Peter Tatchell (left) is not only Britain's best-known gay rights activist as the leader of the militant queer activist group OutRage!, for 40 years he's been an indefatigable international human rights campaigner for oppressed peoples all over the world, making important contributions to the fight for liberty in Iran, Russia, Baluchistan, Uganda, Iraq, Somaliland, West Papua, Sudan, Palestine and Saudi Arabia. And when word came this week that my friend Peter had been voted "Liberal Voice of the Year" by members of Britain's Liberal Democrats, the UK's third largest political party (with 63 seats in parliament), I could not help but chuckle at the irony.
Why? Because in 1983, Peter was gay-baited out of winning a seat in parliament by the Liberals (the Liberal Democrats' predecessor.)
Here's the story. That year, Peter Tatchell was the parliamentary candidate of the British Labour Party in by-election in a constituency known as Bermodsey East, and stood a decent chance of election. His main opponent was Liberal candidadte Simon Hughes, and the Liberals waged what Gay News, at the time Britain's largest gay paper, called ""the dirtiest and most notorious by-election in British political history," marked by noxious homophobic gay-baiting of Tatchell. Hughes, whom his party's campaign literature promoted as the "straight choice" -- the double entendre was clear to everyone -- won this dirty election with 57% of the vote.
Well, 23 years later, it turned out that Tatchell had been beaten by a gay-baiting closet case. Hughes (right), still in parliament and running in 2006 for leader of the Liberal Democrats (as his party was by then known) admitted his lengthy same-sex past after he was outed by the tabloids, which found charges on Hughes' credit cards for a gay chatline called ManTalk, and declared "I'm bi-sexual." Not only that, Hughes apologized on the BBC for the homophobic smear campaign against Tatchell some two and a half decades before to which he owed his parliamentary career.
In a remarkable display of grace and principle, Tatchell not only accepted Hughes' apology, he issued a statement endorsing his former electoral opponent in the Liberal Democrats' leadership contest as "the contender most likely to move the Liberal Democrats in a progressive direction." In the same statement, Tatchell added: "Since his election, Simon has redeemed himself by voting for gay equality. That's all that matters now. He should be judged on his policies, not on his private life."
A further irony in Tatchell's having been voted "Liberal Voice of the Year" by the Liberal Democrats' members is that Peter is not a member of their party at all, but a left-wing Green Party activist.
In what I consider a tragedy, last month Peter Tatchell was forced by head injuries he'd received in beatings during his human rights work and gay activism to withdraw as the Green Party's candidate for parliament from a constituency in the university town of Oxford, where Tatchell is quite popular, and where the Greens already control the Oxford city council. Meaning he had a real shot at being elected in the parliamentary elections later this year.
The Guardian, in reporting Tatchell's withdrawal from the parliamentary contest under the headline "How Constant Beatings Have Caught Up With Campaigner Peter Tatchell," noted that, "After surviving more than 300 physical attacks, two stabbing attempts, a live bullet posted through his door and a succession of vicious beatings that have left him mildly brain-damaged, Peter Tatchell must be one of the only people in the world who could still consider himself fortunate. 'I'm lucky,' he insists with the quiet nonchalance of someone discussing the weather. 'What helps me cope is to put things in perspective. My injuries pale in comparison to the pro-democracy campaigners in Iran or the environmentalists in Russia or the political activists in Zimbabwe. If I was doing what they are doing, I'd be dead.'"
In two of the most severe attacks on Tatchell, the physically fearless militant activist made headlines in 2001 when he was beaten unconscious by bodyguards of Zimbabwe's dictator Robert Mugabe in Brussels as he tried to make a citizen's arrest of the homophobic strongman under the 1984 UN Convention against torture for having ordered the torture of two journalists and inflicted similar treatment on countless political opponents (see The Guardian's account at the time, "Mugabe Men Beat Up Tatchell.") Mugabe is a ruthless tyrant who has used violence and imprisonment against political opponents. He is also a notorious anti-gay demagogue - he has said that gays and lesbians "are worse than pigs and dogs" - who criminalized homosexuality and authorized his political gangs to engage in street lynchings of gay Zimbabweans. The beating at the hands of Mugabe's thugs left Tatchell with permanent damage in one eye and paralyzed down his left side for several days. (Photo right: Tachell lies unconscious after his beating by Mugabe's thugs.)
Then, in 2007, when Tatchell went to Moscow to support the courageous young Russian lawyer and gay activist Nikolai Alexeyev and his comrades in their attempt to hold a banned Moscow Gay Pride demonstration, Tatchell was again beaten in the head by one of the horde of young neo-nazi goons who violently attacked the gay rights activists with the collusion of the Moscow police (see my report for Gay City News on these 2007 events, "The Agony of Moscow Pride.") In the photo from Moscow at right, one of thpse fascist thugs raises his fist as he prepares to punch Tatchell in the head.
The beating at Moscow Gay Pride was one too many for Tatchell, who has never really recovered and has suffered ever since from permanent severe symptoms of concussion, including vision, memory, concentration, balance and co-ordination difficulties. His injuries were further exacerbated on a parliamentary campaign swing last July when the bus in which he was travelling braked suddenly and Tatchell was thrown forward, hitting his head on a metal rail. And, of course, Peter's recovered has been further impeded because he never slowed down his activist pace, despite the urging of friends (myself included) who kept begging him to take better care of himself. It would have been wonderful to see him win a seat in parliament and take his militant brand of human rights activism to the House of Commons -- but at the same time I deeply regretted his having to stand down as a candidate I was glad to see him realize that he cannot now do everthing he wished as he had in the past.
As I wrote in a 2008 profile of Tatchell for Gay City News after he tried to make a citizen's arrest in London of then Pakistani dictator General Pervez Musharaf, "Tatchell has always been a pioneer in catalyzing international solidarity for oppressed LGBT people outside the West as well as other groups suffering political repression. In 1973 Tatchell was arrested in East Germany when he went there to help local activists stage what he says was the first public gay protest in a Communist country. In the 1980s, he traveled to Thailand to support the first wave of gay and AIDS activists in that country, and to El Salvador to highlight the violent attacks on that country's gays and lesbians amidst a bloddy civil war, during which the US gave aid to the right-wing patrons of the authoritarian government's death squads. He's traveled to Malawi to protest the semi-slave labor of children on British-owned tea estates; to New Guinea to protest the Indonesian massacre of indigenous peoples in West Papua; to Latvia for banned 2006 Gay Pride observance that were violently attacked by religious extremists; and to Memphis to confront boxer Mike Tyson after the pugilist gay-baited heavyweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis." This is just a small part of Peter's four decades of activism.
"Is Peter Tatchell The Bravest Man in Britain?" was the headline in the excellent profile of Tatchell the Daily Mail ran last month after his withdrawal from the parliamentary race, in which it reported that "Police intelligence revealed that Tatchell was a prime assassination objective because of his persistent campaign against a group of reggae singers whose lyrics glorify violence and incite the killing of homosexuals. Tatchell had thwarted a string of concerts - at significant cost to the performers."
The Daily Mail noted that despite his national celebrity, Peter lives in poverty: "He subsists on a tiny stipend of around £8,000 a year - the income comes from journalism and personal appearances - and lives in the same cramped South-East London council flat [meaning public low-income housing] that has been his home for 30 years. When it was targeted by arsonists, he refused to move, although flaming rags were pushed through his letterbox and lavatory window. His response, instead, was to become more intransigent. 'Friends urged me to leave, but I was determined to stand my ground. It might seem pig-headed and stupid, but I refused to let anyone force me out.'"
Now that his health is seriously damaged, Peter Tatchell needs our help to be able to hire some activist staff to aid him in his gay and human rights work. YOU CAN, AND SHOULD, MAKE A DONATION TO THE PETER TATCHELL HUMAN RIGHTS CAMPAIGN FUND via PayPal by using your credit card.
Here's what Peter says in his appeal for help:
"As my campaigns go from strength to strength, the requests for support and solidarity grow ever greater.
"Increasingly, these requests come from all parts of the world – from isolated, persecuted individuals in small towns in Pakistan and Jamaica , and from tiny, struggling human rights groups working for democracy and social justice in Iran , Uganda , Palestine , Nepal , West Papua and Zimbabwe.
"This is putting me under unsustainable pressure. Apart from constant exhaustion and illness, I often feel deeply depressed by the sheer volume of demands and the constant crises and deadlines.
"Faced with a deluge of appeals to assist individuals, organisations and whole communities suffering persecution, I usually work 16 hours a day, seven days a week. I am doing the work of three or four people.
"I often go for months without a single night off. In the middle of a big campaign, for several days I might not have a proper meal or more than three hours sleep a night.
"Without my intervention, many asylum seekers would be deported and risk arrest, torture and murder; and vulnerable gay and black prisoners in the UK jails would suffer beatings and be pushed towards suicide.
"Given this terrible suffering, it is hard to say no. The solution is not to turn away victims and activist groups requesting assistance, but to get the help I need to reduce the pressure on me and to make my campaigns more effective and long-term sustainable.
"How can one refuse, for example, to help a Muslim woman or a gay man who fears so-called honour killing?
"Almost every day brings news of further abuses. I am constantly dealing with people who have been subjected to rape, torture, imprisonment and attempted murder. Their horror stories cause me nightmares. This cannot continue.
"To ease the pressure, I need to have some time to relax and recharge – three nights off a week and one day off at the weekend.
"To ensure this, I desperately require at least two full-time paid support staff – a campaigns officer and a research and casework officer."
Help this courageous man continue his work -- make a donation by clicking here.