Hating Peter Tatchell 108

I would dearly love to say that I am a friend of Peter Tatchell, but I can’t really claim to be more than an acquaintance and perhaps ally. We have shared a platform several times, always say hi to each other at demos and events where we see each other, but have never really had a personal conversation. Peter always appears to me somewhat withdrawn; a mutual friend described him to me as aloof. I think he is shy, which seems a strange thing to say about someone whose life has been, as the new Netflix documentary Hating Peter Tatchell makes plain, a series of spectacular and often individual performance protest events.

In the documentary you see Peter get brutally beaten by nationalist extremists in Russia, and by Mugabe henchmen in London. You see some remarkably un-Christian blows hit him as he is removed from the pulpit at Canterbury cathedral. You learn his mum was a religious bigot and he was very brutally beaten, as attested by his mother and sister, by an extremely violent stepfather, who looks in photos a caricature thug. There is a fragility and vulnerability about Peter that makes you want to protect him; but he still ventures into danger.

The documentary features almost exclusively Peter’s campaigning for gay rights, which is a weakness as his canvas is much broader than that. There are some interesting ironies along the way which are missed. It refrains from pointing out that the victor and beneficiary of the appalling homophobic campaign against Peter in the Bermondsey by-election was Simon Hughes, himself then firmly in the closet. Extracts from a Glasgow TV show, in which Tatchell is heavily criticised by young people for “outing” gays, very briefly show the show’s host John Nicholson – who I am pretty sure was himself in the closet at the time.

It is very good to be reminded by this documentary that widespread and open homophobia was a major force in British society right through the 1980’s. Peter Tatchell deserves a place in history as one of the leaders in changing that, and I am proud to know him. I strongly commend the documentary to you. However its weakness lies in trying to squeeze Peter through the Overton window. By focusing on gay rights alone, it can portray Peter as the victor, who is now in line with accepted attitudes.

The documentary explicitly states he became a “national treasure” when he took on Mugabe. The big set-piece is his taking on Putin’s Russia by traveling to the World Cup and demonstrating in Red Square against the killing and torture of gays in Chechnya. Any pro-gay demonstration in Russia takes enormous courage, but the police dealing with him on this occasion were polite and non-violent and he was released the next day. Peter is however quite right in outlining discrimination against gays in Russia and Putin’s tolerance or even encouragement of it. The accumulation of Overton-signaling soft targets towards the end of the documentary is completed by a brief clip of him interrupting Jeremy Corbyn to protest against human rights violations by Assad.

I don’t exactly blame the documentary makers, who had to sell the film and get at least some of their money back, but this mainstream media friendly Tatchell is just one corner of the picture. He does not just take on designated western enemies such as Putin, Mugabe and Assad.

Peter has been an extremely dedicated supporter of Julian Assange, turning up repeatedly for years outside the Ecuador Embassy and at subsequent demos, often alone and unannounced, and without pushing himself forward to speak (I have found a reluctance to integrate Peter into the Assange defence campaign, which puzzles me).

The documentary shows him trying to arrest Mugabe but there is no mention of his still more spectacular ambush of Blair’s motorcade and attempt to arrest the war criminal. His steadfast and active support for Palestine, his opposition to Trident and to the Iraq and Afghan wars, all this is shown only in the end credits by the banners he is holding. His long-running campaign against Saudi Arabian human rights violations, and those of other Gulf states, is ignored in favour of Western “enemies”.

This is my favourite Tatchell placard:

Peter Tatchell is, to me, a great hero and always will be. I probably do not agree with him on every single issue, but no sentient human being should ever agree with any other on absolutely everything – if you do, one of you is not actually thinking.

A final thought. I have repeatedly stated that the Westminster government will not voluntarily give up Scotland, and only agreed to the 2014 referendum because they thought it impossible to lose. They got a huge shock and will not go that route again. Winning Scottish Independence is almost certainly going to involve a measure of civil disobedience. This documentary is a profound lesson in how civil disobedience can bring about social and political change, and the sacrifices it entails, and I urge you to watch it with that perspective.


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108 thoughts on “Hating Peter Tatchell

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  • mark golding

    Sadly in a bid to ‘build momentum’ with President Putin tomorrow Wednesday 16th June, Biden made no mention of addressing homophobia in Russia and the question can a homosexual be considered a person fit to be a citizen of the Russian Federation.

    Biden’s ‘what I want him to know’ should ‘build better’ after Covid with silence on expose, oppose, counter and shoot downs while allowing ethics, moral codes and natural law to develop an impetus to ongoing relations.

    On Monday, Biden warned of the consequences should Navalny die in prison, saying it would show Moscow “has little or no intention of abiding by basic fundamental human rights.”

    I remind Biden that Britain holds a journalist in a high security prison on U.S. bidding for revealing painful truths and war crimes who may also die; so let’s return therefore to ‘basic fundamental human rights’ and cast out hypocrisy, pretense and sham.

  • Astrid

    Sheesh Craig, first the stupid dismissive tweet against women and now this. You’re really trying to alienate your supporters at this critical time. I do plan to keep supporting you in your appeal because it’s an important fight, but will definitely reassess afterwards as I have no use for know-it-all imperialist liberals. Even after your personal experience, you still think the West knows better than the rest of the world and has the moral right to “humanitarian intervention” against countries that it can’t comprehend.

  • Baron

    For Pooh:

    Many thanks for explaining Фриган, Pooh, there was no other way to thank you, but do a fresh posting.

  • josh R

    Cheers for the recommendation, Murray. Watched it the other night & enjoyed it a lot, always nice to see a comprehensive docu about the life of an unsung hero.

    As CM writes, it is a good look at what one group’s commitment to protesting injustice entails & the lessons this can impart for our present & future actions (beyond tapping digital buttons).

    It also reminded me that challenging injustice is never ‘mainstream’,,,, until it is.
    It is invariably a ‘fringe’ activity by folk with the knowledge, conviction, time & inclination to stand up & shout whilst others simply walk on by or, worse still, sneer & deride their efforts,,,, until they don’t.

    Margaret Mead’s words are as true as anything said on the subject:

    “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

    As a young ‘un, it seemed entirely proper & unexceptional to walk this path: standing outside a museum in the rain with a small group of like minded folk, holding up banners & protesting for the civil right of mobility impaired citizens to access public buildings, without being excluded by physical barriers such as narrow doorways, steps, heavy doors, etc.; or a lonesome looking few standing outside the local Shell garage, pointing out to customers & passersby that the company financially profited from & therefore propped up the apartheid regime in South Africa; or joining another lonesome but committed group holding daily vigils in the town centre against war in Iraq, whilst the mainstream, the ‘conventional’ & the poorly informed & much propagandised were being fed an unending diet of lies & stale nationalism, supporting the ‘troops’ by way of a faux patriotism that obscured the reality that they were sending soldiers into harms way to protect corporate dominated imperialism & not to ‘help’ an abused citizenry.

    Through it all there was the rain & cold, the bemused or frequently unfriendly feedback. There were the afternoons & evenings of painting & making up banners, coordinating transport, sandwiches & thermos’ of tea.
    Then there were the occasional ‘thumbs up’ or car horns being beeped by supportive folk, people busy with other things but who eventually make up that critical mass which marks change & progress.

    There was rarely much thought of physical confrontation or arrest unless it was specifically invited (sadly, from the 90s to today that authoritarian danger is increasingly less remote). After all, those years were simply a progression from the colonial independence movements, civil rights & anti racism, gender equality & anti sexism, anti war, confronting domestic fascists, trade union organising from office workers to the coal mining communities.
    Campaigning & protesting for a better world was almost de rigueur and an expression of patriotism for those inclined towards Thomas Paine’s “the World is my country…..”.

    As with those early experiences, delving further into Tatchell’s efforts & finding his confrontation with Beeley et al over Syria, I was happily reminded of ‘disagreements’ and I’ve added Murray’s words on the subject to my list of favourite quotes:

    “if you find nothing to disagree about, you’re not really talking.”

    There’s nothing like a group of committed & incensed campaigners for social justice to expose innumerable differences of opinion or strategy.
    To imagine a species of utterly unique & diverse individuals would do otherwise is simply daft.
    Rather than the weakness is might appear to be, as off shoots, splits & internal disagreement arise it can even strengthen the wider front of dissent, allowing for various strategies to be tried, tested & refined, bolstering the combined effort (as long as those differences are not arising as a result of manipulation & orchestration by agents of the Establishment status quo, which it often is)

    The cardigan clad, bearded Lefties who were being battered & run out of town in 1960s-1980s Britain were often at odds with the Anti Fascist League tactics but ultimately benefitted from their efforts in having a safer space to talk & organise.
    The Good Doctor would very likely have never been allowed a ‘dream’ if the likes of Malcolm & Stokely hadn’t offered an alternative ‘nightmare’ to the racist oppressors.
    The smelly, hairy folk* who sleep in trees, B&E, covertly film & expose the abuses of corporate malfeasance may not, to some, be ideal dinner guests, but they are very much part of our collective progression to a better world.
    *I know, it’s an occupational hazard & does not represent everyone, but I love it! grungy dissent!!

    For no other reason than that some comments have referenced Tatchell’s ‘reputation’ in relation to his views on Syria & those Foreign Office operatives, the White Helmets, I would say I found this a bit disappointing. But who’s perfect?

    Watching the documentary, just before the end credits I learned that whilst randomly pottering around the place this past 10 years, I’ve spent considerable time in at least 13 countries where it’s illegal for gay folk to shag!?! WTF?? & I didn’t even know it, didn’t cross my mind.
    One drunken night trawling Beirut’s night life, I even ended up in a gay club & only barely registered how ‘low key’ it was, oblivious to why. Had I ‘known’ more, perhaps I would have said or done more, or maybe not.

    In relation to hearing Tatchell talk with Beeley about the Syria conflict, he only seemed to be expressing a very ‘majority’ held opinion. Sadly framed as a difference of opinion between whether Assad is good or Assad is bad (that predictable mainstream trickery a la “You’re either with us or against us”, “Support your country, good or bad”), rather than what is perhaps the at the crux of opposition to FUKUS efforts in Syria, namely whether bombing the bejesus out of a whole country, enforcing the collective punishment of an economic siege & trafficking, arming & letting loose a load of fundamentalist nutters, is the best way to help a people living under whatever presumed injustices one is advocating against.

    If anything, it’s reassuring to know the fella is not perfect & capable of that most human of qualities, fallibility,,,,, or maybe that’s me in this case,,,,, but I don’t think it is :-)))

    To want or expect anything different from our champions is self defeating & an excuse to twiddle one’s thumbs & do nothing. Life is not a Hollywood movie & it’s not a spectator sport so best to just get stuck in & iron out the creases as you go.

    Good placard Tatchell has in the photo, reminds me of my favourite from the Iraq protests:

    “Bush is just another word for c#nt”

    & it looked like the woman holding it had trimmed her own bush to decorate the poster, bit creepy but very creative & still makes me smile :-))

    In terms of dissent tactics, my absolute favourite has to be Mark Thomas’ challenge to SOCPA in the mid Noughties. Not so much civil disobedience as infuriating civil obedience:

  • John Carlisle

    Peter Tatchell: I am a straight, practising Christian and a Socialist. Peter and I had one exchange about five years ago (time flies when you are nearly eighty). I found him thoughtful, courteous and helpful. I admire him greatly and wish the rest of the activist community of all shapes and sizes could be as courageous and as measured as he is.

    John Carlisle

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