Human Rights and Homophobia: Interview with Peter Tatchell
Peter Tatchell, founder and Director of Peter Tatchell Foundation (PTF) for human rights, was born to live in favor of minorities, those who suffer discriminations and any kind of injustice: “I have been campaigning for human rights for 49 years, since I was 15. For the first 45 years I was unpaid and lived an impoverished existence. I was driven by humanitarian ideals,” he says.
A green socialist inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, Sylvia Pankurst, Martin Luther King and, to some extent, Malcolm X and Rosa Luxemberg, Peter Tatchell speaks out fearless: “Organised religion is the single greatest global threat to human rights. (…) I defend religious people against discrimination, but cannot accept that they should be allowed to discriminate against others. (…) Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people often suffer family and religious rejection, ostracism by peers, verbal and physical assaults and discrimination at work. This results in higher than average levels of anxiety, depression, alcoholism and suicide”. But his fight has not been in vain at all: “Between 1999 and 2013, all the UK’s anti-gay laws were abolished. We now have legal equality for LGBT people.”
Peter Tatchell has a large historical in defense for minorities. In Australia, his country, he also campaigned in support of Aboriginal rights. After moving to London in 1971, where he lives today, he became a leading activist in the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). Through his life Peter Tatchell has been arrested, interrogated and convicted for nearly 3,000 direct actions and civil disobedience protests.
Edu Montesanti: Thank you, Peter Tatchell, for granting Pravda this interview. Would you please tell about Peter Tatchell Foundation (PTF), and about you, Peter?
Peter Tatchell: The Peter Tatchell Foundation (PTF) was founded in 2011. We work to promote and protect the human rights of individuals, communities and nations, in the UK and internationally. I am the Director.
I have been campaigning for human rights for 49 years, since I was 15. For the first 45 years I was unpaid and lived an impoverished existence. I was driven by humanitarian ideals.
I was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1952. In the late 1960s I was active in the campaign against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, alongside the US. I moved to London in 1971 and have lived here ever since. I live in a tiny one-bedroom council flat on a sprawling working class housing estate in south London.
I am a green socialist and a member of the Green Party.
Edu Montesanti: PFT’s website mentions that: “A report on homelessness by the charity Crisis in 2010, found that 40% of homeless young people between ages 16-25 were Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT). Stonewall Housing [LGBT housing advice and support provider in England]. I found that 77% of the 40% were from the BME community. Many of these LGBT young people cited religious homophobia as one of the main fundamental explanations for their homelessness”. That happens, you know, all over the world. What should religions and societies in general do to be more effective on respecting freedom and equality, what must be changed for it?
Peter Tatchell: Organised religion is the single greatest global threat to human rights. All over the world, religious leaders are endorsing discrimination against people of other faiths, women, non-believers and gay people. I defend religious people against discrimination, but cannot accept that they should be allowed to discriminate against others.
Discrimination is not a religious value. We need to ensure a separation between religion and the State, so that the State remains neutral on matters of faith and does not seek to impose religious values on the rest of society. This way, all faiths and none have equal rights and protection.
Edu Montesanti: Other warisome data presented on PTF’ website are:
• A third currently smoke, which is slightly higher than the total sample rate (28.7%) and higher than the rates among women in general;
• 70% had a drink in the last week and a third drink three or more days a week, compared to a quarter of women as a whole;
• More than 2 in 5 (44%) have taken drugs in the last year, six times more than women in general and more than the total LGB survey rate of 35%;
• Over half (55%) have been screened for sexually transmitted infections, which was higher than the overall Stonewall survey sample (47%);
• 1 in 5 (19%) over the age of 25 have never had a cervical screen, compared to 7% of women in general and to16% of the sampled lesbian and bisexual young people;
• 7% have attempted to take their own life in the last year which was higher than the non-BME sampled population (5%).
Why does it happen, Peter, how this reality could be changed, and what your Foundation has been doing to change this scenario?
Peter Tatchell: Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people often suffer family and religious rejection, ostracism by peers, verbal and physical assaults and discrimination at work. This results in higher than average levels of anxiety, depression, alcoholism and suicide.
The root cause is anti-gay prejudice, which we are tackling by doing talks about LGBT issues in schools and universities, to promote understanding and acceptance of same-sex love. It is part of the natural spectrum of human sexuality and is found in every country and every animal species.
Edu Montesanti: This is a controversial topic all over the world: LGBT around the world fight for equality and freedom of speech as many people, especially religious ones and conservatives in general, these people also claim for freedom of speech, their right to manifest their vewpoint – in this case, proclaiming their faith in what they call “moral principles”.
In short, these sectors advocate they should have the same right LGBT have to defend their ideas. How do you see, Peter, the limits between speaking out defending self-opinion at the same time respecting diversity, especially involving sexuality?
Peter Tatchell: We defend the right of religious people to believe that homosexuality is wrong but we don’t accept that they have a right to discriminate against LGBT people. Gay people should not discriminate against religious people and religious people should not discriminate against LGBTs.
Edu Montesanti: You wrote on The Guardian that: “By 1989, the number of gay and bisexual men convicted for consenting adult same-sex behaviour was more than 2,000, which was almost as high as in 1954/55, at the height of the McCarthyite anti-gay witch-hunts. I was involved with OutRage! at the time – which is a capital O and a capital R and an exclamation mark – and we sought dialogue with the police”.
In another publication on The Guardian, you stated that “Free speech is under attack in UK universities.”. In the UK specifically, how are LGBT rights, how do you evaluate human rights in general in the region and how has it advanced through years?
Peter Tatchell: Between 1999 and 2013, all the UK’s anti-gay laws were abolished. We now have legal equality for LGBT people. This was the culmination of a 40-year campaign that combined parliamentary lobbying with non-violent direct action protests, modelled on the tactics of the black civil rights movement of the US in the 1960s. The civil rights movement was and remains a strong influence on my political ideas and methods.
Edu Montesanti: How do you evaluate the current and historical performance of the mainstream media regarding to homophobia?
Peter Tatchell: Until the last 10 years, the tabloid press was very anti-gay. It used to out gay public figures; shaming them and ruining their careers. But as public opinion became more gay-friendly, these dirty tactics alienated readers, so the papers changed tack. They are now mostly very respectful of gays and lesbians.
Edu Montesanti: Would you tell us, please, how you see the situation regarding possible advances and/or regression towards human rights in the world?
Peter Tatchell: Climate destruction is the single greatest threat to human welfare and global security. If sea levels keep rising, the earth’s highly populated and major food producing low-lying delta regions will disappear under the waves. This will deprive hundreds of millions of people of their homes, crops and livelihoods; creating mass migrations of the homeless, unemployed and hungry and causing worldwide food shortages.
With hundreds of millions of climate refugees on the move it could trigger global economic collapse and social disorder; leading to the revival of far right nationalist movements pledging to end chaos and restore order. There is also another potential threat.
As the developing world industrialises and the world population rises, natural resources and raw materials will become more scarce and costly. This could lead to a new round of imperialist-style conflicts over control of dwindling resources, including oil, minerals, food and water.
Edu Montesanti: Countries like Afghanistan are deeply misogynistic and homophobic. How do you see this situation today after US invasion, and in other Islamic countries in the region like Saudi Arabia? Specifically in the case of Afghanistan, has the US invasion caused the reverse effect in the country, not only for its aggressive essence but also given the rapes (including against minors) by NATO soldiers, never punished?
Peter Tatchell: The Taliban are bad but the US war in Afghanistan has not defeated them. They are on the rise again. Washington gave too much priority to war-fighting and did not do enough to improve the living standards of the Afghani people. The poppy eradication programme improverished many farmers and drove them into the arms of the Taliban, as did indiscriminate US bombing and drone attacks that killed many civilians.
Edu Montesanti: How do you evaluate the current and historical performance of the mainstream media regarding to Islamophobia?
Peter Tatchell: Some of the media and many right-wing politicians have fuelled anti-Islam prejudice. They have failed to make a clear distinction between the tiny minority of Islamist terrorists and the majority of Muslims who reject terror tactics.
Edu Montesanti: Colombia Agreement, signed by Washington and Bogotá in 2000, has been resulting in a total failure: it has not defeated drug production and smuggling as under the agreement also planned for 2008 the installation of seven military bases to “continue” with terrorism and drug trafficking operations. It agreed that 800 soldiers and 600 US contractors came to the country with guarantees of immunity. However, numerous reports of abuses and violations approximately 54 underage girls were reported in the vicinity of military bases in Melgar and Girardot.
Six women were raped every hour in Colombia during the first nine years of Plan Colombia. That figure was taken from a joint survey done by women’s rights organizations, which include Oxfam and other Colombian based groups. The study also revealed that some 489,678 women were victims of some type of sexual violence, while 7,752 had been forced into prostitution between 2000-2009-what were integral years for the controversial deal.
Peter Tatchell: Sexual violence against women – and to a lesser extent against men – is a grave problem in all countries. There are millions of victims worldwide every year. Too often, the victims secure no redress. Schools should be doing more to educate young people against the sexist attitudes that underpin rape, and to teach the importance of sexual consent.
Edu Montesanti: Moreover, according to the United Nations for Refugees (UNHCR) approximately 350 thousand Colombians have the status of refugees or asylum seekers in at least 20 countries worldwide and 70 percent emigrated over the past 15 years.
As a human right leader, Peter, how do you see this situation, how could it be changed in Latin America (victim of “War on Drugs” as well as “War for Democracy” by the US as in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador) and how do you see the US as a “human right champion”, as Washington constantly self-declares.
Peter Tatchell: The so-called ‘war on drugs’ has failed. Organised crime syndicates still contrpl and profit from the drug trade. A new approach is needed. I support the Portuguese policy of decriminalising drugs to break the link with the criminal underworld and to ensure purity and quality of supply to cut drug deaths. This is backed up with programmes of safer drug use and support for people who want to give up drugs. It has been a great success and, through taxation of drugs, has raised funds for improved drug treatment and rehabilitation programmes.
Edu Montesanti: “LGBT-Muslim Solidarity initiative seeks to encourage dialogue, unity and solidarity between the Muslim & LGBTI communities – to oppose all hate”, informs PTF. Would you tell us please, Peter, how exaclty has PTF worked for it, and what have been the results?
Peter Tatchell: There was a mix of hostility and support from London Muslims when our LGBT-Muslim Solidarity campaign was launched. We received wonderful positive responses from some Muslims: ‘I’m a Muslim and I support gay equality’ and ‘If Muslims are gay, let them be.’ But others said: ‘It (homosexuality) is against Islam,’ ‘You can’t be Muslim and gay’ and ‘We don’t accept gay Muslims’. One man said he used to support the Taliban punishment of executing gay people but he doesn’t agree with that any more. Another Muslim man told how he was hounded out of his flat by local Muslims after they discovered he was gay. He said he received no support from anyone in the Muslim community. They all turned against him. We found particular hostility from some Muslims towards the idea that a Muslim person could be gay. They expressed their greatest antipathy for LGBT Muslims. Unsurprisingly, most of the LGBT Muslims who asked us to do this campaign were too afraid to attend. They feared retribution from their Muslim families and neighbours. It demonstrates why this campaign is necessary. Thankfully, Muslim attitudes are changing in response to our campaign and as a result of more and more young Muslims coming out as LGBT.
Edu Montesanti: To your mind, what are the great challenges to get over intolerance, discrimination and hate crime?
Peter Tatchell: Much prejudice is rooted in fear, ignorance and misinformation. When people personally know a black or gay person they are much less likely to be prejudiced. Education through schools and the media and better social integration are the key to reducing intolerance, discrimination and hate crime.
Schools have a key role in challenging attitudes that fuel hate and victimisation. After all, no child is born prejudiced. Some become prejudiced under the bad influence of adults and peers. Equality & Diversity lessons in schools can help prevent that. To combat bullying and hate crime, education against all prejudice – including racism, misogyny and homophobia – should be a mandatory subject in every school. It ought to start at primary level, and continue throughout a pupil’s secondary years, to promote understanding and acceptance of difference. Overcoming prejudice is vital for the welfare of pupils and to secure an inclusive, and cohesive society at ease with itself.
Edu Montesanti: Would you give us, please, your view on the current immigration crisis, especially involving Syrians.
Peter Tatchell: The migrant and refugee crisis in Europe is being driven by conflict and poverty. We need concerted international action to remedy these root causes. This may require UN peacekeepers, arms embargoes and civilian safe havens, as well as international aid to create jobs building houses, schools, roads and hospitals. When people have economic security, terrorism and conflict has less appeal and finds it difficult to get a foothold.
Edu Montesanti: How do you evaluate the role of the UK in the “War on Terror”?
Peter Tatchell: The ‘war on terror’ has often turned into a ‘war of terror,’ where civil liberties have been curtailed.
The UK initially resorted to detention without trial, secret hearings and asset seizures of suspected terrorists – until these were overturned by the courts. In my view, we cannot defend freedom by undermining it. That is what the terrorists want. Freedom is both a goal and a means to defeat terror. The methods we use to combat terrorism must be consistent with our democratic and human rights values.
Edu Montesanti: What is your take on the free speech versus no-platform arguments that are raging in many US and UK universities?
Peter Tatchell: Freedom of speech is one of the most precious and important human rights. It can only be legitimately restricted when someone makes false, damaging allegations – such as that a person is a rapist or tax fraudster – or when they engage in threats, harassment or the endorsement of violence.
A free society depends on the free exchange of ideas. Nearly all ideas are capable of giving offence to someone. Many of the most important, profound ideas in human history – such as those of Galileo GalileiCharles Darwin and Karl Marx – caused great religious offence in their time.
Free speech does not mean giving bigots a free pass. It includes the right and moral imperative to challenge, oppose and protest bigoted views. Bad ideas are most effectively defeated by good ideas – backed up by ethics, reason and evidence – rather than by bans and censorship. As the German communist, Rosa Luxemburg argued: freedom of speech means nothing if it doesn’t exist for the person who thinks differently.
* For more information about Peter Tatchell‘s human rights work