MM caught up with prominent LGBT rights campaigner Peter Tatchell at Saturday’s LGBT History Festival to find out what he’s campaigning for in the run-up to May’s general election.
Tatchell was speaking to the audience about the sick homophobic experiments of a shamed Nazi doctor back in the 40s and the lessons society needs to learn about preventing similar incidents from happening again.
In his talk, the 63-year-old spoke of the British press’ shameful historic coverage of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) issues, but accepted that things have moved forward since his early days of trying to get the media to report his campaigns.
“British media coverage of LGBTI issues is much improved from 10 years ago, let alone 20 or 30 years ago. But it still isn’t as good as it could be. It’s very common for the media to suggest that the criminalisation of homosexuality ended in Britain in 1967 – that’s complete nonsense.
“The anti-gay laws were only repealed in 2003; and post 1967, around 20,000 men were convicted of consenting adult same-sex relations. It was very frustrating that The Imitation Game prompted much of the press to report that 49,000 men were convicted like Alan Turing.
“That’s the minimum figure for the single offence of so-called ‘gross indecency’. If you add in all the other anti-gay laws, the real figure is probably somewhere between 50,000 to 100,000 men.”
Peter is no stranger to defying the law. In 1999 he famously attempted a citizen’s arrest on controversial Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe – twice – accusing his regime of condoning ‘murder, torture, detention without trial, and the abuse of gay human rights’.
“I had President Mugabe under arrest in London and the Labour government let him go,” Peter explained.
“If he’d been arrested and put on trial on charges of torture, given that I had the evidence that he’d colluded with torture, he would have been locked up for many years and that may have completely altered the course of Zimbabwean history.
“With him out of the way, maybe the terror campaign of 2003/04 would never have happened.
“I’m still living with the brain and eye injuries caused when I was assaulted by Mugabe’s bodyguards but those injuries are relatively minor when you consider the far worse harm done to many Zimbabwean human rights activists.”
Less than a decade later, Peter was again making headlines by participating in the 2007 attempted Moscow Gay Pride marches in solidarity with Russian gay and lesbian rights campaigners.
The protest – banned under Russian law –prompted a violent reaction from his homophobic opponents, and he again suffered brain and eye damage from the injuries sustained while being beaten up by neo-Nazis, ultra-nationalists and fundamentalist Christians.
MM asked Peter whether he felt LGBT rights in Russia had deteriorated since his visit eight years ago.
“Russia is going backwards in terms of democracy and human rights,” he said. “There’s a slow, creeping police state in the making. The Russian military is being restructured into an offensive, long-range capability which is clearly not concerned solely with self defence.
“There is a generalised crackdown on all forms of dissent. It would be a mistake to see the attacks on the gay community in isolation from wider attacks on human rights.
“What is remarkable is the bravery and determination of Russian LGBTI and other human rights activists despite the repression and threats they are still fighting to uphold the principles of the Russian constitution, which guarantee democracy and civil liberties.”
Being gay is still a crime in 77 countries around the globe. In 10, the act of loving someone the same sex could cost you your life.
What’s more, the numbers have increased on last year. In India it is now illegal to be gay, while Brunei is in the process of adding the death penalty for gay people.
“LGBTI rights are going backwards in about 15-20 countries such as Russia, Uganda, Brunei, Nigeria and Gambia,” Peter said. “All these countries have either introduced new anti-gay laws or are enforcing existing ones with a greater ferocity.
“Nevertheless, these are a minority of the 193 countries in the world. Overall, the global trend is toward greater equality for LGBTI people despite the backlash in some countries.”
Asked why we’re seeing LGBT liberties increasingly being lost around the globe, Peter explained the situation as a ‘combination of organised religion and political opportunism’.
“Just like the Nazis used Jews as a scapegoat, so some countries are using gays as a scapegoat today. We’re being demonised as the enemy within and manipulated as a way of diverting attention from the failings of governments in countries like Uganda and Russia.”
MM asked Peter whether LGBT rights were being threatened on our side of the pond from the likes of Ukip, whose record on gay marriage, property rights and discrimination issues has been decidedly homophobic.
FIGHTING FOR RIGHTS: Tatchell is no stranger to protest marches
While admitting that the party is ‘backward’ and ‘bigoted’, Peter stressed that they don’t pose a risk.
“I doubt they will have much electoral success, and certainly not enough success to have an impact on government policy. I might be wrong, but it’s unlikely. Under the first past the post system, even if they get 20-25% of the popular vote, that’s unlikely to transfer into more than a dozen seats.”
Peter spoke of his disillusionment with politics and how, for the past half century, it has failed to represent the British people.
“The upcoming general election will be a total farce. Under the first past the post voting system, millions of people who vote for smaller parties will get no representation,” he said.
“From 1955 to 2005, not a single British government was elected with majority popular support. Even Margaret Thatcher’s landslide in 1983 and Tony Blair’s landslide in 1997 was based on just over 40% of the vote – clear minority.
“Yet in both instances they won huge majorities of seats. At the last election, the Liberal Democrats won 23% of the vote but only 9% of the seats. That is not democracy.
“The Chartists and the Suffragettes would be turning in their graves to witness the way in which the voting system is so unjust and so unfair.
“In my view, there’s never been a government in the last 50 years that has any true democratic legitimacy, and the next government will be no different. “
Peter joined other leading LGBT activists like Stuart Milk (nephew of assassinated US politician Harvey Milk), Christine Burns MBE and Lou Englefield at talks across the city at the weekend.
The LGBT History Festival, a national first, was a five day event taking place across various venues in the city including the Central Library, the People’s History Museum and the Manchester Museum.
“It’s great that Manchester is hosting this first LGBT history festival,” said Peter on Saturday.
“This is a pioneering initiative which seeks to recover and celebrate the often hidden histories of LGBTI people in Manchester and across the UK.
“Because of past homophobia, a lot of that history has not been recorded or documented. There are now initiatives by upcoming historians to put that record right.
“In order to understand the past and move forward, it’s very important for every community to understand its past and to chart its future. It’s very important for every community to know its history.”
Image courtesy of Pedro Figuiero, with thanks.