Words: Jamie Tabberer; picture: © Open Media UK
A seemingly humdrum but actually revealing moment in new documentary Hating Peter Tatchell shows the tireless human rights campaigner leaving for work in 2018.
The scene is almost comically incidental, with a solemn-faced Tatchell effectively on his morning commute, trusty oversized backpack in tow.
Then he bolts the door of his one-bed council flat in London's Elephant and Castle not once, not twice, but several times over. ("There have been bricks through the windows, three arson attempts, bomb plots, and even a bullet through the door," he has said in an interview.)
Then there's the 'commute' itself. The then-66-year-old isn't off to the office, but to Moscow, where he'll be thrown in prison for protesting Russian LGBTQ rights abuses, including Chechnya's heinous and ongoing anti-gay purge, before global media in town for the Russia-hosted World Cup.
And you thought your job was stressful.
"There's the fear about failure, the worry about arrest and possibly being beaten up," a visibly terrified Tatchell explains. "I've always got an overpowering headache from the nervous tension whenever I'm doing a direct action protest."
His fear is understandable. Tatchell has been violently assaulted over 300 times, and famously sustained brain and eye injuries after a savage beating from Robert Mugabe's henchmen in 2001, after he tried to perform a citizen's arrest on the late Zimbabwean leader under the 1984 UN Convention against torture.
Peter Tatchell and director Christopher Amos at London Pride © Christopher Amos
Intense, surreal footage of the encounter and others like it - he again generated global headlines after crashing the Archbishop of Canterbury's 1998 Easter sermon - is fascinating to see. So too are the countless pictures of the breathtakingly handsome Tatchell in his youth. (To be fair, he doesn't look that different now!)
A modern-day conversation between the 69-year-old and Sir Ian McKellen provides the meat of the film. McKellen, inquisitive blue eyes blazing, is a fastidious and playful interviewer, helping to provide a comprehensive, high-speed overview of Tatchell's career, something he evidently knows inside out. Unsurprising, given his similarly iconic status in the UK LGBTQ rights movement - but to put Tatchell's contribution into perspective, he was instrumental in arranging London's first Pride celebration in 1972, while McKellen didn't come out publicly until 1988.
View this post on Instagram
There's always been a formality - if not an overpowering purity - to Tatchell's public persona, as anyone who's ever tried to quote him on anything but human rights issues can testify. (This writer once got him to share he was a Tinie Tempah fan, at least). As such, there's a personal dimension inevitably lacking in the film, notwithstanding a tender reunion between Tatchell and his loving but evangelical Christian mother who sadly remains "uncomfortable" with her son's homosexuality decades later.
That the film doesn't capture, or that Tatchell doesn't more willingly hand over more of his personality and humour - now increasingly apparent on his adorable Instagram account - is a shame, as spotlighting it would only power his work further.
Conversely, it feels only correct to staidly honour such a comfortingly old school brand of 'activism': a term tossed around too casually in our narcissistic age. As such, it's perhaps a mark of respect that exec producers Elton John and David Furnish are ostensibly absent from the project.
Sir Ian McKellen with Tatchell (@WildBear Entertainment)
Indeed, from pop icons to online influencers to youngsters unversed in queer history, LGBTQs are universally indebted to the mindboggling bravery and selflessness of this exceptional human being. Absolutely essential viewing for all.
Hating Peter Tatchell is streaming now on Netflix (worldwide – ex Australia/NZ)
The Attitude July issue is out now.