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Honorary Degree for Activist Peter Tatchell

by Rob Blauwhuis in Scene , 09 January 2019

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar
length: 6 minuten

Last year, the British activist Peter Tatchell received an honorary degree from Abertay University in Dundee, Scotland. In the early 1970s, Tatchell was one of the driving forces behind the British branch of the Gay Liberation Front, a militant action group that sprang to life in the wake of the Stonewall-riots in the United States.

The GLF no longer tried, like previous homophile groups, to portray gay people as “just the same” with the help of psychiatrists and other “experts,” but fought for a change in the fabric of society under the motto “innovate, don’t assimilate.” The British Gay Liberation Front was founded by nineteen people on October 13, 1970 in the basement of the London School of Economics.

Tatchell was one of these nineteen pioneers, “aged 19, with long curly hair and living in Shepherd’s Bush with my 16-year-old boyfriend, Peter Smith. I was a student,” as he recalled in an article published in “The Guardian” in 2010. In this article he described the GLF as “a glorious, enthusiastic and often chaotic mix of anarchists, hippies, left-wingers, feminists, liberals and counter-culturalists. Despite our differences, we shared a radical idealism – a dream of what the world could and should be – free from not just homophobia but the whole sex-shame culture, which oppressed straights as much as LGBTs. "

"We were sexual liberationists and social revolutionaries, out to turn the world upside down. GLF espoused a non-violent revolution in cultural values and attitudes.” In these memories, he stated that, although the GLF was against “homophobic discrimination” the “GLF’s main goal was never equality within the status quo. We saw society as fundamentally unjust and sought to change it, to end the oppression of LGBTs – and of everyone else.”

As a member of the Gay Liberation Front, Tatchell was prominently involved in the organization of “sit-ins” at pubs that refused to serve “poofs” and protests against police harassment, as well as the medical classification of homosexuality as a disease. Tatchell was also one of the organizers of the first British Gay Pride march in 1972. In 1973, he attended the tenth World Youth Festival in East Berlin as a representative of the GLF. There, his actions led to much resistance from and between other groups of delegates. He was therefore excluded from conferences, and his leaflets were confiscated and burned.

He was interrogated by the Stasi, the state security service of the German Democratic Republic, and threatened and abused by other representatives. In retrospect, he thinks it was the first time that gay liberation politics were publicly disseminated and discussed in a communist country. He noted, however, that, with regard to decriminalisation and the age of consent, gays in those years had more rights in East Germany than in the United Kingdom and many other Western countries.

1972Tatchell’s involvement with the GLF, which disbanded in 1974, however, was not his first role as an activist. Born in Melbourne, Australia in 1952, Tatchell launched campaigns in support of the rights of the Aborigines in his public secondary school. In his home country, he also fought for the abolition of the death penalty and against the war in Vietnam.

As early as 1969, Tatchell had accepted that he was gay and moved to London in 1971 to escape conscription into the Australian Army. His membership of the Gay Liberation Front was not his last commitment to the gay movement. In the 1980s Tatchell was a fierce opponent of the infamous Section 28, a law article that dictated that a local government “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” nor “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”

This law was a consequence of the virulent homophobia that arose in the early 1980s as a result of the AIDS crisis, and was fuelled by the tabloids and Thatcherism. The gays in England felt as if they were under siege, as someone once observed. At the end of the 1980s the number of arrests of gay men because of “gross indecency” doubled and anti-gay violence took on an unprecedented scale. One of its victims was actor Michael Boothe, who on a Saturday in 1990 went out with a number of friends. On the way home, he passed “public toilets on the edge of Elthorne Park. These were then a well-known cottage or, in police-speak, ‘a meeting place for homosexuals.’ In the early months of 1990, police had been staking out the toilets, arresting gay men in unprecedented numbers.

GLF 40th anniversary reunion
The night that Michael walked past, however, the police were nowhere to be seen,” is Colin Richardson’s 2002 description of the events that followed on that night in 1990. He continues: “At 12.40am, a man passing the toilets heard someone call out. In the gloom, he made out a figure clinging to the park railings. It was Michael. ‘Please help me,’ he said. ‘I’ve been beaten up and I think my leg’s broken.’ Michael managed to whisper to the ambulance crew that he’d been set upon by a gang of around six men. He even managed to give brief descriptions of them. Eight hours later, Michael died from massive internal bleeding.”

A direct result of this murder was that the action group OutRage! was founded, initially campaigning that the police would stop arresting gay men, but protect them instead. Tatchell was one of the thirty people who attended the first meeting of this group, although he is not among the founding members. OutRage!, which existed until 2011, merged theatrical performance styles with queer protest and later on focused in detail on the sexual hypocrisy within the church and in politics. According to OutRage!, many leaders in the church and politics were publicly against homosexuality, but led a gay life in secret.

with Ian McKellenIn 1987 Tatchell founded the first organization in the world that was committed to the human rights of people with HIV. In that year, he also published the book “AIDS: A Guide to Survival,” which is described on the front as: “A radical self-help manual for understanding, preventing, and fighting back.” This was not the last time that Tatchell committed himself to the fight against AIDS. In 1994 he wrote the book “Safer Sexy: the Guide to Gay Sex Safely,” with photos by Robert Taylor.

These come with a warning on the front cover: “This book contains sexually explicit images!” Tatchell writes in the introduction: “The right to love a person of the same sex, and to enjoy a happy and healthy sex life, is a fundamental human right. Yet governments and religions worldwide conspire to sustain sexual ignorance, guilt, prejudice and ill-health. The homophobia they encourage is responsible for erotic and emotional misery on a massive scale. It is also contributing to the needless spread of HIV infection because many gay and bisexual men, especially teenagers, are being denied adequate information about safer sex. The world does not have to be like this. Sex is not dirty. The human body is not obscene. Gay sexuality is not immoral. Homophobia is not natural. [...] You can help change the world. Begin with your own life. Come out. Stand up for queer rights.”

Although Tatchell in the course of his life pursued many other goals, not just concerning homosexuality, these words are a good reason why the honorary degree from Abertay University is more than justified. Abertay University Principal Nigel Seaton stated: “Peter Tatchell has campaigned tirelessly for human rights, and for LGBT+ rights in particular, often doing so at great personal cost. Peter is an inspiration to the Abertay community.” And not just there!



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