In recent years the term “legend” or “national treasure” has been applied to all sorts of people. I suspect when in years to come when people will come to write his obituary (he is the same age as me incidentally) that term might be applied to Peter Tatchell who “is an Australian-born British human rights campaigner best known for his work with LGBT social movements”, even though he has long been a thorn in the flesh to many, the latest it seems being Fran Cowling and other members of the National Union of Students.
Peter writes in the Telegraph, “the intolerant student Left has even turned on me – a lifelong civil rights campaigner”. He continues: “Free speech and enlightenment values are under attack in our universities. In the worthy name of defending the weak and marginalised, many student activists are now adopting the unworthy tactic of seeking to close down open debate. They want to censor people they disagree with. I am their latest victim. This is not quite the Star Chamber, but it is the same intolerant mentality. Student leader Fran Cowling has denounced me as racist and transphobic, even though I’ve supported every anti-racist and pro-transgender campaign during my 49 years of human rights work. Fran is the LGBT+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) Officer of the National Union of Students (NUS). She refused to speak at an LGBT event at Canterbury Christ Church University tonight unless I was dropped from the line-up … I am all in favour of protesting against real racists and transphobes. But the most effective way to do this is to expose and counter their bigoted ideas, not censor and ban them. I’ve often debated religious fundamentalists and homophobes. They’ve lost the argument; leaving them weakened and discredited. Bad ideas are best defeated by good ideas. NUS, please take note.”
There is a certain irony in all this. For many a year I have been following the campaign to extend LBGT rights, which has in a relatively short time span come on in leaps and bounds and, while there may still be some way to go, it is quite clear that those who oppose this are now the ones who are being demonised, just as LBGT folk once were. More often than not, taking a leading role in the campaigning, long before it was considered cool to do so and often when there was a price to be paid, has been Peter Tatchell. Yet the one who has done more than any I can think of to secure LBGT rights has now been snubbed by a new generation of LBGT activists who seem to have taken a dislike to a his more conciliatory approach to those who see things differently. The further irony is the very fact they can act in such a way and get away with it, is partly down to the past efforts of Peter Tatchell. A recent Guardian article confirming this is titled: “Peter Tatchell: snubbed by students for free speech stance”. It recounts many of the issues and the long, tough road down which he has travelled. One of its quotes is: “labelling Peter Tatchell as racist isn’t no-platforming; it’s just ignorance“.
I must confess that when I first came across Peter Tatchell, I saw him very much as being in the camp of the enemy for poisoning peoples’ minds with false and dangerous ideas. While there is much we will differ on e.g. some issues he has campaigned so vehemently on, his (regrettable in my view) rejection of his Evangelical roots, and his views on human sexuality and same sex relationships, I have since come to admire and be inspired by him. We have never met or corresponded and the closest we have got to each other is via the Readers Comments section of Pink News but it has occurred to me that the one person I would particularly like to provide a Foreword to some of my community activist writings (see here) would be Peter Tatchell. Interestingly, the Pink News readers comments on this particular story is, not surprisingly, mixed. While he is best known for his LBGT campaigning, a cursory check out of his resume would reveal he has campaigned on all sorts of justice issues, the latest being that of free speech. His support for the Ashers bakers (Northern Ireland), who have been taken to court for refusing to decorate a cake to promote gay rights, is one of many examples.
Opposing the gagging of those who express views on issues the gagger happens to disagree on is one of many subjects me and Peter will agree about, as is his standing against injustice wherever that may be seen. It is a sad reflection of our times that some of the very people who purport to being champions of tolerance are the same people that practice intolerance. Like me, Peter has mellowed with age. His days of outing hypocritical gay clergy, interrupting services led by unsympathetic archbishops and trying to effect a citizens arrest on Robert Mugabe may be long past. But I sense the fire is still burning and, while I would love to persuade him with the rightness of my views on Christianity, human sexuality and social justice, I suspect he will continue to fight for those things he believes in and seek justice where there is injustice. A lifetime of doing this earns him the right of being referred to as a national treasure.
Addendum: I found a link posted on my Facebook page today to an article titled: “Hating Peter Tatchell – a Documentary Film“, which refers to documentary “narrated by film actor and human rights campaigner Sir Ian McKellen, Hating Peter Tatchell is the inspiring true story of world renowned human rights activist Peter Tatchell.” It begins “Filmmaker Chris Amos discovers why Peter Tatchell for decades a public hate figure, is still being targeted by hate campaigns and smears by the far right and far left. Over the past decade, Peter has gone from being one of the most despised public figures in Britain to one of the most loved. His unique brand of human rights activism has brought him media and public scrutiny. Hating Peter Tatchell charts his 50 years of human rights activism and the immense personal price he has paid: the hate mail, death threats and violent assaults – with the latter resulting in brain and eye damage.” I wish Mr Amos well in his venture and hope he raises the money needed. I hope too that he produces a balanced account. While I have heard the term Saint Peter used referring to Mr. Tatchell, I suspect some of my conservative Evangelical friends would not see it that way. But he remains a person I admire, who I have had only brief dealings with, always with respect and courtesy. He continues to be an inspiration to my community activism despite our differences.