Human rights chat with Peter Tatchell

La Bouche has a natter with the legendary gay human rights campaginer Peter Tatchell.

In terms of identity, would you classify yourself as queer or gay?

The notion of queer evolved in the 1990s as a more all-inclsuive, embracing term to go beyond the narrow confines of gay. 'Queer' was meant to embrace lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, those who were curious and questioning, and perhaps even some straight people who didn't fall into the narrow traditional parameters of heterosexuality.

It has fallen out of favour beyond academic circles in the last decade. But I'm content to call myself queer or gay.

 

So you don't come down really strongly in favour of either identity?

No. Although politically I am committed to a sexual politics that embraces lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, intersex and straight people who are opposed to heteronormatvity and traditional understandings of sexual orientation and gender identity

You probably knew I was gonna ask about this .... In the infamous 1983 Bermondsey by-election, you were defeated by a very homophobic campaign. What was your first reaction on learning that Simon Hughes was defeated this year?

I wasn't so much joyful at his defeat as at Labour's victory. Even though I'm no longer a supporter of the Labour party - I'm a member of the Greens - I was glad that Labour had regained the seat. I felt Labour’s victory had closed a chapter.

I'm never one to hold grudges, so Simon Hughes' defeat was not for me a great 'whoopee' moment, I was just happy that Labour had regained a seat which they had traditionally held - and which I felt some responsibility for losing.

We'll wait to see whether the newly elected Labour MP is up to much. Hopefully, he'll be more on the left-progressive side of the Labour party but that's unclear at the moment.

One perspective on it might be that it reflects the changing position of gay people in that time , of course largely due to work by you and other human rights campaigners. I was interested in your take on the fact that gay marriage was actually introduced by a Conservative government?

Yes, it was a big surprise that it was a Conservative government that introduced same-sex marriage, but that was a culmination of a very astute, long campaign which successfully boxed the Conservatives into a corner where they felt obliged to do something.

The background to the Conservative-led coalition's decision was partly a result of - somewhat against my own instincts - presenting the case to the Conservatives that if they supported marriage they should welcome the fact that gay people want to be part of it; that far from undermining marriage, marriage would also be strengthened and that, as Conservatives, if they believed marriage is a good thing, why not extend it to more people.

For some conservatives, same sex marriage was an opportunity to further detoxify the Tory brand and to burnish their liberal credentials - in other words, to undermine and counteract their liberal and left-wing critics. Amid some of the biggest public spending and welfare cuts in British history, it enabled them to boast that they are the ones that brought marriage equality.

There was also the pressure of the European court case. I was part of the Equal Love campaign which brought a legal case in 2011 to the European Court of Human Rights to overturn both the ban on same sex civil marriages and opposite sex civil partnerships.

We put it to the Conservatives that it would not be a good idea if they were forced by the European court to introduce equal marriage, because that would just inflame anti-European sentiment within the Conservative party and fuel the arguments of their rivals UKIP. We said: it's much better if you are seen to take the lead.

That's very smart! Speaking to their own interests.

Yes. We were using Conservative ideology and self-interest - and manipulating it to ensure the outcome we wanted.

 

With the increased acceptance of gay people, it could be argued that other scapegoats have emerged. Today, Muslim people are being scapegoated and perhaps women's rights and gay rights are being used to marginalise Muslims. Do you think we have to have a special sensitivity when we talk about Islam in particular, in solidarity with Muslims?

I'm a fierce critic of all religious fundamentalism and any legal privileges for religious organisations or people. But I don't agree with generalised attacks on people of any faith and this applies equally to Muslim people. My campaigns against Islamist extremists have been focused on them, not the wider Muslim community - I've made that very clear time and time again.

I don't think we can ignore abuses motivated by perverse religious understandings just because the Muslim community is marginalised. If liberal and left opinion vacates that ground, it gives a free hand to the BNP and the EDL. That's my criticism of much of the left; by failing to speak out against Islamist hate preachers advocating female genital mutilation, the killing of gay people and so on, the left has vacated that terrain to the far-right. Instead of focusing on Islamist extremists, the far-right has made generalised, sweeping attacks on all Muslim people, which is clearly very, very wrong.

It's important to build up, support and empower Muslim people who are critical of the extremists. I've sought to give a platform to Muslim women, gay people and liberal and progressive Muslims who are making liberal arguments from within an Islamic perspective. For many years, I've supported the LGBTI Muslim group, Imaan. I'm a patron of Tell MAMA, a group which works against anti-Muslim hate crime. I've worked with a range of Muslim organisations worldwide that are committed to the principle of universal human rights, including the defence of Muslim communities against abuse by Islamist extremists and by the far right. When their voices are heard, it helps ensure that it's not part of a generalised far-right attack on the wider Muslim community.

We have to always remember that within the Muslim community there are women and LGBTI people. It's not a case of LGBTI people vs Muslims. The issue is people of all faiths and sexualities against religious extremism.

Do you consider yourself religious in any way?

No. I'm an atheist, secularist and humanist. I believe that a scientific and rational understanding of the world is more accurate and more useful. To me, all forms of religious belief are aspects of superstition and irrationality. I respect the right of people of faith to hold their beliefs and will defend them against any hatred or discrimination, but I don't share those beliefs and don't believe that they are the best way to understand ourselves and our place in the world.

Would that apply equally to all forms of spirituality as well as organised religion?

The question for me is: how do you define spirituality?  When I climb a mountain and look down on a field of wild flowers and lakes below, I have a strange sense of awe and wonder at the beauty and magnificence of the natural world, but I wouldn't call it spiritual or religious. I would call it an ecstatic moment, which can ultimately be explained rationally in terms of the structures inside my brain.

I absolutely defend and support all people of faith who are seeking to liberalise and humanise their religions, so I work closely with the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, with Tell MAMA, the campaign against anti-Muslim hate crime, with Rainbow Jews, and with Hindu and Sikh LGBT groups. Their bid to change the way in which their faiths understand and treat LGBTI people is a very important part of the process of defending LGBTI people, to ensure that they are treated respectfully and equally within their communities.

It's a matter of building alliances with people within religions - regardless of whether they are gay, straight, bisexual or transgender - to empower them to win understanding, acceptance and fair treatment for women, LGBTI people, dissenting faith perspectives and non-believers.

I noticed you've been focusing a lot recently on Syria. It was in the news quite recently that Britain was involved surreptitiously in the bombing of Syria. What is your solution as a person who is vehemently opposed to Assad but also anti-war?

 

We have to do something to stop the mass barrel-bombing of civilians by the Assad regime, which is killing so many innocent men, women and children.

I am opposed to against any kind of foreign intervention, whether it be via the West, Russia or Iran. I think the most helpful way forward would be for the UN to impose an arms embargo and a no-fly zone, together the creation of civilian safe havens and the deployment of UN peacekeepers. That could be done under UN auspices, without using Western military personnel. It could be actioned by service people from more neutral countries like Brazil, India, Nigeria and so on.

I would not support any action that wasn't authorised by the United Nations.

The difficult part of it is that there's a game of geopolitical chess and in this case the Russians are supporting Assad, but in other parts of the world the West is supporting all manner of appalling dictatorships. I feel like the human rights argument is made very inconsistently, with Saudi Arabia as one of the strongest parts of the Western alliance. Maybe there is a potential trap of human rights arguments bieng appropriated when convenient and discarded at other times?

I totally agree that the Western stance is absolutely hypocritical, not only with regard to Saudi Arabia but also concerning the dictatorship in Bahrain and other tyrannies around the world.

That hypocrisy does not, however, mean that liberal, left, progressive people should not take a stance in defence of human rights. As you know, I've campaigned very strongly against the dictatorship in Saudi Arabia, as well as similar dictatorships in Iran and Syria.

We have to stick to the principle of universal human rights and apply it fairly and consistently, regardless of what our governments do. The big failing of left and liberal opinion is not being consistent. It’s often silent or muted about human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, Russia and Iran. Much left and liberal opinion mirrors the inconsistency of Western governments and, by default, colludes with tyranny. Even though there are trade unionists imprisoned in Iran, you won't find many on the left campaigning for their release. But if even just one trade unionist in France were jailed there'd be mass protest across Europe. It's completely hypocritical and comes perilously close to a form of inverse racism to ignore human rights abuses in non-European countries.

Just because the UK government does not apply the principles of universal human rights, it's no reason for us not to do so. It constantly frustrates and appals me that there is no solidarity with the democratic and left opposition inside Syria. The National Coordinating Committees and their local groups are clearly on the liberal left of public opinion. They stand for a democratic, secular Syria, yet they are almost entirely marginalised from any public discussion of what's going on in Syria. They are doing amazing, heroic things to sustain civil society and liberal humanitarian values.

It definitely sounds like it is worth looking up what they do and supporting them.

My final question is very general. If you wanted to give advice for people looking to make a difference in human rights what would be your main advice?

The number one piece of advice would be: Don't just say it's bad - do something about it! That could involve joining an existing campaign group, of which there are many. Whatever the issue that you feel passionately about, there's a group already campaigning on it. Think about joining up and contributing to the work they do.

If there is an issue that you feel isn’t being adequately addressed by other organisations, then think about bringing together a group of like-minded people to get your own campaign going.

Action equals life. When we decide to do something, and when we organise to achieve it, we can make a huge positive difference. The progress of the whole of human progress has been about people who have decided: 'This isn't right, I want to change it'. So it's really up to us as individuals to make a decision: are we happy with the way things are or do we want them to change? Do we believe that what currently exists is not inevitable? Do we think that something different and much better could be? By working together collectively, we are much stronger. We can shape a new future, whether that be around peace and disarmament, global poverty, environmental protection, democracy or human rights. My motto is: 'Don't accept the world as it is. Dream of what the world could be - and then help make it happen!'

You're inspiring me now! Thank you so much for speaking to me, I have a great respect for you and your work. Keep it up!

If you're interesting in finding out about more of the work that Peter is involved in, head to www.petertatchellfoundation.org, where you can click the Join Us button to receive campaign updates. The website has a back history of many campaigns and the opportunity to make a financial contribution - the foundation is entirely dependent on voluntary donations.
 

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