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.
This post is itself symptomatic of a counter-En;lightenment movement that should be classified as pseudo-left moral relativism. It shares with identity politics a view that cultural differences are more important than protecting individuals’ self-determination and human rights. It places abstract “cultural identity” above the individuals in those cultures, assumes a unanimity about culture that is a political fiction, and provides legitimacy for cultural practices that are both misogynistic and homophobic, not to mention intolerant and authoritarian. Peter Tatchell is on the side of human dignity for all. Chris Jarvis is on the side of divide and rule deceptive politics and this post is anything but progressive.
Protecting individual self-determination? Tell that to the many people he has outed over the years against their wishes. He is a fucking disgrace.
What a dreadful spiteful dishonest attack against Peter Tatchell, this has really done a disservice to the Green Party.
The only support J-Flag had outside Jamaica was from Peter Tatchell & Outrage.
I have only just started to support the Greens & I read this hateful crap, Chris Jarvis should be kicked out of the Party for failing to argue honestly & with fact!
Hang your head in shame Chris Jarvis.
People outside the NUS are completely baffled by some of the positions they are taking, this article and the whole Fran Cowling / Germaine Greer debacle being prime examples.
This article disgraceful. Chris Jarvis should read Tatchell’s response and issue a full and unqualified apology.
It seems to be a generational thing and an NUS thing, that they have a collective blind-spot when it comes to the principles of freedom of speech. The comments above and the devastating point-by-point rebuttal article by Peter have said everything that needs to be said on the matter.
The NUS needs to do some soul-searching and perhaps issue a pamphlet of the principles and ethics of free speech to all its sabbatical officers in Universities up and down the country.
If you are a progressive or an LGBT campaigner of any persuasion and you think Peter Tatchell is the enemy, then your view of the world has become utterly distorted.
Well said, James. I agree with every word. Jarvis should apologize asap.
A Tory plant could not be more insidious. You need to leave your ego at the door, correct or withdraw this appalling hatchet job that is basically more about you than anything else, and apologise. Shameful.
In which Mr Tatchell destroys the churlish, poorly written, badly researched, and mendacious article above –
Not sure Bright Green would give Peter Tatchell full right of reply so here is his rebuttal:
Decide for yourself who would make the best and most reliable, effective ally and friend.
Yes again I get mentioned without any concern for the actual facts. I was not banned from Goldsmith’s because of anything to do with trans rights. It was because people disagreed with my views on how to reduce harm within the sex industry and over compulsory veiling in Islamic countries and communities. The facts and even the proof are all neatly published on my blog. My views are not regressive at all, they’re very carefully considered and nuanced. But y’know, call me controversial, accept and continue to spread the lies I’ve worked so very hard to clear my name of. How utterly horrid.
Sigh. This article repeated false claims from elsewhere about me. Please see the CLARIFICATION at the end of this article, if you need to know more: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/rupert-read-green-party-candidate-apologises-for-offending-transgender-people-9997956.html
As for the claim about me crossing picket lines: simply false. Something I’ve never done and never would.
Hmmm so this is why you have fallen out of love with Peter Tatchell?
The examples you quote are suspect to say the least:
1. “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” – not quite the whole story is it? – in fact it’s lying by omission. it was a campaign against certain black musicians who incited violence and murder against gay people in their songs – both in Jamaica and here in Britain. Are you saying white westerners can’t criticise black musicians ever? Or does the right to play whatever music you like trump the safety of gay people?
2.”His neo-colonial perspective on international aid and LGBT rights that argues countries whose governments abuse LGBT rights should not be granted international aid”. Maybe to you it doesn’t matter that gay people within those countries are beaten up, driven from their homes or murdered?
3.Your comments about Peter’s Islamaphobia. So it’s Islamaphobic to campaign against Islamic fundamentalists who use hate speech to call for violence or death for gay people, is it?
4. You put Germaine Greer and Julie Bindle on the same level as Islamic fundamentalists and call what they say hate speech. As far as I am aware they have never called for trans people to be stoned, to be thrown off high buildings or to have walls collapsed on them.
5. You accuse Peter of only going after Muslim fundamentalists, which is not true. He has campaigned against all manner of fundamentalists and bigots, the BNP, chritian fundamentalists etc
Your attempt to paint him as a racist has failed completely. Your arguments are founded on untruths and omissions and reveal far more about your attitudes than his. What comes across very strongly is that you believe that gay people are less worthy of protection or support than other minority groups. Are you homophobic?
Finally your point about that letter. I have read the letter and it was written in support of free speech. There were some people who signed who might be deemed transphobic and some who certainly wouldn’t be. However, are you aware that Fran Cowling has signed open letters with Islamic preachers who espouse homophobic views? Does that make her a homophobe?
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.
No. In signing the letter, Tatchell is saying that when people chose not to debate people with whom they are disagree with, they are making a mistake and harming their own cause.
In that instance though, such campaigns have been supported and endorsed by black musicians themselves
Looking at what those at the forefront of a campaign ask for is a good rule of thumb. But black musicians are not the only voice in that debate. Peter’s voice surely carries equal weight on that issue…?
“Tatchell adopts the position of gay white saviour — often ignoring the voices of LGBT people within and from those communities and countries”. Perhaps you could tell me a little more about the way in which these voices can make themselves heard in communities and countries where defending homosexuality in any form, let alone living it, is itself a crime, sometimes punishable by death?
I think there is a typo in the third paragraph. It reads [Peter]”campaigned aggressively against black reggae and dancehall musicians’ right to perform and record music”. Surely that should read “campaigned aggressively against black reggae and dancehall musicians’ right to perform and record music whose lyrics called for the murder of gays”. Be grateful if you could amend.
The clear implication seems to be that the author was uncomfortable with Tatchell, and others, campaigning against homophobic lyrics in music. Suggesting it was a stance the author found “problematic” and that they were only appeased due to the fact other black musicians agreed with him. Suggesting that had they not then Chris Jarvis would have supported those wishing to use music to call for hatred and violence against gay people.
Astonishing that regressive, anti-gay politics these days masquerades as progressivism.
It’s certainly welcome to discuss Peter Tatchell’s views and to hear a defence of this NUS officer’s position, so thank you for posting this. I would like to clarify why I understand that Tatchell takes different approaches to these two problems.
The point that speech becomes criminal or worthy of silencing is when it constitutes an attempt to cause or incite actual, physical violence or crime. If the people Peter Tatchell was condemning and trying to silence fall into this bracket, then he has cause to do so, both morally and legally. Similarly for calls for Germaine Greer Julie Bindel and others to be silenced, Tatchell has argued that their opinions, while repugnant, fall short of this high barrier.
The argument Tatchell makes on the boundaries of speech is accepted within widely held human rights norms of the boundaries of free expression. He is a human rights campaigner, so expects to adhere to these standards, rather than promote approaches which may be considered to limit the extent of tolerance. Tolerance and rights have to extend to those you disagree with, or they are meaningless.
Absolutely, Jim, and in fact willingness to share a platform in order to counter extremist or discriminatory views is a better idea anyway, so that they can be exposed and diplomatically taken apart. Simply hiding from them will not work.
Speaking of colonialism, I notice that the Wales is still not independent, either as part of the Green party, or as part of this web page!!!? Scotland is though?
Always the same old story. Come on, haven’t you noticed devolution?
So in your article you blur the distinction between Islam as a religion and Islamism as a political ideology. I signed up to Peter’s email list during a big summer climate demo, and haven’t looked back since. I much prefer his tolerance of religious freedom to your “left” with its non existent daily newspapers and NUS. It is precisely because I care about Muslims and ex Muslims in my community that I have time for his pioneering work on this topic. Muslim intersectional feminism is a topic we on the left must get our head around or it will continue to be hijacked into the far right narrative.
The best argument is one that deals with the pertinent issues and directly refutes the other side’s case. There is too much innuendo and too many fallacies in this article to convince people that Tatchell is “problematic”, a favourite word of the student left which has no meaning.
I presume if Caroline Lucas wrote in the Telegraph about the failures of Plaid Cymru or the Lib Dems and made the case for a positive alternative in the Green Party, you’d condemn her for writing in a right-wing paper with its own agenda?
You insinuate that Tatchell is Islamophobic because he doesn’t want to give a platform to Muslims who call for death to homosexuals. It’s an interesting argument to make, given Tatchell’s well-documented, public campaigns to support LGBT rights with the Muslim community. Perhaps you are making the mistake of thinking one can only criticise people’s actions when one shares all the personal characteristics of the person committing a hate crime, for example. If that isn’t your point, it’s hard to know what principle you are advocating.
Apart from Peter Tatchell, which other signitories of the letter oppossing censorship at universities do you think are transphobic or Islamphobic? Perhaps Darren Johnson, former Principle Speaker of the Green Party. Is the Green Party “regressive masquarading as progressive”?
You raise the issue of the right of people not to be forced to talk on panels, presumably only because Fran’s supporters are doing so, as they are the only people in the country who think it is an important right to talk about. This is a givaway that you are not thinking for yourself, which is a shame.
Defending someone’s right to speak is by no means agreeing with what they have to say. Germaine Greer’s views on transgender people are indeed abhorrent. But once someone is scheduled to speak, it is censorship to try to stop them except under the most extraordinary of circumstances. As for the knock on Peter as a “white saviour,” I’ve been to countless demonstrations that he helped organize that were dominated and led by African immigrants.
I have not had time to wade through all of this & research this but still think you may be wrong, in the Green party we often have differences of view, I have been Green for 40 years & in the Party for 35 years I am not left wing but do not think the party is so far left as often stated!!!
Trying to say Peter ‘defended’ Germaine Greer etc is disingenuous, of course he hates them, but he supports their right to speak. In the same way there is no legitimate reason to stop Peter from speaking, in fact it’s rather ridiculous, and rather ironic that he gets censored for daring to question censorship. No-platforming isn’t a bad idea in itself, but the NUS seem to be using it to avoid debate with literally anyone who disagrees with them. Universities of all places should be championing free speech and debate.