Peter Tatchell is one of the most significant human rights, democracy, LGBT+ freedom and global justice campaigners of our generation. For over 50 years he has been campaigning for LGBT+ and other human rights an is currently the director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation. He has been described as “…a national hero” by the Sunday Times and “…a civil rights campaigner we can all applaud” by the Sunday Telegraph.
In 2009, he co-proposed a UN Global Human Rights Index, to measure and rank the human rights record of every country – with the aim of creating a human rights league table to highlight the best and worst countries and thereby incentivise governments to clean up their record and improve their human rights ranking.
He has proposed an internationally-binding UN Human Rights Convention enforceable through both national courts and the International Criminal Court; a permanent rapid-reaction UN peace-keeping force with the authority to intervene to stop genocide and war crimes; and a global agreement to cut military spending by 10 percent to fund the eradication of hunger, disease, illiteracy, unemployment and homelessness in the developing world.
In this exclusive interview, I spoke to Peter Tatchell about the injustices faced by the LGBT+ community, why it’s important to take a human rights approach to justice, and how we can move the needle forward on LGBT+ rights.
Q: What was the origin of LGBT+ identity?
[Peter Tatchell]: LGBT+ identity came into existence as a defence mechanism against those who were attacking us. We were being targeted because of our sexual behavior and our love. We had to defend ourselves – that is why we claimed, and asserted our LGBT+ identity. Of course, in many countries, people may engage in same-sex behavior and not identify as LGBT+. In the Middle East, for example, there are strong prescriptions against sex between unmarried men and women, and so a lot of young men will engage in same-sex behaviour as a sexual outlet, without identifying as gay or bisexual. So we have to be clear that identity and behavior are two different things.
I am hopeful that we, in Western countries, are on the path towards a post-homophobic society. I was very gratified a couple of years ago to see a survey of 16-24 year olds. When asked about their own sexuality, 49% said they would not define themselves as 100% straight. Around 23% said they’d had a same-sex experience. These statistics indicate there’s something really significant happening in youth culture in terms of opening up to LGBT+ experiences and identity. It makes sense. LGBT+ identity came into being as a defense mechanism against persecution. We had to assert and defend ourselves on account of our sexuality and gender identity because we were being persecuted by homophobia, transphobia and biphobia. As these persecutions diminish, LGBT+ and straight identities are likely to lose their social significance and thus the division between straight and LGBT+ people will fade over time. We are a long way off achieving that but we’re moving in the right direction. How wonderful would it be to live in a world that agreed with live and let live, love and let love. I want a world where people can be true to themselves and to live their lives according to who they truly are.
Q: What is the state of discrimination against LBGT+ individuals worldwide?
[Peter Tatchell]: Even today, there are 72 countries and jurisdictions where same-sex relations are criminal acts – punishable with penalties ranging from a few years in prison, to life imprisonment and even the death penalty. Twenty countries have decriminalised homosexuality in the last 15 years, so there is progress in the right direction – but we still have far to go. In around 25 countries (including Russia, Indonesia, Poland and Cameroon) we are seeing an anti-LGBT+ backlash, but this is a distinct minority of countries.
It’s important to remember that backlash is sadly an intrinsic part of social progress. When oppressed people make their claim for justice, they trigger a response – a fightback by those who want to maintain the status-quo. I’m not excusing the backlash or justifying it. In fact, it’s to be avoided if at all possible. But sadly, it’s a reality. When you do make gains, when you start pushing and getting progress, those in power who uphold prejudice and discrimination will lash-out.
Q: What is the link between LGBT+ persecution and human rights?
[Peter Tatchell]: The principles of human rights are universal and indivisible. They apply to every person on the planet. If you read articles 1 and 2 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it’s very clear that the right to equal treatment and non-discrimination applies to everyone – no ifs, no buts, no exceptions and no excuses.
Historically, even many human rights defenders never saw LGBT+ rights as part of the human rights spectrum. But the emerging consensus is that, based on the principle of universal human rights, LGBT+ individuals should receive the same human rights protections as everyone else. The struggle to get to that point has been long and hard. Even in the United Nations, at the human rights council, for many years there was a point-blank majority refusal to entertain LGBT+ rights as human rights. It’s only since Kofi Annan was Secretary General that the UN had a leader who spoke out for LGBT+ rights in a consistent and sustained way. It was as recently as 2008 that the UN General Assembly first considered LGBT+ rights and even then only 67 out of 193 countries endorsed a statement condemning discrimination and violence against LGBT+ communities.
I started campaigning for LGBT+ rights when I was 17, in 1969, and I quickly saw it as a human rights issue, on a par with the black civil rights that inspired me. I framed my activism as a human rights struggle. I wanted to show that LGBT+ rights was part of the human rights movement – not some fringe campaign. Even in the 1980s and 90s, many LGBT+ people still framed their activism in terms of gay rights or LGBT rights. I always pushed for the language to be LGBT+ human rights, so that our cause could be seen as a part of the wider human rights family.
Q: What are the cultural roots of LGBT+ discrimination?
[Peter Tatchell]: LGBT+ discrimination has been occurring for millennia, not decades or centuries. The public movement against discrimination and for the adoption of human rights for LGBT+ people only began in the 1960s. So the period from then till now is the blink of an eye in the vast passage of human history and the historic persecution of LGBT+ people. It’s extraordinary to see the gains that have been won in the past half-century. Public attitudes have definitely changed for the better and we’re seeing around the world – in parts of Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East – that public attitudes are not as harsh or violent as they were 10, 20 or 30 years ago.
A lot of the prejudice against LGBT+ people is rooted in organized religion. Christianity, Judaism and Islam have historically been major persecutors of LGBT+ people. They have preached the line that we are sinners, immoral and will burn in hell. It’s only recently that people have begun to question traditional homophobic interpretations within those faiths. It’s important, of course, not to generalize. There have been people of faith who are great LGBT+ allies. Nevertheless, religion has been one of the greatest sources and propagators of prejudice, stoking the flames of intolerance, discrimination and violence. There are some religious leaders today who openly say that gay people should be put to death, and encourage their followers to believe that. It’s no surprise therefore that when those followers discover a LGBT+ person in their family, they will at the very least disown them and sometimes threaten or murder them in the name of so-called ‘honour killing.’
Prejudice can also be rooted in ignorance and fear of the unknown or misunderstood. People are not born homophobic – or racist or misogynist. That’s learned behaviour. This is why the current bid for LGBT-inclusive education in schools is so important.
We must also acknowledge that particular political movements have been great orchestrators of anti-LGBT sentiment and persecution. Throughout history, fascist and far-right movements have tended to demonise LGBT+ people, alongside Jews, immigrants, Muslims and others. The ultimate fascist movement was the Nazis and they had a plan to eradicate homosexuality – what Himmler called, ‘the extermination of abnormal existence.’ The Nazis assigned a Doctor (Carl Vaernet) to promote a program for the medical elimination of homosexuality. He conducted experiments on gay prisoners at Buchenwald and Neuengamme concentration camps. All told, thousands of gay and bisexual men in concentration camps were given heavy labour and worked to death. Even today, countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia have the death penalty for same-sex relations and the former President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed publicly that there were no homosexuals in Iran – that it was just a Western phenomenon. Not long after he made this claim, the Iranian Parliament commissioned a research study on the attitudes and behaviour of young people. It turned out that 17% of young Iranian people said they’d had a same-sex experience – and that’s almost certainly an underestimate because same-sex behaviour carries the death penalty in Iran! Stalin was equally guilty of the persecution of LGBT+ people. Although the Bolsheviks under Lenin decriminalised homosexuality in 1918, it was recriminalised by Stalin in 1934, leading to mass persecutions, imprisonments and executions.
Britain had the death penalty for homosexuality right up until 1861 and life imprisonment until 1967.
Q: What has been the economic cost of discrimination against LGBT+ people
[Peter Tatchell]: There is a significant economic cost to LGBT+ persecution, and it remains largely unrecognised. Countries that criminalise LGBT+ people are losing tourist revenue because LGBT+ tourists and their straight friends and families won’t go to such countries. This means a loss of tourism revenue, and a loss of potential jobs in the tourist sector. Another downside is the loss of foreign investment and aid.
Increasingly, Western governments and big multinational corporations are reluctant to invest in countries where there is LGBT+ persecution. They don’t want to collude with those punitive regimes and they don’t want to put their LGBT+ staff at risk of imprisonment, or worse.
There is also a very significant brain-drain from countries that victimise LGBT+ people. LGBTs living in parts of the world where their love is a crime often emigrate to safer LGBT-friendly countries. They don’t want to see their careers held-back from prejudice, nor do they want to risk the possibility of arrest.
These economic losses don’t even begin to include the lost productivity of LGBT+ individuals who are less productive at work because of fear and anxiety caused by harassment and discrimination. This stress has a knock-on effect of ill-health and under-performance. Consequent sickness puts added strain and cost on the country’s health services. Homophobia is costly for individuals, companies and nations.
Q: How do the media align with LGBT+ communities?
[Peter Tatchell]: The mainstream and social media platforms are the main means of communication in society. They are the place where most people get their information and ideas. So it’s hugely important to understand the pivotal role the media plays when you consider marginalised or disadvantaged communities. If they are being demonised, misrepresented or vilified in the media, their struggle will be much harder because it means that much of the population not know any different. The battle to secure a responsible media is important. The National Union of Journalists in Britain, decades ago drew up a code of conduct for journalists which sought to ensure accurate, objective and non-prejudiced reporting. It hasn’t stopped journalists from reporting the truth but it has helped them avoid stereotypes, tropes and demonisation.
Right now, the trans community is being demonised. Some media are fuelling the idea that trans women are a threat to other women. While it’s true that some trans women have behaved badly, they’re a tiny fraction of the trans population. The rest of the trans community abhor sexual assaults and violence, just like the rest of us. When the media focus on the small group of bad apples in the trans community, it gives the idea that all trans women are like that. They are not.
Most people today would never accept the demonization of Muslim people because a handful of extremists commit terrorist attacks. It would be seen as a gross generalisation. Yet some trans critics apply similar generalisations to the trans community, based on the bad actions of a tiny group of trans women. It’s so, so wrong.
The principle at stake is that trans people have a right to objective and fair reporting in the media.
Q: What is the connection between religion and LGBT+ persecution?
[Peter Tatchell]: Religions that persecute LGBT+ people are mostly doing so on very dodgy theological grounds. If you take the Bible, it’s true that in the Old Testament (Leviticus) one quote actually says that men who sleep with men should be put to death, but most Christians wouldn’t agree with that today. When it comes to the New Testament, Jesus Christ is recorded as condemning many sins, but never once homosexuality. People who call themselves Christians, or followers of Jesus Christ, have no biblical basis on which to claim that homophobia is part of Christianity. When it comes to Islam, the Quran never mentions or condemns homosexuality nor stipulates any punishments. The prescriptions against homosexuality, and the death penalty, was proposed, allegedly, by the Prophet Muhammad – and even that’s open to question by scholars. Muhammad was a mortal. He was a man, he wasn’t God. The Quran says that it is the full, complete word of Allah; that it requires no elaboration, addition or complementation. If you are a true Muslim therefore, and a follower of the Quran, there is nothing that explicitly condemns or punishes homosexuality. Modern Muslims who demonize homosexuality are, therefore, distorting Islam. In fact, if you go back to the golden age of Islam, some of the greatest, most revered Islamic writers celebrated same-sex relationships. The Islamist homophobia we see today is a modern phenomenon, based on a misinterpretation of holy texts.
Organized religion has been an agent of social control that’s often gone hand-in-hand with state power. We see that now in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran where the state is theocratic and religion is embedded into culture, laws and institutions. In Russia today, we also see how religion has become entwined with the Putin regime. A deal has been done with the Russian Orthodox Church whereby they support Putin and he supports them.
Q: What can we do to move the needle on LGBT+ equality?
[Peter Tatchell]: Throughout history, direct action has played a pioneering and pivotal role in social change. Legislatures have often been the last place to get the message. The real momentum for change invariably comes from outside parliaments, from grass-roots social movements. If you look at the movements to to abolish slavery, end colonial rule, gain rights for the working class and votes for women… all these historic social reforms began as mass movements outside parliament. The same is true for the battle for LGBT+ rights. Here in Britain, in the 1990s, the LGBT+ direct action group OutRage! organised high-profile protests that played a key role in raising awareness about the scale of anti-LGBT+ discrimination and put the authorities under pressure to change. We took on the police, the judiciary, the education system, the media, the government, the church and other religious institutions. In the process, we created a greater public understanding of the vast discrimination against LGBT+ people. Across the world today, we can see examples of social movements that are using direct action to challenge injustice: most notably the Black Lives Matter movement which has done more than any other campaign in recent history to put racism on the public and political agenda, forcing institutions to examine their own institutional racism. The inspiring protests of Extinction Rebellion are another example of hugely successful non-violent direct action; doing more to highlight the climate emergency than any other campaign.
Q: Are you hopeful for the future?
[Peter Tatchell]: History moves like snakes and ladders. It moves forward two steps, and then back one – but despite the setback it is still one step forward. Sometimes, as we saw during Nazism, we can take many steps back, but the overall trajectory of human history has been towards greater human rights. Despite the faults with our world, people are (on average) better off economically and socially. Things aren’t as equal as they should be, but compared to 50 years ago, we’ve certainly made great strides to expand and extend equality.
The power of people to collectively organize is key. Individuals can make a difference, but the real difference comes when individuals combine into a collective mass movement. When thousands or millions of people come together, we can be a powerful force for change. When I was growing-up, everyone took for granted that apartheid was here to stay. General Franco was ruling Spain with an iron fist and later General Pinochet was crushing the people of Chile. These tyrannies are now history. I’ve seen so many positive changes in my lifetime. I can remember back in 1975 when Indonesia invaded East Timor…. People said ‘oh, East Timor will never win, Indonesia is too strong and powerful…’ But just over two decades later, Indonesia was forced-out and East Timor is now a free and independent nation.
With resolve, tenacity and collective commitment, even seemingly insurmountable odds can be overcome.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, I was part of the (then) emerging gay liberation movement. It was not about equal rights. We had a broader, more radical agenda of queer emancipation. Equality is not enough. If we merely argue for equal LGBT+ rights, what we’re saying is that we want equality within the status quo. But the status quo has been devised by, and for, the heterosexual majority, not by LGBTs. And it is deeply flawed for straights, as well as for us.
I always ask people to look at the black civil rights movement in the United States. It was about equal rights, and once segregation and the denial of voting rights were ended, the movement fell apart. Here we are, some 60-plus years later, and racism is still prevalent in the US. There is formal legal equality but not racial justice. Poor black people are locked out of economic success and prosperity in much the same way as they were during the era of Dr Martin Luther King. The same is true in the battle for women’s rights. In many European countries, even though women have had formal legal equality for decades, there still exist glass ceilings in many institutions and women’s earnings are still only four-fifths of their male counterparts.
When it comes to LGBT+ rights, the big flaw in the equal rights agenda is that it implies that we merely want to assimilate and integrate within the dominant heterosexual society. It implies we LGBTs have nothing to offer or contribute to society. It suggests that we simply want to fit in with mainstream straight culture as it exists; that we accept the dominant social norms and do not dissent from them. Some people may want that. But there are many things about LGBT+ culture that straight people couldn’t learn from. The average gay and bisexual man does not mirror traditional hetero masculinity. We’ve evolved a new way of being a man. I’m not saying that we’re not masculine, but that most gay men don’t have the same machismo and toxic masculinity that has been historically associated with male heterosexuality. We’re more in touch with our feelings and perhaps that’s why there are a disproportionate number of gay and bisexual men who work in the creative and caring professions. Conversely, lesbian women have made a disproportionate contribution to women’s advancement; being very prominent in the suffragette movement a century ago and in the 1970s battle for women to access training and work in manual trades. By breaking into those male-only occupations, they opened up new opportunities for all women, regardless of their sexuality or gender identity.
In these senses, LGBT+ people have made a positive contribution to society and we’ve developed insights that straight people could learn from.