Peter Tatchell getting arrested by Russian police at the 2007 Moscow Gay Pride march (All photos courtesy Peter Tatchell)
Bugs’ interview with Peter Tatchell originally ran in The Montreal Gazette.
Legendary British activist Peter Tatchell has been a thorn in the side of countless homophobes over the decades, everybody from the President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, to the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin.
But arguably some of the biggest-name homophobes who despise him most are notorious anti-gay Jamaican reggae dancehall superstars such as Sizzla, who wrote the 2005 hit song Nah Apologize about LGBT activists – and in particular, about Tatchell and myself.
Tatchell’s international Stop Murder Music campaign successfully targeted Sizzla who then told me in an explosive 2004 Hour magazine cover story that went global, “Once we stoop to sodomites and homosexuals, it is wrong! Wherever I go it is the same thing – burn sodomite, burn battyman … We must get rid of Sodom and Gomorrah right now.”
That sensational interview made international news, including on the pages of Jamaica’s national newspaper The Jamaica Gleaner where I was also trashed in an op-ed. Then in his song Nah Apologize, Sizzla repeats in the chorus, “Rastaman nah apologize to no batty bwoy!”
Tatchell clearly remembers that turbulent era when many dancehall stars were targeted by the Stop Murder Music campaign.
“It took a huge amount of effort and I personally faced many death threats, even had police protection at certain times when they informed me a hit man had been sent from Jamaica to kill me,” Tatchell says. “The upshot is today the prevalence of murder music is much less than it was. We hit them where it hurts them most – in their wallets, when all those concerts got cancelled around the world.”
You might not know it from his in-your-face political tactics, but Tatchell’s political inspirations are Mahatma Gandhi, Sylvia Pankhurst and Martin Luther King. But there is no question that Tatchell – who staged the first-ever LGBT rights protest in a communist country, East Germany, in 1973 – is also inspired by the likes of Malcolm X.
“I’ve taken part in roughly 3,000 protests over the past 50 years,” says Tatchell. “You need the positive, constructive strategies of Dr King, but you also need the anger of Malcolm X to put pressure on people in power. Then you need to articulate solutions.”
At his first LGBT protest, at the World Festival of Youth and Students in East Berlin in 1973, Tatchell was the only openly-gay delegate at the conference and staged the first ever LGBT rights protest in a communist country.
“I was only 21, but I’ve always seen queer freedom as a global battle and I hoped that [foreign] passport would protect me from any draconian punishment,” Tatchell says. “I thought it was important to highlight the struggle of LGBT people in the Soviet bloc, although I was widely criticized for it at the time by the America delegation for ‘undermining’ the struggle against capitalism and imperialism. I was even denounced at a mass rally by Angela Davis who is now an out lesbian.”
Sizzla’s infamous HOUR
magazine cover story
If Tatchell’s youthful exuberance convinced him his passport would get him out of a jam in East Berlin in 1973, what did an older and wiser Tatchel think when he was bashed by neo-Nazis and arrested at the Moscow Gay Pride parade in 2007?
“I had the same optimism I had in 1973, but with a British passport it was unlikely that I would be badly treated,” Tatchell says. “Still I knew I might get arrested and beaten up, because it happens to Russian LGBT activists all the time. They don’t have the protection I do.”
That is why Tatchell criticizes gay and straight athletes who attended the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. “I didn’t support a boycott because they rarely work. It would be far better for spectators and athletes to go there and protest. Disappointingly none did – apart from Russian activists. Lots of promises were made by [foreigners] but no one really delivered.”
In 1988, Tatchell set up the UK AIDS Vigil Organisation to campaign for the human rights of people with HIV, co-founded ACT UP London in 1989, as well as the queer rights direct-action group OutRage! the following year. He outed 10 closeted Anglican bishops in 1994 because they publicly supported their church’s homophobic stance, and kickstarted the global Stop Murder Music campaign that successfully targeted virulently anti-gay dancehall-reggae performers such as Beenie Man, Bounty Killer and Sizzla.
He also made international news when he outed the late soul singer Whitney Houston in a February 2012 Daily Mail newspaper essay, alleging her longtime lover was Robyn Crawford.
“I wrote that because I was so angry how [Crawford] was written out of the obituaries – this was a blatant act of self-censorship,” Tatchell says. “I had met both Whitney and Robyn in London in the early 1990s and it was obvious they were in a relationship. It wasn’t just my conclusion, it was everyone’s. One of the greatest tragedies of Whitney’s life is the way her family and church pressured her to give up that relationship. That truth needed to be told. I think it is highly probable that Whitney married Bobby Brown to dispel the lesbian rumours, and that began the downward spiral that led to her death. This is evidence that homophobia kills.”
London police did not allow Tatchell and his colleagues to arrest Mugabe, instead arresting the activists. This did not hinder Tatchell, who would attempt a second citizen’s arrest of Mugabe in Brussels in 2001. That time Tatchell was beaten unconscious by Mugabe’s bodyguards.
But Tatchell – a draft-dodger who moved to Britain from Australia in 1971 because he opposed Australia’s role in the Vietnam War – remains steadfast all these years later. Now 62, he says, “I’m still motivated by the same 1960s commitment to idealism. It still fires me up!”
He was also “humbled” to be named International Grand Marshall of Fierté Montréal Pride’s 2014 parade.
“I’m just one of many hundreds of thousands of LGBT activists worldwide who are fighting for queer freedom,” Tatchell insists. “It is our cumulative action that makes change. I don’t feel comfortable with the adulation, but I am profoundly appreciative of this honour.”
Read more about Tatchell on his official website: www.petertatchell.net