Saturday, June 22

Hating This Man?

A bit over 40 years ago, when I lived in the UK, I became familiar with the British ‘red-tops’: the tabloid dailies such as the Daily Mail (still known to many in New Zealand), and the Daily Express, Daily Star, Daily Mirror and Sun. There was a headline in one of them in 1983 that I found weird: ‘Don’t Do It, Deirdre!’ Who was Deirdre, and what was it that she should avoid doing?

It transpired that Deirdre was not a real person in the usual sense, but Deirdre Barlow from Coronation Street. She was married to Street stalwart Ken Barlow, and having a fling with his great rival, the caddish Mike Baldwin. The evening of the day that paper came out would reveal, on the show, whether Deirdre would actually leave Ken for Mike.

The tabloid thought she shouldn’t do it, so of course she didn’t. Ken and Deirdre’s marriage did nonetheless crash.

Another thing crashed in 1983, and here it was partly because of the tabloids. This was a by-election campaign by a man called Peter Tatchell who was the Labour candidate for Bermondsey, normally a safe Labour seat in south London. Tatchell lost, spectacularly, to the candidate from the centrist party, the Liberal-Democrats. There was more than one reason for the loss, including disunity within the Labour Party. But an undoubted factor was a campaign of homophobia, perpetrated by Tatchell’s political opponents and amplified by some of the tabloid press.

Tatchell recalled last year that he experienced a hundred assaults while campaigning and nearly three dozen attacks on his flat, all of this aggravated for months by the media. I remember this very well, as I was horrified. I had little awareness of homophobia, but the campaign interested me largely because, like myself at the time, Peter Tatchell was a young Aussie in England. Although some of the Australian media of the period could be quite biased politically, I hadn’t encountered anything as rancid as the hostility to Tatchell.

Peter Tatchell, who is now 72, went on to have a long, varied, and distinguished career as an activist. He’s never really stopped in fact, having joined the great campaign of my generation in Australia – the anti-Vietnam war protests – and as a schoolboy, stood up for the rights of Australian aboriginals, not then yet a popular cause. (Aboriginals came to be counted in the census only as the result of a referendum held in 1967.) The deep roots of Tatchell’s activism and his long career were explored in a recent documentary which you can see on Netflix. The orientation of the film is expressed in its title, ‘Hating Peter Tatchell’, and it draws on a lot of footage retrieved and/or restored from the archives.

By the time of that next Australian census, in 1971, Peter Tatchell was off to England, and he has made the country his base ever since. The main focus of his activism has been the struggle of the LGBT community, and it has been this which has aroused most of the hatred directed against him. The documentary covers these campaigns in detail, with the sympathetic commentary of Sir Ian McKellen and Stephen Fry. Especially moving, and grim, is the footage of the hostility directed at gay men during the AIDS epidemic. 

The situation did improve over the years in the UK, of course, although same-sex marriage became legal only in 2014. While continuing his activism there, Tatchell turned his attention to the predicaments of gays and lesbians elsewhere in the world, and he started to highlight increasingly other human rights abuses: countries which targeted gays and lesbians were often guilty of targeting other people as well.

Thus Tatchell’s activism against late Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe broadened over the years. He organised a protest for LGBT rights in 1995 outside the Zimbabwe High Commission in London; in 1997 he confronted the President personally in London about the latter’s attitude to homosexuality, and was ejected by Special Branch guards summoned by Mugabe. He went on to investigate Mugabe’s military campaigns of the 1980s, uncovering mass civilian deaths and torture. So Tatchell attempted a citizen’s arrest of Mugabe in London in 1999, only to be arrested himself and charged with criminal damage, assault, and breach of the peace. (The charges were dropped on the first day of the trial.) 

When the Football World Cup was held in Russia in 2018, Tatchell set up a one-man protest in Moscow against the anti-LGBT regime of Vladimir Putin, and was set upon by the police. By this time, he had more of the UK public on his side, partly because of changing attitudes as regards LGBT issues, while he had also come to be seen as a brave opponent of dictatorial leaders whose human rights abuses were widely recognised. As Putin now protracts his rule through eliminating opponents and conducting a farcical election, Peter Tatchell speaks out against both the ongoing discrimination in Russia against gays and lesbians, and the damage being wrought by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

In the film, former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr George Carey accepted that Peter Tatchell had ended up on the right side of history. This admission was however in the context of activism that had once had Carey in its sights. Back in the 1990s, Tatchell was incensed at what he saw as the hypocrisy of the Church of England: not only did the organisation oppose same-sex relationships, but it harboured high-status clerics who condemned same-sex attraction while being gay themselves. Hence in 1998 Tatchell and other activists interrupted Dr Carey’s Easter Sunday service to protest. He has also called out a Jewish rabbi who advocated curing homosexuality by hormone treatment, as well as having numerous run-ins with Islamic authorities in Britain over their attitudes to homosexuality.

Tatchell’s targeting of religious groups has led to controversy, and in the case of the service disruption, he faced a charge brought under an obscure law from 1860. The judge in this last case fined him, but the low amount – £18.60 – was seen as a comment on the anachronistic nature of the law. On the other hand, some of Tatchell’s other activism has had physical consequences, from the Bermondsey by-election days, through to when he was knocked to the ground when accosting Mugabe, and beyond. He knows he has suffered some brain damage, and this has restricted some of his activities. 

In a way, however, the injuries could be construed as sacrifices to good causes. As such, they mean that Tatchell is turning to some beneficial account what he went through in his childhood and youth, physically and emotionally. His stepfather was both a fundamentalist Christian and a homophobe, and Peter sustained many bashings from a violent man who was fuelled by what he saw as godly righteousness. The film shows Peter back in Melbourne with his mother and one of his half-sisters: the mother, herself still a fundamentalist Christian, continues to disapprove of homosexuality. But she accepts her son, and accepts too that he has suffered for his sexual orientation. This is a very touching episode in the film.

Peter Tatchell’s current X account demonstrates his continuing activism. He condemns the persecution of women in Iran, for example. He is prominent too in the crowds demonstrating for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas conflict. But he emphasises his condemnation of the abuses for which Hamas is responsible. Indeed, back in 2009, he wrote: 

“To supposedly prove its resistance credentials and outdo Fatah, [Hamas] fires rockets into Israel against non-military targets, with no concern for the civilian casualties caused there and no regard for the effects on Palestinian civilians of Israeli retaliatory attacks. …The people of Gaza are worse off in every way since Hamas took control.”

Back in the Street, Ken and Deirdre Barlow’s marriage crashed, but they got together again in 2005. Their second union was watched by more people than a real-life marriage of the day before – that of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles. But eventually, despite all Ken’s years of rivalry with Mike Baldwin, despite his several marriages and his many affairs, people started to say that Ken was boring. Perhaps he was, after all, ‘just Ken’.

I don’t think you could ever say that Peter Tatchell was boring. Injured as he has been, he has consistently stood up for his principles. And he has survived the tabloids pretty well.