My first memories of Peter Tatchell are from the mid ’80s. Struggling to come to terms with my sexuality at a time when the homophobes were using HIV and AIDS to incite hatred against gay men I was desperately searching for a role model to identify with, someone who could lend force to my feelings and show me a way to accept myself. Peter Tatchell was not that person. As the saying goes, I couldn’t see the wood for the trees. What I saw was a man who seemed to be despised by everyone and who staged publicity stunts that appeared to be detrimental to the general acceptance of the gay community. I was naive and ignorant of the facts which had been filtered through a predominantly right-wing tabloid media.
The truth is that Peter Tatchell has since the age of 15 been campaigning for human and civil rights and has done so tirelessly. In his native Australia, he began this life long career as an activist opposing the death penalty, compulsory conscription and the war in Vietnam. He also campaigned for the rights of the indigenous aborigines. In 1969, at the age of 17 he realised he was gay and the struggle for ‘queer freedom’ increasingly became the focus of his activism. In the years that have followed he has kept LGBT and human rights at the forefront of the political agenda. Such is the enormity of the work he has done in the field it is near impossible to do it justice, but I would like to mention some of it here.
On moving to the UK in 1971 he became a key figure of the UK Gay Liberation Front, which staged many protests during the ’70s denouncing police harassment of gay men, and the medical classification of homosexuality as an illness. In 1973 he was interogated by the East German secret police, the Stasi, in East Berlin after staging the first ever gay rights protest in a communist country. Founding the UK AIDS Vigil was another world first, which at the time was the only organisation globally dedicated to the protection of the rights of people living with HIV and AIDS. In the ’80s he helped persuade the ANC to include a ban on anti-gay discrimination in their post-apartheid constitution, which became the first constitution in the world to prohibit discrimination based on sexuality. In 1990 he co-founded OutRage!, which in 1998 famously interrupted Arch Bishop Carey’s Easter sermon in Canterbury Cathedral, and condemned Carey’s advocacy of discrimination against lesbians and gay men. It is worth noting that the only crime of which Peter Tatchell has ever been convicted was for this peaceful protest, under the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860 (formerly part of the Brawling Act of 1551).
The list is seemingly endless and the great difference he has made to civil, human and LGBT rights is unquantifiable. Peter Tatchell may seem like an obvious choice for our list of LGBT Heroes, but rightly so – he has dedicated his entire adult life to the cause, at times suffering life-threatening physical abuse. I defy anyone to challenge his place here. As I have grown, I have come to appreciate Peter Tatchell for what he is – one of the great civil rights champions of our lifetime. On his website, Peter Tatchell cites Mahatma Ghandi, Sylvia Pankhurst and Martin Luther King as key political inspirational figures. History will show that Peter Tatchell will be remembered alongside them.