Peter Tatchell interview: On love and freedom
Symon Hill meets veteran human rights campaigner, Peter Tatchell
For someone who has often been vilified as an aggressive extremist, Peter Tatchell is disarmingly mild-mannered in person. It’s not the first time I’ve met him, but it’s the first time I’ve done so while covered in mud – we were at the Greenbelt arts, faith and justice festival at its wettest, and I had few dry clothes by the third day. Fortunately, Peter Tatchell is just about the last person to care about an interviewer’s trousers. He recently said that the most expensive item he has ever bought is a £300 bicycle.
Tatchell made his name campaigning for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. But he has worked tirelessly to progress a vast number of other causes – from challenging government cuts to supporting the rights of Sunni Muslims in Iran. While he may share the anti-consumerist instincts of many Christians, he still draws criticism and even anger in certain Christian circles. When he spoke at Greenbelt in 2010 – on “the global struggle for queer freedom” – the socially conservative group Anglican Mainstream called for a boycott of the festival. Many remember his protests in 1998, when he interrupted the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter sermon.
Tatchell speaks passionately about religious liberty and recently defended the rights of Christians who object to same-sex relationships to express their views in public. He has also criticised his fellow leftwingers for failing to condemn the persecution of Christians in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as much as they condemn the persecution of Muslims elsewhere. At Greenbelt this year, he spoke about same-sex marriage alongside Sharon Ferguson, director of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement.
You say your human rights campaigning is motivated by love. What does love mean to you?
Love to me is a sense of respect, affection, care and compassion towards other human beings. Too often, it’s privatised within the family realm. One of the true measures of love is our ability to extend it to a wider humanity, to recognise people beyond our own family, community, culture and nation as being part of the human family. If we are able to love them, we will never tolerate the kinds of deprivations and injustices that blight the lives of millions of people around the world.
Do you think there’s any link between the power of love and what Christians call the power of God?
For me, love is a non-religious emotion and principle, although I understand and accept that it can be religiously motivated and interpreted as well. Whatever the motivation or inspiration, the importance is that we all do have love in our hearts for other human beings, a love that transcends our own immediate family and friends to a wider humanity. Love is a universal principle that ought to guide all aspects of human endeavour. The term “human rights” comes in for a lot of criticism.
What do human rights mean to you?
I take my understanding of human rights from the agreed conventions such as the Universal Declaration of Human rights. They set out principles by which we should treat other people and ensure their protection against tyranny and persecution.
What do you mean when you say that you support the human rights of Christians who are being persecuted?
One aspect of my work is to oppose the persecution of religious minorities, including Sunni Muslims in Shia-dominated Iran and Christians in countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Churches and homes of Christians have been burned down in parts of Pakistan with the apparent connivance of the authorities. Perpetrators are rarely if ever brought to justice. There have also been instances of Christians being sacked from their jobs and even murdered.
You’re best known for campaigning for LGBT rights. What do you think these campaigns have achieved?
When I was a teenager, homosexuality was almost universally regarded as sinful, immoral, criminal, abnormal, unnatural, deviant and sick. Most aspects of gay life and love were criminalised. Queer-bashing violence was routine. Gay people could be sacked from their jobs or evicted from their tenancy with no legal redress. Many of those injustices remained in Britain right up until the late 1990s. It’s only in the last decade or so that public opinion has become more accepting and most anti-gay laws have finally been repealed. It took until 2003 for us to secure a penal code that does not discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation. During my lifetime and particularly since the start of the 21st Century, I have been part of, and witnessed, momentous changes. It has been one of the biggest, fastest and most successful law reform campaigns in British history. A longstanding deep-seated social homophobia has finally been turned into a minority perspective.
And what is still to be achieved?
Although we have some fantastic equality laws that protect LGBT people against discrimination in employment and housing, all these laws have qualified exemptions for religious organisations. I think it’s very wrong that faith bodies should seek and secure exemptions from the law that applies to everyone else. No one is requiring them to approve of homosexuality or practise it, but they shouldn’t be allowed to discriminate.
The last of the major legal discriminations is the ban on same-sex marriage. I’m co-ordinating the
Equal Love campaign, which as well as pressing for marriage equality is also calling for an end to the ban on heterosexual couples having a civil partnership and for the right of religious organisations to conduct same-sex marriages if they wish to.
But not if they don’t wish to?
No. In our view, it should be a matter of free choice. What’s very wrong about the current law is that by banning religious same-sex marriages, the government is forcing religious organisations to discriminate. That’s not only homophobic, it’s an attack on religious freedom.
You’ve campaigned alongside Christians on a number of issues. How has this affected your feelings about Christianity?
In my late teens, when I was still religious, I founded and was elected secretary of Christians for Peace, which was the main interdenominational anti-war campaign group in my home town of Melbourne, Australia. For every homophobic, bigoted Christian, there are other iconic Christians who’ve stood up and spoken out for LGBT equality, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He has likened homophobia to racism, saying that when he fought against apartheid, it was for the liberation of all South Africans.
What’s your view of Jesus?
In all probability, Jesus did exist and the biblical accounts are probably broadly true. I see the recorded life of Jesus as being one of a Jewish prophet who articulated many admirable humanitarian ideals: blessed are the peacemakers, the poor shall inherit the earth, and so on. In many ways, the Gospels are a theology of human liberation.
Some Christians remember your campaigns in the 1990s, when there were images of you protesting in churches. How do you feel about those protests now? Do you have any regrets?
In the 1990s, we were campaigning against extreme homophobia, as manifested by many social institutions, from parliament to the police, judiciary, media and churches. All attempts at dialogue had failed, so we had no alternative but to challenge homophobes within the church, modelled on the nonviolent tactics of people like Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Much of our inspiration came from the black civil rights movement. Looking back on those protests, I don’t have any regrets. They were all morally and ethically justified.
In 1994, Outrage named 10 Anglican bishops who were homosexual and in many instances having gay relationships. We didn’t name them because we objected to them keeping their sexuality private. It was because they were colluding with a church that was actively condemning gay people and whose leaders were advocating legal discrimination. We called on the bishops to “tell the truth”. They preached that we should all be truthful and not bear false witness. Yet they were doing the exact opposite. Either explicitly or implicitly, they were anti-gay. The issue for us was hypocrisy and homophobia.
I went into the pulpit of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, on Easter Sunday 1998 and criticised his advocacy that the law should discriminate against LGBT people. He was on record as saying that homophobic discrimination in employment was justified in certain circumstances, that there should be no legal recognition of people in loving long-term same-sex relationships, that gay couples are unfit to foster or adopt children and so on. We tried for eight years to meet him. He refused. Faced with that intransigence, we felt that we had no option but to confront him in his cathedral. We did not insult him or the Christian religion, we simply criticised his support for homophobic discrimination. People say it was shocking that we should interrupt a church service, but we didn’t interrupt any of the sacred parts. We made an intervention when he was beginning his political sermon.
What’s changed? Why are you not using similar sorts of tactics now?
Overall, church homophobia has declined. It hasn’t gone away, but I don’t think it is as severe or strong as it once was. I’d be prepared to do similar protests again in the future, if church leaders continue to misrepresent the campaign for marriage equality and stir up public hostility towards gay people. Similar forms of direct action protest may then be morally and ethically justified.
You’ve recently been campaigning on economic issues. What’s your “wealth tax” idea?
The richest 10 per cent of the British population have a combined personal wealth of four trillion pounds. That’s a million pounds multiplied four million times. I’m proposing the idea of a one-off, 20 per cent graduated tax on this richest 10 per cent, which would raise a phenomenal £800bn pounds.
This would still leave intact the vast bulk of rich people’s assets, but they’d probably have to sell off one of their six homes, or maybe a luxury car or a yacht. They can afford it. It’s their patriotic duty to make sacrifices to help save the economy. £800bn could be used to pay off most of the national debt. Even better, we could use that money to fund the green new deal, which would create new jobs in renewable energy and energy conservation, simultaneously helping to solve unemployment and tackling climate change.
You’ve campaigned on all sorts of issues and even been beaten up by Robert Mugabe’s bodyguards, but you’re still campaigning. Do you ever long for a quieter life?
I’m 60 now but retirement isn’t even on the horizon. I’m in it for the long haul. There are so many injustices that need to be challenged. For me, it is an incredible honour and privilege to be part of a human rights movement that is slowly, gradually, surely making a positive difference to many people’s lives. I am an unreconstructed 1960s idealist. My motto is: “Don’t accept the world as it is. Dream of what the world could be and then help make it happen.”
Symon Hill is associate director of the Christian thinktank Ekklesia and author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion (New Internationalist, 2010)
This article was published in the November 2012 edition of Reform.
For more on the Peter Tatchell Human Rights Foundation, visit http://www.petertatchellfoundation.org