How I fell out of love with Peter Tatchell
I didn’t want to write this article. For a long time, Peter Tatchell was one of my political heroes. Reading about the infamous Bermondsey by-election when I was 15 and going through the process of being outed and the abuse and violence that came with that, understanding that people such as Tatchell had put themselves through that 25 years prior so that the world we live in was more tolerant and more accepting, was a comfort and an inspiration. Tatchell’s continuing radicalism throughout his long career in activism and into his elder years had me in awe. One of the proudest moments I’d had as a student activist was organising a talk by him at my University and just chatting with him in the pub afterwards. But it’s become obvious that we need to talk about Tatchell.
There’s no denying that Peter Tatchell and people like him have been an incredible force for change in social attitudes and legislation in the UK when it comes to LGBT rights and human rights more broadly. From that violent and unpleasant by-election in 1983, through to his attempted citizens arrests of Robert Mugabe and his unequivocal support of human rights worldwide, Tatchell has been at the forefront of radical direct action, and progressive movements.
But, like so many others, my opinions on Tatchell are more and more mired the more and more I think about him and his positions. The Stop Murder Music Campaign erred on the edges of problematic, as white, westerners argued and campaigned aggressively against black reggae and dancehall musicians’ right to perform and record music. In that instance though, such campaigns have been supported and endorsed by black musicians themselves (New Town Kings vocalist Dabs Bonner referenced the battles fought within the reggae community against homophobia in an interview with The Norwich Radical), and so are to an extent redeemable.
But so many of Tatchell’s recent positions have fallen on the wrong side of the argument so many times. Whether it’s his neo-colonial perspective on international aid and LGBT rights that argues countries whose governments abuse LGBT rights should not be granted international aid or his crusade against homophobia within what he dubs ‘Islamism’, Tatchell adopts the position of gay white saviour — often ignoring the voices of LGBT people within and from those communities and countries.
Tatchell’s controversy on liberation politics has again come to the fore over the last few days — this time in relation to NUS LGBT+ Officer (Women’s Place) Fran Cowling’s decision not to share a platform with Tatchell at an event at Canterbury Christ Church University. The alleged reason behind Cowling’s decision related both to the positions he has taken as I described above, but also to an open letter in The Guardian of which Tatchell was a signatory, which condemned campus attempts to stop events with figures including Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel and Kate Smurthwaite.
Obviously, Cowling is free to decide who she wishes to share a platform with and who not to. It is nobody’s God given right to expect people to wish to debate them and discuss ideas with them, but it is also entirely legitimate for a democratically elected office holder to take a decision such as this based on what she perceives to be the views of the people she represents.
Not only that, but Tatchell’s signing of that letter was inherently problematic. In doing so, Tatchell tacitly endorses the idea that people should not be able to collectively decide the people that they chose to invite to speak at events that they are organising in their own spaces. Germaine Greer and Julie Burchill have repeatedly denied the existence of trans people, dehumanising them and stripping them of their entire identity, as well as on multiple occasions writing and uttering mocking and aggressive smears on the trans community. Rupert Read, mentioned elsewhere in the letter gained notoriety after making comments about trans people wanting an ‘opt-in version of what it means to be a woman’. Previously, Rupert has crossed picket lines when his colleagues were taking strike action, and called for strict immigration controls.
All of these people are reactionaries masquerading as progressives. Defending them in open letters and criticising the people at the forefront of liberation struggles for deciding not to invite them to speak at events, or calling them out on their problematic views and statements is not supporting liberation, it’s hindering it.
But what frustrates me the most about Tatchell’s stance on all this, is that there is an unbelievable and glaring double standard behind it all. Tatchell has continuously called for the stopping of ‘Islamists’ from speaking on campuses up and down the country for hate preaching. The irony behind this is of course that on the one hand Tatchell condemns those who call for people such as Greer and Burchill for preaching hate, while on the other calls for Islamic speakers to be barred from speaking. It seems that this free speech fundamentalism of Tatchell and others only stretches so far, and probably doesn’t apply if you’re a Muslim.
So I’m sorry, Peter. I can’t continue to view you as an icon of liberation, or a hero of LGBT people, when you continue to hold such problematic views and espouse them in such a vitriolic manner. When you’ve been called out on something, the appropriate response is to step back, consider the other person’s perspective, look at whether you have been reinforcing oppression, and come at the issue with fresh eyes. The wrong response is to write attack jobs in right wing newspapers who would seek to co-opt your reputation to fit their own narrative about busy body, overly PC, lefty, Trotty, Student Unions. When you do that, you’re siding with the oppressor and not the oppressed, and I can’t say I love your work anymore.
This article was originally published in The Norwich Radical.