Peter Tatchell: The Rainbow Knight

Originally published in The Freethinker.

Peter Brietbart sits down with Peter Tatchell, the closest thing we’ve got to the Batman

In Famine, Affluence and Morality, the philosopher Peter Singer argues that it is our moral obligation to help those less fortunate than ourselves, and that to fail to do so is to be guilty of the good we do not do. Critics of this moral approach argue that this is far too demanding, and that if we spent our lives helping others we would be forced to forgo the sorts of things that make life worth living. LGBT rights campaigner Peter Tatchell is living proof to the contrary. He is, as Johann Hari once wrote, “the human rights movement made flesh”. And this is no mere poetic hyperbole. Tatchell has, in his days, fought neo-Nazis in Moscow in defence of LGBT rights, attempted a citizen’s arrest on brutal Zimbabwean tyrant Robert Mugabe on two separate occasions (and has the scars to show for it), interrupted a sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury to protest the homophobia spewed from that pulpit, co-founded the direct action LGBT rights group OutRage and launched the Equal Love Campaign, to name but a few achievements.

I meet with him in Brighton just before he joins a public forum discussion on the impact of civil partnerships. He’s tall, thin and tidy, with just a residual hint of Ozzie in his voice, and charmingly apologetic over his mild lateness. We settle, and I ask him about how it all began. He was brought up in an extremely homophobic and verging-on-the-fundamentalist Christian household in Australia, he tells me. Coming out to his family in his teens, however, he met an accepting response. “To me it all felt totally natural and normal”, he says, “and that overrode all the religious prohibitions that I’d been brought up to believe in.” He received his first experience of homophobic abuse up-close and personal whilst out walking with his partner at the time, being yelled at by four bigots on the streets of Melbourne. But it wasn’t simply frightening experiences such as these that spurred Tatchell into his human rights work. Aged 15, he had campaigned against the death penalty, convinced that an innocent man was being put to death.

I ask him about his experiences with the religious in the quest for human rights, and he doesn’t mix his words in his reply: “Organised religion is probably the single greatest threat to the human rights of women and gay people world-wide.” In trenchant tones, he continues, “Fundamentalists of all faiths threaten human freedom on many different levels. The Catholic Church is marginally less misogynistic and homophobic than Islamist extremists, but that’s about it.”

“Everywhere from the British Parliament to the United Nations,” he says, “the religious lobby is threatening civil and human rights. They constantly demand privileged exemptions from equality laws and affirm the right to discriminate on religious grounds. There have been successive attempts at the United Nations to get statements and resolutions passed condemning violence and discrimination against lesbian, gay and transsexual people, but even there the Catholic Church in alliance with the Islamic states have opposed, and in some cases successfully vetoed, such endeavors.” These political actions of these religions, he argues, are driven by deeply ingrained patriarchy and homophobia.

And when homophobia and misogyny is institutionalized, and when religions have such a strong grip on the political and moral outlook of a region, I ask, how can an organized resistance take hold? Firstly, by distinguishing between religious leaders and grassroots believers, he says. The senior clerics are often those who are most hostile to women and gay rights. He cites that only 5% of British Catholics actually support the Vatican’s opposition to contraception; 11% with the condemnation of homosexuality.

But Christianity need not be the enemy, he explains. “The Old Testament describes homosexuality as an abomination and even says that gay people should be put to death, but then it could be argued that Jesus came to bring the New Testament, by which many of the barbarities in the Old Testament are said to be overturned. Leaving aside the particulars, the overriding essence of the Christian gospels is one of love and compassion. That doesn’t square with homophobia or any other form of prejudice or discrimination.”

The main explanation for homophobia, says Tatchell, is fear and ignorance, and those who least understand the diversities of human sexuality seem to be the most intolerant. Or, I comment, they might be like the virulently homophobic next-door neighbour in the 1999 film American Beauty, who turns out to be a self-loathing, closeted homosexual. And indeed, Tatchell cites work by Henry Adams at the University of Georgia, whose 1996 study found that eight out of ten aggressively homophobic men were marginally dysfunctional sexually when watching straight pornography, and were very strongly aroused when watching gay pornography. Adams concluded that homophobia was a displaced form of homosexuality whereby a person deflects their own fears, insecurities and self-loathing in the form of homophobic hatred. In short, then, Freud was right.

I attempt to compliment on Tatchell on his life’s work so far, but he’s visibly uncomfortable with the praise. “I walk in the shadow,” he says “of the heroes and heroines fighting for democracy and human rights in countries like Iran, Russia, Zimbabwe and Uganda. My efforts are quite small scale by comparison.” But many people feel appalled at human rights abuses and are not motivated to act. I ask him: How does he keep going? “My fundamental motivation is a love of people and a love of justice. I don’t like to see other human beings suffering. I put myself in their position and feel that if I were being tortured or unjustly jailed I would want someone to help me. I therefore feel an obligation to help others who are suffering oppression and persecution. If we all worked for human rights and social justice, no matter how small our contribution, we would cumulatively and collectively overturn many of the injustices in the world today.”