In 2023 LGBTQ and diversity are high priorities on social and political agenda and communities which were once considered as minorities are now being celebrated on a worldwide stage. As a nation, we have come a long way since the conservative, blinkered attitudes of the 1950’s but for many, prejudice and discrimination still lingers among a certain section of the population. Writer, activist and human rights advocate Peter Tatchell has been campaigning for equality for all for over half a century but his plight is far from over. With a very strong belief that people should be able to be whoever they want to be, Tatchell has made a successful career out of the ability to speak up for a cause and put his name to plights which deserve awareness.
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Born in Footscray, Australia in 1952 when homosexuality was still illegal in most parts of the western world, Peter grew up unaware of his true sexuality until later this age of seventeen when he met similar men of the same age which resulted in an epiphany. Before this, Peter’s association with homosexuality was of shady, mysterious old men who would prey on young boys. This was definitely not him; he was sporty, physically strong and outgoing and didn’t fit the generic stereotype of a homosexual man. Yet with a strong moral compass, he always was happy to lend a voice to the pursuits he believed in. Years before his extensive work with the LGBTQ community, Tatchell developed a passion to combat social inequality. As a human rights campaigner, Peter took the lead in setting up a scholarship scheme for Aboriginal people and led a campaign for Aboriginal land rights. With a firm belief that all people should be able to have a basic right to express themselves and be counted, this struck a chord with the young activist and promptly laid the foundations for his socio-political ideology.
In order to avoid Australian conscription, Tatchell moved to the UK in 1971 where he became involved in the Gay Liberation Front which sparked a revolution. Inspired by The Stonewall Riots which took place in America in 1969 which created an uprising against gay rights, was heralded as a social revolution and gained the attention of the whole world. This influenced LGBTQ communities from all over the world to make a stand against inequality and discrimination. It seems pertinent to note here that just four years previously, homosexuality was still illegal in the UK; a crime punishable by fine or imprisonment. For far too long, this sector of society had been oppressed and ignored by the conservative values of an outdated political system and now it was time for change.
On 1st July 1972 the first Gay Pride took place in London with over seven hundred people marching from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square. Some people threw bottles or coins at the march while others just stopped and stared. Yet another group applauded and even joined in and it was this group that encouraged the LGBTQ movement to do it again. As a twenty year old human rights activist who had moved from Australia, this was the culmination of everything that Peter stood for: the right to protest, the right to express yourself freely without any judgment, fear or discrimination and the right to be with your own community. The first London Gay Pride event has gone down in history as a significant step forward for homosexual equality and at the time was heralded by many as a major social breakthrough for change. However, the forward thinking, liberal ethos of the mid seventies was about to be torn apart by a devastating epidemic and political turmoil.
The AIDS epidemic of the early 1980’s brought significant attention to the gay community at such an abhorrent time in our social history. Margaret Thatcher’s decision not to treat this as a national pandemic illustrated the outdated, blinkered values of the Tory government and by ignoring this raging disease which had an impact on a large proportion of the population, she was contributing to the sad demise of millions of young people. Throughout the eighties, the LGBTQ community felt marginalised, unsupported and invisible to the political ideology of Whitehall and this needed to change. In 1981 Tatchell won the right to stand for MP in the Bermondsey bi-election but lost to the Liberal candidate Simon Hughes which sparked backlash from the LGBTQ community who claimed that this vote was purely homophobia. Tatchell was then subjected to attacks in the street and a string of hate crimes which illustrated the regressive social attitudes of the electorate brought on by Thatcher’s forthright ideology. Yet things were about to worsen even further in 988 with the signing of the first anti gay bill for over a century…a dark and dangerous period for equality.
Around this time, a popular barman at the London gay bar The Vauxhall Tavern was making a name for himself in social circles. Right in the midst of the Aids pandemic, divisive propaganda was circulating amongst the social elite surrounding the infectious nature of this disease and on one particular occasion the police raided the bar wearing rubber gloves to protect against the disease. The barman saw these rubber gloves and made a great quip about them being there to do the washing up which totally took the tension out of such a dark situation. This barman in question was none other than the late great Paul O’Grady who Tatchell developed a great friendship with which lasted until his death earlier this year.
Thankfully throughout the nineties, as a result of positive role models like O’Grady, attitudes began to change. A mixture of commercialism and relief that the Thatcher era was over led to a new kind of acceptance. Section 28, brought in by Margaret Thatcher in 1988 which forced many organisations such as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender student support groups to close, limit their activities or self-censor. This sparked unrest in part due to the LGBTQ group Outrage who consistently protested against sexual equality which gained the attention of mainstream media. Suddenly Pride events started springing up all over Britain as this unbridled celebration of liberty started to spread.
At the age of 71, Peter Tatchell remains a tireless campaigner for social change, LGBTQ and human rights and is happy to lend his voice to worthwhile causes. He is currently fighting for a reform of the British political voting system which would change the process from first past the post to proportional representation. In addition to this he is campaigning to change the rights of refugees and overseas workers in light of changes surrounding Brexit. This is just another issue that Tatchell is most passionate about and to find out more about his plights please visit the website at https://www.petertatchellfoundation.org where you can sign up for a newsletter about his latest campaigns and LGBTQ issues. To sign the petition against historical homophobia and discrimination please visit www.apologisenow.com
What a refreshing, inspiring, insightful honour it was to interview the formidable Peter Tatchell and I hope you all marvel at his huge contribution he’s made to public life. A true pioneer and inspiration!