Peter Tatchell last had a holiday in 2008. “It was a forced holiday. Some friends gifted me a flight and a hotel in Antigua, so I had to go.”
I picture the indefatigable gay rights campaigner twitching on his beach towel, wondering if he could stir up some trouble on behalf of so-called “batty boys” before his return flight, but he’s moving right along.
“There are many times when I feel utterly exhausted,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’m mostly working 14 to 16 hours a day.”
Tatchell was one of Australia’s notable British exports, arriving in London in 1971, just a few years after Clive James, Germaine Greer and the Oz magazine editors had made their mark. He had no plan to stay, but every reason to do so. He had realised a couple of years earlier that he was gay.
“At that time in the state of Victoria, homosexuality was still a criminal offence … you could be jailed for several years and even in certain circumstances forced to undergo psychiatric treatment,” he says.
“There were no LGBT+ organisations, not even any switchboards or counselling services. Absolutely nothing.” In London, there was a new organisation called the Gay Liberation Front. He joined.
Fifty years later, according to Christopher Amos’ new documentary Hating Peter Tatchell, he has been involved in thousands of political actions, from run-of-the-mill demonstrations to confronting the Archbishop of Canterbury in the pulpit on Easter Sunday, trying to upstage Vladimir Putin at the opening of the World Cup, and several attempts to effect a citizen’s arrest of former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe.
A lot of people surely do hate Peter Tatchell, after all that. “Over the years, I’ve certainly riled a lot of homophobes, tyrants and other human rights abusers,” he confirms. And a good many on his own side? Yes, them too. For example, he offers, when he was part of a group spearheading a push for marriage equality, more conservative groups said it was too soon. “Now they’re all on board.”
But it’s not just a matter of more cautious gay lobbyists telling him to steady on a bit. Depending on the issue, he has been accused of Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, transphobia, supporting paedophilia and every variety of racism — skirmishes that don’t crop up in Hating Peter Tatchell but are recorded at length on the internet.
Not that it’s difficult to be accused of any of these things, given the hurly-burly of modern identity politics. What is striking is that he keeps going back for more abuse, more internecine struggle and more damaging head injuries from security officers thrilled to be able to exceed their remit.
“So far I’ve been violently assaulted over 300 times, had 50 attacks on my flat, been the victim of half-a-dozen murder plots and received tens of thousands of hate messages and death threats over the last five decades,” he wrote in a piece about the film in The Guardian. Such are the scars of battle. “I’m hoping that I will be able to continue for at least another 26 years,” he tells me. “And then perhaps retire gracefully at the age of 95.”
We are speaking on Zoom, but his voice resonates as if he is trying to reach the back of a draughty hall: a preacher’s delivery. Every sentence is perfectly formed, as if he had said it before. I try to catch him out with something unexpected but he’s word-perfect.
Tatchell grew up in Mount Waverley in a Pentecostal home. His stepfather bullied him; his mother was convinced he was on a pink highway to hell. Far from running away from her disapproval, he appeared on television to debate her about his impending damnation. What a pair they make, clearly mutually devoted. She takes a softer line in Amos’ film; it doesn’t fit with her beliefs, she says, but there it is.
It could be a cue for a coming-out story thick with guilt and self-doubt, given how large homosexuality looms in the evangelical pantheon of sins. But that just wasn’t going to happen to Tatchell. “Amazingly, when I realised I was gay, I said to myself: ‘Look, I’m not harming anyone. This relationship I’m embarking on with a man is so emotionally fulfilling – how can it be wrong?’ So I never had a moment’s doubt. But then again, one thing my very religious parents taught me was to stand up for myself. Do what’s right! Don’t follow the crowd! I took that to heart.”
He was already politically active, in line with the tenor of the times. In 1967, inspired by newspaper reports, he had become part of the campaign to stop the execution of Ronald Ryan, the last man hanged in Victoria. “As you know, that failed but that provoked my lifelong scepticism of authority … I began to question lots of things that I’d previously taken for granted, like the treatment of Australia’s Indigenous peoples and like Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.”
And even though he is most famously identified with Outrage! and its confronting tactics, including the deeply divisive decision to “out” gay public figures, he still works on a spread of campaigns. The Peter Tatchell Foundation is “tiny, 2½ people” and privately funded; he is clearly well-connected, given that Elton John and David Furnish came on board as executive producers of the documentary. Like the Avengers, he goes where he’s needed. West Papua to support self-determination; Pakistan to champion the indigenous Baluchi; Eastern European Pride marches.
Does he ever doubt himself? Think he made a bad decision or backed the wrong horse? A moment’s consideration. “Well, on the issue of making homophobia a hate crime, I’ve got some misgivings about that. I was very enthusiastic to begin with but I feel that sometimes, on occasion, it has strayed into the realm of inhibiting free speech and the right to protest.” He is vociferously opposed to no-platforming or “cancelling” opponents, an old-fashioned liberal conviction that has led him right into the thick of the TERF wars, but nobody can accuse Tatchell of dodging a stoush.
Hating Peter Tatchell provides a riveting panorama of social protest over his lifetime. There are terrific interviewees: Stephen Fry is in there, and Sir Ian McKellen; Archbishop George Carey, whose life was certainly made more complicated by Tatchell during the “outing” campaign, generously says he thinks he is a force for good. But after an hour talking to him, I feel no closer to understanding what drives him so relentlessly.
“I’m just driven by my passion, which is that I love other people,” he says. “I love liberty and freedom and justice. I don’t like to see other people suffering; I know that if I were suffering, I would want someone to help me.” For him, the point of making the film was to inspire the next generation “to become change-makers”. But who could come anywhere near replacing Peter Tatchell?
Hating Peter Tatchell is at cinemas during the Melbourne International Film Festival, which streams August 5-22 and is in cinemas August 13-22. miff.com.au
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