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13 times Peter Tatchell helped change the world for LGBTQ people

The LGBTQ and human rights activist is celebrating his 70th birthday and 55 years of campaigning.

By Alastair James

Words: Alastair James; pictures: The Peter Tatchell Foundation

The LGBTQ and human rights activist, Peter Tatchell, is celebrating his 70th birthday today (25 January) as well as 55 years of campaigning. 2022 also marks 10 years since The Peter Tatchell Foundation was set up to help the causes Peter had dedicated his life to.

Peter first began campaigning aged 15, while at school in 1967 in his home state of Victoria, Australia. After moving to London in 1971 he became a figurehead for the country’s LGBTQ community.

Since then he’s become known as one of Britain’s most influential LGBT+ and human rights campaigners, taking on everyone from Mike Tyson to Tony Blair and famously, the late Robert Mugabe.

Here we take a look back with Peter at some of the most memorable moments from the last 55 years. 

1972 – Helping organise the first UK Pride march 

“We came up with the idea of ‘Gay Pride’ to counter the prevailing view that we should be ashamed to be LGBTQ. We also adopted the three-word slogan ‘Gay is Good’. It was a revolutionary idea back in 1972 when most people thought homosexuality was very bad – and sad.

“On the march, we were nervous about being arrested or bashed. But apart from insults, a few bottles, and coins being thrown at us, Pride 1972 passed off without incident.”

Peter at the first Pride march in the UK, 1972

1973 – Being arrested by the secret police in East Berlin after staging the first-ever gay rights protest in a communist country

“I heard that over 100,000 young people would gather in communist East Berlin for a World Youth Festival. I was anxious about being arrested but saw this festival as a golden opportunity to take the idea of LGBTQ liberation to people all over the world, especially communist countries where such ideas were banned and LGBT+ organisations were illegal.

“I smuggled in thousands of gay rights leaflets, which I distributed to delegates and also staged a one-man gay rights protest near Alexander Platz. I was arrested twice and interrogated by the secret police. But they were afraid of bad publicity, so I was released and escaped a jail sentence.”

1983 – Standing in the Bermondsey by-election 

“I stood as a left-wing, gay-rights supporting candidate in an era when candidates advocating LGBTQ equality were almost unheard of.

“During the campaign, I was assaulted 150 times and there were 30 attacks on my flat, including a bullet being posted through my letterbox. I was defeated in what many commentators described as one of the dirtiest and most violent elections in the twentieth century.

“Gay News said the homophobic abuse that I suffered was the most sustained vilification of any gay person since Oscar Wilde.”

Peter during the Bermondsey by-election, 1983

1994 – Calling out Church of England bishops for hypocrisy after supporting anti-gay policies

“The 10 bishops were named by me and the LGBTQ direct action group, OutRage!, with which I was involved. We didn’t out them because they were gay and in the closet. It was because the bishops were colluding with a homophobic church in public while being gay in private.

“We were calling out their hypocrisy and homophobia, not their sexuality. None of those bishops ever said anything homophobic again and the church set up its first dialogue with the LGBTQ community and some other bishops spoke out for equality. A win, win, win!”

1998 – Peacefully interrupting the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter Sermon in Canterbury Cathedral (his only conviction in 55 years)

“OutRage! had for eight years tried to have a dialogue with the Archbishop of Canterbury over his support for legal discrimination against LGBTQ people. He was lobbying MPs to vote against equality. ‘The ArchBigot’, as we called him, would not meet us, so seven of us went to Canterbury Cathedral.

“I publicly condemned the Archbishop’s homophobia to the congregation and a TV audience of millions. I was arrested and convicted under the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860, formerly part of the Brawling Act of 1551. The magistrate fined me a mere £18.60.”

Peter at Dublin Pride, 2018

1999 – Ambushing Mugabe’s motorcade and performing a citizen’s arrest

“Together with four colleagues from OutRage! I ambushed Mugabe’s limousine in the street near Victoria station, forcing it to halt. I opened the rear door and placed Mugabe under arrest on charges of torture. But when the police arrived, even though we had all the legal papers to prosecute him, we were arrested and Mugabe was given a police escort to go Christmas shopping at Harrods.

“We did not succeed but our attempt made world headlines and helped shine a light on human rights abuses in Zimbabwe.

2001 – Peter’s second attempt at arresting Mugabe where he was beaten by security forces 

“This time I tried to arrest Mugabe in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel in Brussels. I was bashed around the head eight times by his bodyguards and eventually knocked unconscious.

“I never wanted that and it caused me brain and eye damage. But the media images of Mugabe’s goons bashing me helped highlight the brutality of his regime.”

Peter and Boy George at World Pride, 2012

2002 – Confronting Mike Tyson over his use of homophobic slurs against his opponent Lennox Lewis

“I was appalled that no one was challenging Tyson’s homophobia. So I went to Memphis ahead of his world title fight and confronted him as he arrived to train at his gym. He was very angry and protested that he was not homophobic.

“I challenged him to prove it by making a statement supporting equal rights for LGBTs – and he did. He was one of the first major straight ‘macho’ sports stars to back our community.”

2003 – Stopping Blair’s motorcade in protest of the impending Iraq War 

“I ran in front of Blair’s motorcade near Piccadilly Circus. It screeched to a halt about six inches from my legs. Blair was in the back seat and rolled his eyes as I held up an anti-war placard. When his police protection squad tried to remove me, I held on to the chassis. It took four officers to pull me clear.

“I was violently manhandled by police and ended up in Vine Street police station for several hours.”

2007 – Being beaten by neo-Nazis while attempting to take part in Moscow gay pride march 

“I went to Moscow to stand in solidarity with brave Russian LGBT+ activists who were seeking to hold a Pride march. It was banned by the Moscow mayor. When we arrived at the assembly point, we were attacked by Neo-Nazis with the connivance of the police. Officers stood there while I was bashed. As I was almost losing consciousness from the blows.

“I was arrested, while my attackers were allowed to walk free. The TV footage of the assault went global and exposed the Russian regime as violently homophobic.”

2011 – Helping lobby UK government for same-sex marriage 

“Myself and OutRage! began the campaign for same-sex marriage in 1992. We arranged five queer couples to file applications for civil marriage at Westminster register office. They were refused but that was the first challenge to the ban in the UK. We continued that campaign until marriage equality was finally legislated in 2013.”

2018 – Being arrested in Moscow on day on of the football World Cup while protesting over LGBT abuses in Russia and Chechnya 

“I didn’t want Putin to score a PR coup with the football World Cup. So, on the opening day, I staged a one-person protest near Red Square, calling on Putin to stop the murderous witch-hunt of LGBTQ people in Chechnya. I was arrested within minutes but the protest shone a light on Chechen repression.”  

Peter at Pride in London, 2018

2021 – Organising ‘Reclaim Pride’ 

“Pride is depoliticised and too corporate and commercial. We wanted to make it by and for the community. ‘Reclaim Pride’ put LGBTQ human rights and grassroots groups front and centre. We proved that Pride can be both a celebration and a protest. We plan a repeat this year.”