Watch: Peter Tatchell Recalls 50+ Years of LGBTQ Activism

by Matthew Wexler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday August 1, 2021
Originally published on July 28, 2021

Peter Tatchell
Peter Tatchell  

Called at one point "the most hated man in Britain," Peter Tatchell has stood up to everyone from Margaret Thatcher and the Catholic church to Russia's oppressive government, all in the name of human rights and LGBTQ equality. Now, a new documentary by Australian director Christopher Amos, "Hating Peter Tatchell," reveals the origins of Tatchell's activism and the risks he's taken for marginalized communities worldwide.

Tatchell appeared on a recent episode of "On the EDGE," a live conversation series that welcomes some of the world's most acclaimed LGBTQ personalities.

Here is an excerpt from EDGE editor Matthew Wexler's conversation with Tatchell:

EDGE: There are some heavy hitters behind the film (now available on Netflix with a theatrical premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival August 11), including executive producers Elton John and David Furnish. How did the movie's concept come about?

Peter Tatchell: It originated with the director Christopher Amos. He was astonished to discover that there's never been a film made about my many years of human rights work. And he thought it was a story worth telling. And when he began to do research, he was astonished to discover the level of vitriol and hate that was directed against me by homophobes, far-right extremists, and others.

EDGE: Did you have concerns about how your life might be portrayed?

Peter Tatchell: I gave the director full creative license. And apart from the collaboration when I went to Moscow, I did not interfere or get involved in the film anyway; it's Christopher Amos's personal story about my life.


EDGE: You were born in Melbourne, Australia, and took to activism at a young age. Was there a singular moment that inspired you to get involved on a level beyond your school and local community?

Peter Tatchell: It all began when I was 11 years old, in 1963. I heard about the bombing of a Black church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four young girls, about my own age, were murdered by white racists. I was only 11, but I knew that was it was so wrong. And that motivated me to follow the Black civil rights movement in America. You know, it had nothing to do with me, personally. But I could see this was a just cause. And indeed, the Black civil rights movement in America has been much of the template for my subsequent activism — the values, the ideals, the methods of nonviolent direct action, and civil disobedience used by Dr. Martin Luther King and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Those are the kinds of methods that I've embraced and adapted to my own contemporary struggle for LGBT+, and indeed, other human rights as well.

EDGE: What was it like when you first moved to London?

Peter Tatchell: Well, I was 19. It was 1971. Male homosexuality had been partly decriminalized in England and Wales in 1967. But still, most aspects of gay male life were criminal, and police suppression and harassment were very, very intense. But the gay liberation funds had been formed shortly before I arrived. So, I think five days after I got into London, I was at my first meeting. And within a month, I was helping to organize many of the Gay Liberation Front's spectacular street protests.

Peter Tatchell  (Source: "Hating Peter Tatchell")

EDGE: Later, you were part of another emerging LGBTQ activist group called OutRage!. Around the same time, another organization emerged, Stonewall. Perhaps the end game was similar, but the agendas and getting there were somewhat different. Could you elaborate?

Peter Tatchell: Well, like the London Gay Liberation Front, OutRage! was modeled on the Black civil rights movement in America and the suffrage campaign for votes for women here in Britain. We used nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience to challenge people in power. We had to change them because, for decades, people in power would not listen, would not consult, would not reform the laws that persecuted LGBT+ people — the police wouldn't meet us, the church would meet us, the government wouldn't meet us, Parliament — the legislature wouldn't even discuss LGBT+ issues.

So, we had to use those provocative, confrontational tactics. And, I might say so, very successfully. To put LGBT+ issues in the news, our strategy was doing these very colorful, exciting, daring, imaginative, and often very funny protests. We got masses of media coverage. And through that media coverage, we raised public awareness about the scale of persecution that LGBT+ people faced. And off the back of that, there were radio phone-in programs, TV discussions, and, of course, public meetings, and so on. So, it helped contribute to raising public awareness, and at the same time, put the authorities under pressure, because, you know, when we reported that two lesbians had been arrested for merely holding hands, and we got that in the press, a journalist went to the police chief and said, "On what basis are these lesbians being arrested? Is this an appropriate use of police resources?" So it was a very effective campaign.

Stonewall was primarily a parliamentary lobbying group. It was lobbying the government, but of course, it wasn't getting anywhere because the doors were slammed. And that's why OutRage! was necessary. We did our direct action, which created the fury. And of course, Stonewall then went to the government or the police or the church and said, "You don't want to deal with those nasty OutRage! people. But we're very nice, very polite, come and talk to us."

OutRage! did have different objectives. Of course, we wanted equal rights. But we understood that equal rights were not sufficient. Stonewall was wedded to just mere equality. OutRage! was committed to LGBT+ liberation. And the difference is that we said we don't want to be equal in a fundamentally flawed, unjust society. We want to change society to make it better for everyone. LGBT+ is first and foremost, but also for straight people as well. And for Black and ethnic minority people, for women, for people with disabilities, for other persecuted communities. So we had a much more intersectional and, I suppose, inclusive approach.

Peter Tatchell in Moscow  (Source: "Hating Peter Tatchell")

EDGE: Of the many protests that you've organized and participated in throughout your life, your trip to Moscow for the FIFA 2018 World Cup made international headlines and was profound in so many ways — you walked into the eye of the storm.

Peter Tatchell: Well, I basically went alone, just joined by the film's director. I deliberately did not inform Russian LGBT+ activists. I worked with them for many years, but I knew that I didn't want to put them in the frame where they could potentially be charged and prosecuted for aiding and abetting what I did.

It was a very, very scary experience, because I didn't know what was going to happen. I mean, I've been to Russia four times previously and been very badly beaten up by Neo-Nazis with the collusion of the Moscow police. And I was afraid of a repeat of that. You know, I've got brain and eye damage from that beating. I was worried that I could be charged with some serious events and end up spending, you know, some weeks or more in a Russian prison. I did spend some hours in a Russian police cell. But, you know, for me, what overrode my fears was the importance of showing solidarity with the incredibly brave, heroic Russian activists who live there 24/7, 365 days a year. They are taking risks with their lives and liberty all the time. I thought I could take a few risks for one day.

I do my bit, but so do many others. And it's our collective effort that has helped us win the gains we have achieved. So hats off and hands around to everyone who's been part of this process. Together have made stupendous changes; there is still work to do. But boy, we have moved mountains, and I'll just finish with my motto, which is very simple:

Don't accept the world as it is. Dream of what the world could be, and then help make it happen.

Watch EDGE's full interview with Peter Tatchell below:

Matthew Wexler is EDGE's Senior Editor, Features & Branded Content. More of his writing can be found at www.wexlerwrites.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @wexlerwrites.