SIMPLY STATED, Peter Tatchell is the doyen of the LGBT rights movement in the UK. Since his arrival in England (from Australia) in 1971, he has been instrumental in founding and energizing a number of key organizations, including Britain’s Gay Liberation Front and OutRage! His commitment to LGBT and broader human rights causes has involved him in over 3,000 nonviolent direct action protests, including many that have put his personal safety at risk, such as his protests in Moscow against the crackdown on LGBT rights in Russia and his two attempts to conduct a citizen’s arrest of Robert Mugabe.
I first became aware of Tatchell’s work when, as a closeted eighteen-year-old, I followed his campaign to be elected to Parliament as a member of the Labour Party. His opponents’ leveled homophobic attacks upon him as an out gay candidate made the national press and helped to cement his status as an icon of the LGBT movement—a perennial thorn in the side of those who opposed equal rights for all.
I was fortunate enough to meet Peter Tatchell on several occasions when we shared the platform at various LGBT events in the UK over a decade ago. He would be there to deliver the keynote speech, and I would be there with my band to sing a few disco hits at the end of the rally. He was always incredibly kind, interested, and gracious toward us.
This interview was conducted via Zoom late last year.
David Wickenden: If you don’t mind, I’d like to go back to when you first arrived in the UK, which I believe was 1971, a couple of years after the Wolfenden Report, legalization of homosexuality in the UK, and a couple of years after Stonewall. What was it like to be a gay man in the UK at that time?
Peter Tatchell: Can I just make it absolutely clear that it was a partial decriminalization of male homosexuality in 1967, and in fact the number of arrests of consenting adults for same-sex behavior increased by 400 percent in the few years after 1967. Full decriminalization didn’t happen in England and Wales until 2003, not in Northern Ireland until 2009, and not in Scotland until 2013.
DW: Thank you for clearing that up. Well, what was it like to be a gay man in those days in the UK?
PT: Well, most aspects of gay male life were still criminalized, despite the partial decriminalization of 1967. So sex was only lawful if it took place between two consenting adults civilians, aged 21 or over, in the privacy of their own home with doors and windows locked and closed and with no other person present in any part of the house. There were no public figures who were openly LGBT. The only time LGBT+ people were ever mentioned was when they were exposed as spies, child sex abusers, or mass murderers. You know the medical and psychiatric professions still designated homosexuality as an illness and supported various cures, including electric shock aversion therapy, funded by the National Health Service.
DW: What were your priorities then at that time as an activist?
PT: Well, I was very quickly involved in the newly formed Gay Liberation Front in London. Our agenda was really to take on the establishment over its homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia, so this included campaigns for an equal age of consent.
We also had campaigns against the medical and psychiatric professions and did zaps of Harley Street [London’s medical district] against well-known psychoanalysts and psychiatrists who were advocating the curing of homosexuality. I staged a protest at Saint Thomas’s Hospital in London during a lecture by Professor Hans Eysenck, who was then one of the world’s most famous psychologists. He was justifying the use of electric shock therapy. I was dragged out of the meeting and beaten up by doctors and medical students.
The Gay Liberation Front also did big protests against Festival of Light, which was a Christian-led morality campaign targeting abortion, pornography, and homosexuality. The leading lights of that campaign were very hostile to LGBT rights, so among other things, we invaded their launch meeting at Westminster Central Hall and disrupted it with nuns in drag. We released mice into the audience, and others of us stood up and held a same-sex kiss-in.
DW: So many of your forms of protests demonstrated incredible courage and bravery but also theatrics as well, which I think is a particular kind of phenomenon in the LGBT community. What impact would you say that Stonewall had on the gay community in Britain?
PT: Well, I think people heard about the Stonewall riots and subsequent gay liberation protests in New York and other cities, and that was partly the inspiration for the formation of the Gay Liberation Front in the UK. In fact, two young students, Bob Mellors and Aubrey Walter, went to the U.S. in the summer of 1970 or ’71 and joined a GLF protest in New York. They also attended the Black Panthers Revolutionary People’s Convention in Philadelphia, where Huey Newton welcomed LGBT people into the liberation struggle. So, they returned to Britain inspired by these experiences, and they were the ones who called the first meeting of what was to become the GLF in London at the London School of Economics in October 1970.
DW: I guess the whole pride movement sprang out of that as well in subsequent years.
PT: Right. The GLF took the initiative in organizing Britain’s first-ever Pride parade, which took place in London on the 1st of July 1972. I was one of about thirty people involved in organizing and publicizing the Pride event. We had no idea what to expect, because in those days most LGBT+ people were closeted. They wouldn’t dare show their faces, so we were very pleasantly surprised when about 700 to 1,000 people turned out. We rallied in Trafalgar Square and then marched to Hyde Park, where we had a gay day. I’ve got to say that the police presence was extraordinarily heavy. There was almost one police officer for every marcher and some of the officers hemmed us in, shoved us, and openly abused us.
DW: What was the response from people in the streets?
PT: About a third of the public was clearly hostile. They shouted abuse, and some even threw cans and coins. About a third was just sort of disbelieving and gaping. They couldn’t believe that gay people would dare show their faces. The other third was actually quite supportive, so we had cheers and applause as well. It wasn’t all negative. That gave us great hope and gave us the confidence to keep fighting.
DW: And what would you say would be the legacy of Stonewall for the gay community in the UK?
PT: I think Stonewall’s legacy is actually quite limited. It was something that happened in the U.S. We acknowledged it, we appreciated it, but we were determined to chart our own course based upon our own circumstances, history and traditions.
DW: I’m going to move forward the 1980s, which of course were dominated by the AIDS crisis. How did that emerge for you as someone who lived through it?
PT: The first we heard was in late 1981, early 1982, that gay men were dying of some new mysterious disease, and there was very little knowledge or awareness. We very much looked to the U.S., where these cases had been reported, for a lead. So, the gay press here—Capital Gay, Gay Times, Him magazine—really took the lead in publicizing what information was available. When the first person died of HIV in Britain in 1982, that led to the formation of the Terrence Higgins Trust, which is still the main HIV charity in Britain.
We were very conscious of the need to inform and educate our community. Initially the advice was: Don’t have sex with Americans. I and others knew that was not an adequate response. Almost certainly the virus was present in Britain by the time we became aware of it, so we had to think about what other measures could be taken to protect oneself. So the obvious thing was to use condoms, but there was quite a lot of resistance within the gay male community to condom use. Many people regarded them as a spoiler. But eventually, as sexual transmission became verified by medical research, condom use became the norm.
We also had the government of Margaret Thatcher, which was indifferent to AIDS, and we had a vast public hysteria and panic, which resulted in AIDS being dubbed the “Gay Plague.” There was a huge escalation in threats, abuse, and violence against LGBT+ people.
DW: You mentioned the indifference by the Thatcher administration. Can you talk a little bit more about that? Was is it indifference, or were they more overtly opposed to taking action?
PT: Until the first heterosexual person died of AIDS, the government basically did nothing. As long as just gay and bisexual men were dying, they looked the other way, so the Terrence Higgins Trust really struggled to get even meager funding. I think eventually it got something like £35,000, which was a drop in the ocean. So we felt that this was clearly a government that was not recognizing a looming medical emergency and that was allowing its judgment to be clouded by homophobia.
This was a time, of course, when the Thatcher government had two consecutive campaigns. The first was for a return to Victorian values and the second was for family values. And in both those campaigns there was no recognition of LGBT+ people. On top of that, we did have in the late 80s Section 28, the first new anti-gay law in Britain for a century, which prohibited the so-called promotion of homosexuality or same-sex relationships. This led to a huge mass of censorship, mostly by local councils and education authorities, but also by some local health authorities. It led to gay-themed plays being withdrawn from schools, gay-themed books being taken off library shelves. It led to violent attacks upon theaters that were independent and were performing gay-themed plays. It was a very hostile and quite violent time. The number of gay and bisexual men arrested for consenting adult same-sex behavior skyrocketed.
Simultaneously, the number of gay and bisexual men who were being murdered escalated dramatically. Between 1986 and 1991, I identified 51 murders of men where the circumstances pointed to a homophobic motive, and that’s just the cases that were drawn to my attention. I’m sure the real figure was even higher. It was on a level with race attacks and race murders, but it was almost unreported, and the police were the perpetrators, not the protectors.
DW: Do you think that in some respects this backlash served to galvanize the LGBT community?
PT: Well, the formation of Stonewall, the parliamentary lobby group, and OutRage!, the direct action protest group, were direct consequences of this escalating homophobic atmosphere—escalating police arrests of gay and bisexual men and the failure to investigate the murders of gay men.
David Wickenden is a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education with a focus on LGBT rights and representations in middle and high schools.