapers: a feeling of watching the world change from inside a bubble. But one long-time resident of the estate has never been content to just sit back and watch things happen.
[pullquote_left]The ban on same-sex marriage is homophobic discrimination.[/pullquote_left]Peter Tatchell needs virtually no introduction. Famous – or infamous – for his decades of activism (with the Gay Liberation Front and OutRage!) and his high-profile demonstrations, such as attempting a citizen’s arrest on Robert Mugabe in 2001, he remains a polarising figure even within the LGBTI community, with some lauding him as a hero, and others lamenting his outspokenness. He agreed to speak to So So Gay about campaigning for gay and human rights, kindly offering to host the interview at his home. Filled with pamphlets, badges and posters of battles past and present, the small flat is not just his base of operations: it is a monument to over forty years of ceaseless struggle.
Tatchell is an impeccably friendly host, but he is eager to discuss his campaign work, and in particular the campaign to which he is currently devoting the majority of his time: Equal Love. Its aim is nothing short of full marriage equality; giving same-sex couples the right to enter into a civil marriage (as opposed to partnership) and giving opposite-sex couples the option of civil partnership. It is a twin discrimination that exists, explains Tatchell, and ‘the last major legal discrimination in this country.’
‘In essence, civil marriages and civil partnerships are almost identical,’ he argues, ‘so why have two separate systems and why exclude people on the basis of sexual orientation under both systems?’ It’s a question for which Equal Love is trying to force an answer from the Government. As well as more headline-grabbing stunts like delivering a giant wedding card to Prince William and Kate Middleton before their nuptials, the campaign is supporting eight couples who have taken their rejected applications for civil marriage to the European Court. The Government will have to file a statement of justification for the twin bands within a year. ‘If they can’t give a halfway credible, plausible justification, the European Court should rule next year that this discrimination is unacceptable,’ Tatchell declares matter-of-factly.
Marriage equality is an issue he and OutRage! – which he co-founded in 1990 – have been pushing forward for some time. Although he claims he would never want to get married himself (‘I am not a great fan of marriage: I agree with the feminist critique that marriage has a rather poisoned history of sexism and patriarchy’), Tatchell ‘absolutely’ insists that ‘everyone must have the right to get married if they wish.’ He dwells briefly on marriage’s origins as ‘an institution devised for the male sexual control of women and the inheritance of property through the male line,’ and points out the ‘huge heterosexual revolt against marriage’ seen in countries like the Netherlands or France, where the majority of people taking out civil partnership-equivalents are opposite-sex couples – a pattern he believes would be replicated in Britain. But, he concedes, ‘if couples want to conform to this rather fusty, outdated institution that’s their right. It’s not up to me or any politician to tell them they can’t.’ It is a ‘hugely symbolic’ issue, Tatchell asserts, that ‘signifies a social disapproval of our love and relationships.’ And that needs to be challenged. ‘The ban on same-sex marriage is homophobic discrimination,’ he elaborates. ‘I’m against homophobia, and everyone who’s against homophobia should also campaign to end this inequality.’
Pension problems and prevarication
So is this just a point of principle? Tatchell is quick to deny that: while civil marriages and civil partnerships are ‘more or less the same’, at least one important practical inequality remains around pensions. Currently, if someone in a heterosexual civil marriage dies, their surviving partner will receive their entire pension benefit dated back to when they first began to pay into it. A surviving civil partner, however, can only inherit the value of a pension backdated to 6 April 1988 at the very earliest. It is a disparity that troubles Tatchell. ‘This was part of a whole discriminatory package that groups like Stonewall agreed to,’ he charges. ‘OutRage! protested very strongly at the time but we were just dismissed as whingers. Now we’re having to deal with the many, many elderly same-sex couples whose partners have died and have suddenly found they’re hardly getting any pension inheritance compared to their heterosexual friends and family. It’s a terrible, terrible injustice.’
Despite the strength of the case Tatchell believes Equal Love has made, he is not confident that the Government can be relied upon to do the right thing. It is ‘terrified of the religious lobby,’ he alleges, pointing to what he characterises as attempts to delay implementation of Lord Alli’s amendment to the Equality Act 2010 that overturns the ban on civil partnerships in places of worship where the religious organisation consents. ‘That’s already been passed by Parliament and still the Government is insisting on a further consultation process,’ he says with scorn. ‘There’s nothing to consult about: it’s the law – implement it!’ Nor is he impressed with the work done on marriage equality so far by the Women and Equalities Minister, Lynne Featherstone, whom he calls ‘a huge disappointment.’ ‘We know that privately she’s in full support,’ he continues, ‘but in terms of what she’s actually doing, she’s the one who’s insisting on all this further delay and consultation.’
[pullquote_right]Many elderly same-sex couples whose partners have died have suddenly found they’re hardly getting any pension inheritance.[/pullquote_right]Tatchell is clearly suspicious of the deliberative (or slow) progress on same-sex marriage. ‘The Coalition is stringing us along,’ he asserts, after describing the consultation on marriage equality announced last February. Following the ‘gay rights flashmob’ he and others held outside the Conservative Party’s election headquarters back in May 2010, he says George Osborne and Theresa May promised there would be a review of the ban. ‘Well, after the election they announced they’d done the review and they were going to keep things the way they were. So is this new consultation this year going to be the same as the so-called review last year?’ He says he suspects it is an attempt to kick the whole issue into the long grass. ‘But we won’t go away,’ he promises. A petition and an Early Day Motion are planned, and Tatchell cites a June 2009 Populus poll that showed 61 per cent of the British public in favour of same-sex civil marriage. ‘The Government’s got the popular mandate,’ he argues, ‘it should go ahead and legislate.’
Verdict on the Coalition: must do better
Nor is he happy with the Coalition’s record on other LGBTI issues so far. He says Home Office barristers and asylum judges are still not given the training in LGBTI sensitivity and awareness that could lead to a fairer and more impartial system for granting refuge to people fleeing persecution in countries like Iran and Uganda. He expresses frustration with the prevarication over the ban on gay men donating blood. The anticipated report of a long-delayed review into the ban is expected to recommend the ban be lifted for gay men who have not had oral or anal sex within the past ten years – an exclusion period Tatchell calls ‘needlessly cautious.’ Instead, he advocates a two-tier safety period, with ‘a total exclusion for any man who’s had unprotected oral or anal sex within the past month.’ Any gay male prospective donor who has had unprotected sex between one and six months previously would have their blood tested for both antibodies and the virus, which take up to three months and two weeks, respectively, to begin to manifest in the blood.
Surely, though, the Coalition has taken some positive steps towards equality? What about the promise to expunge the criminal records of people convicted of homosexual ‘offences’? The suggestion draws an immediate repudiation from Tatchell. ‘That’s not what they promised,’ he corrects. ‘They didn’t promise to expunge or delete them. They promised to disregard them. So they’ll remain on the record but the police will be obliged to ignore them.’ A quick check of the bill itself reveals this to be the case: under the proposals, individuals with convictions or cautions under now-defunct anti-gay laws will be able to apply in writing to the Secretary of State, who may choose to have the convictions disregarded. It’s a subtle difference, but one that seems to have escaped most people’s notice. Tatchell does acknowledge that it is still ‘progress': ‘it’s better than what we’ve got at the moment.’ But ‘it falls well short of what it could be,’ as an antiquated conviction for gross indecency (or suchlike) that turns up on a CRB check could still influence a police officer’s perception of someone. Its characterisation in the press as ‘expunction’ rankles: ‘This has been a Government PR and spin exercise,’ he asserts with a note of bitterness.
[pullquote_left]The pace of law reform since 1999 has been extraordinary; I can’t think of any other social reform movement that has repealed so many discriminatory laws so quickly.[/pullquote_left]This attention to detail quickly emerges as an important aspect of Tatchell’s character. He frequently pauses to clarify his statements or rephrase his wording to get it exactly right. It’s a fastidiousness that suggests an impatience with intellectual laziness, and often yields fascinating insight. For example, he swiftly corrects the assumption that homosexuality was ‘legalised’ in 1967 – as is widely supposed. More accurately, it was decriminalised – a distinction that means the UK has technically only had a penal code that doesn’t discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation since 2003, a fact that Tatchell still finds ‘shocking’. Moreover, he says, ‘it’s amazing how many LGBTI people don’t realise how much the law continued to be enforced after 1967.’ For many years, he explains, many gay men were prosecuted and convicted under the ‘tangled web of laws and sub-laws which criminalised almost every aspect of gay behaviour.’
The 1967 reform itself was ‘followed by a crackdown’ – in the five years immediately afterwards, ‘prosecutions for consenting victimless gay behaviour quadrupled.’ Sex between men was only private (and therefore decriminalised) if it took place in the person’s own home, behind locked doors and windows, with the curtains drawn and with no other person present in any part of the house. Cruising – that is, ‘loitering, smiling and winking at other men, exchanging names and phone numbers in public places’ – was punishable by two years in prison right up to 2003. Reflecting on the thousands of gay men sent to prison, Tatchell calls it ‘one of the great persecutions of the 20th century.’ ‘A public apology or some kind of expression of regret and remorse is long, long overdue,’ he says grimly.
He does, however, acknowledge the huge progress that has been made. ‘The pace of law reform since 1999 has been extraordinary,’ he marvels. ‘I can’t think of any other social reform movement that has repealed so many discriminatory laws so quickly. Not in this country, not in any country. When you think that back in the 1980s Britain had more anti-gay laws than any other country on earth, and now we’re one of the most progressive countries on gay rights, it’s been an astonishing pace of change.’
The international picture
It is all too easy to take such improvements for granted: progress has been much slower in some other countries. In Russia, activists have tried for the last six years to stage a gay pride parade in Moscow – always unsuccessfully. This week, the city’s mayor, Sergei Sobyanin (‘appointed by President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin,’ Tatchell points out), rejected applications once again, in defiance of an October 2010 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that such a march must be allowed to go ahead. Nevertheless, on 28 May a parade will take place and Tatchell will be there to show solidarity, despite the ‘very serious risk of violent attack by homophobic extremists’ and what he describes as ‘very blatant connivance between the Moscow police and ultranationalists, neo-Nazis and Russian Orthodox fundamentalists.’
Tatchell is as well known for championing international gay and human rights as he is domestic ones, but his determination to attend the Moscow march is all the more impressive considering what happened on his 2007 visit. He and other LGBTI activists were attacked and beaten by anti-gay extremists; an assault that had lasting physiological effects. Will he be taking any precautions? A bodyguard, perhaps, or Kevlar? He chuckles, then pauses and becomes serious again. ‘Obviously I’m anxious,’ he admits, ‘for my own sake and that of the Russian LGBTI activists who live there 365 days a year and are at constant risk. But sometimes you have to take a risk in order to challenge those who perpetrate injustice.’ He knows his presence has helped encourage foreign (including British) media attention, and thus greater international solidarity. Given that media attention, does he think – leaving aside the personal risks to those involved – further violent attacks would be helpful to the cause? ‘It’s not something I would want,’ he answers after brief consideration. Remembering other attempts to stage a Pride parade, he expresses amazement that Moscow Gay Pride’s chief organizer, Nikolai Alekseev, is still alive, and says he and other campaigners have been ‘kicked, shoved, punched, spat at. Any one of those people could have had a knife… and it would have been curtains.’
[pullquote_right][There has been] very blatant connivance between the Moscow police and ultranationalists, neo-Nazis and Russian Orthodox fundamentalists.[/pullquote_right]While collusion between the Russian authorities and anti-gay protestors is alleged, there is no official sanction for violence. What, then, does Tatchell think should be done about expressly anti-gay governments? In answering, he offers a compromise between intervention on human rights grounds and the principle of self-determination. ‘My starting point is that human rights are universal and indivisible,’ he says. ‘Every person on this planet, gay or straight, is entitled to full and equal human rights: no ifs, no buts. I’m also mindful that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, to paraphrase from the Bible.’ He laughs at the irony of such a reference. ‘We have a moral duty to support people struggling for freedom,’ he argues, but suggests the best thing we can do in places like Saudi Arabia or Uganda is to support LGBTI and humanitarian activists within those countries. ‘Ultimately,’ he points out, ‘it’s up to the people of each country to deal with the homophobia of their own government.’ International aid might ‘carefully’ be switched from repressive governments to non-discriminatory NGOs and local LGBTI groups, he hypothesizes. Above all, the universality of human rights must be emphasized with regard to homo- and transphobia. ‘This isn’t the responsibility of Britain and the West,’ Tatchell reasons. ‘It’s the responsibility of the international community.’
In Part Two of So So Gay‘s exclusive interview, Peter Tatchell talks about his reasons for leaving the Labour Party, confrontational protesting, his problems with the modern gay community, and the future of gay activism.