‘I was beaten by extremists at 19 fighting for LGBTQ+ rights, 51 years later Britain is like different country’
When Peter Tatchell first moved to London aged just 19, he left behind his home in Melbourne, Australia to find his place in the world as a young, gay man. year after Peter Tatchell first moved to London at 19, he helped
Just one year later, he helped organise Britain’s first ever Gay Pride march, a move that was right at the start of his 55-year long campaign against LGBTQ+ persecution; from suffering horrendous beatings at the hands of far right extremists in London to facing up to the strict Soviet regime in East Germany.
Peter told MyLondon: “I left Australia in 1971, in my hometown of Melbourne homosexuality and abortion were totally illegal and there was strict censorship of plays books and films.
“When I arrived in London it was a much more liberal, open, atmosphere – far from perfect but much better than Melbourne.”
READ MORE: ‘I hid being gay in the Royal Navy for 20 years, then my first love died of AIDS 2 days before I left’
Now an internationally renowned LGBTQ+ activist, Peter first settled in Chiswick, before spending more than 40 years in a flat in Elephant and Castle.
Peter joined the Gay Liberation Front on his arrival to London and utilised his voice to stand up for the rights of LGBTQ+ people, often putting himself into dangerous situations.
He was instrumental in helping to organise the first Gay Pride march in the UK in 1952, reminiscing almost five decades later, he said: “We were terrified of being arrested or beaten up but in the end all we got was a few bottles and coins thrown, and a heap of abuse.
“It wasn’t pleasant but we could live with that, we also did get some support from members of the public, not a lot but better than nothing.”
Peter’s commitment to his campaigning, protesting and activism have often meant he has found himself in the line of fire – a negative side of his work which was never more present as in the Bermondsey by-election of 1983 in which he stood as Labour candidate.
Peter said: “I first came to public prominence in the by-election, many commentators have described it as the dirtiest and most violent election since the Second World War and it was definitely the most homophobic.
“Gay media at the time had referred to the abuse I received in light of the by-election as the most sustained hounding of any public figure since Oscar Wilde.
“That negative experience prompted me to devote more of my time to campaign for LGBTQ+ rights.”
‘It was never my intention to get beaten up’
During his 55 years of activism, Peter has sustained horrendous beatings and violent assaults at the hands of far right extremists, counter-protesters and even former Zimbabwean Prime Minister Robert Mugabe’s henchmen, which he is still suffering the effects from today.
Of the 300 violent assaults he is has sustained in the past five decades, half of those were as a direct result of his standing in the by-election for Bermondsey.
Peter has often sacrificed his own personal safety, freedom and security to protest for the rights of those silenced by harsh regimes, political persecution and fear.
As a result of his bravery in the face of homophobia, discrimination and inequality Peter has been left with some cognitive and eye problems which he still lives with today.
Peter shared: “As a result I have problems with balance, coordination, memory and concentration, but I get by – it’s more difficult but I still manage.
“I used to be a very good and fast typist now I get the word and letters mixed up.”
He told MyLondon of some of his many accomplishments: “In 1973 I went to the World Festival of Youth in Communist East Berlin and staged the first protest in a communist country, in what was then East Germany.
“I went there to take the message of Gay Liberation behind the iron curtain where LGBT+ rights and organisations were banned.
“It got me arrested twice and interrogated by the Stasi, for a while I thought I was going to end up spending several years in an East German jail. But, in the end, they let me go because of publicity around my arrest.
“When I heard about the world festival of youth I saw it as a opportunity to take the message of LGBT+ liberation to the Soviet bloc countries, I smuggled in over 2,000 leaflets about Gay rights in the bottom of my rucksack and suitcase.
“These were covertly distributed during the festival and were circulated around the communist bloc for many years after.
“I was very afraid when I went there, I was cognisant that I could get arrested and jailed but I hoped that I had correctly calculated that I would be protected by the media publicity about the protest and the fact that I had a Western passport.”
Peter’s potentially worst encounter with the dangers of his activism came from his attempt to make a citizens arrest of former Zimbabwean Prime Minister Robert Mugabe.
He told MyLondon: “The first I tried was in 1999 near Victoria station in London, we had him under arrest and had legal papers to justify his prosecution on charges of condoning torture but instead of arresting Mugabe, the police arrested me.
“The second attempt was in Brussells in 2001, I tried to arrest him in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel but I was beaten unconscious by his bodyguards.
“It was never my intention to get beaten up, but it turned out to be very effective.
“Most who saw the TV footage of me being beaten into the gutter concluded that President Mugabe is prepared to have his goons bash a peaceful protester in broad daylight in a European capital city, just imagine what he is doing when no one is watching.”
‘It was all by luck and chance’
Peter would once again find himself in the line of fire when standing up against legendary boxer Mike Tyson who had been spouting a torrent of homophobic insults in the lead up to his fight with Lennox Lewis in 2002.
Tyson had gone unchallenged for his language and it seemed that he was being allowed to speak so openly in a homophobic manner.
Peter said: “I decided to go to Memphis where the fight was due to take place and challenge Tyson face to face.
“Early on the Sunday morning before the fight I went to a gym nearby to where he was staying in Memphis and I lay in wait.
“I had no idea whether Tyson was going to that gym or if he would turn up on the day but by late morning a gaggle of journalists and TV crews arrived and sure enough a little while later Mike Tyson arrived in a fleet of black SUVs.
“As soon as he got out of his van I ran over to him and demanded to know why he was using homophobic slurs, Tyson was visibly shocked and angry and for a moment he raised his clenched fist – I thought he was going to clock me.
“Instead he protested loudly, ‘I’m not homophobic, I’m not homophobic’ to which I replied, ‘prove it, make a public statement that you are against the discrimination of gay people’.
“To his great credit he did. He was one of the first major ‘macho’ sports stars to come out and openly support LGBTQ+ rights.
“The whole encounter that took place that day was all by luck and chance.”
‘London is definitely my home’
Peter arrived in London at the age of 19 and over the past five decades he has moved between West, North and South London and has made the capital city his home.
For more than 40 years Peter lived in Elephant and Castle on what was a run down estate when he moved there in 1978.
In his time he has been in his flat there have been three people murdered just 50 yards from his front door and he’s encountered over 50 attacks near to his property.
On his time in the UK, he said: “We have made huge progress, I want to thank every LGBT person and straight ally who has made the change possible.
“Compared to when I first arrived in London in 1971, Britain is almost a different country.”
‘Reclaim Pride – a protest for our freedom’
Peter is still a patron of Pride in London which he helped set the foundations for 50 years ago this year, but he is vocal on his criticisms of the way Pride runs in the UK today.
He said: “I am very critical of its commercial focus and the way it has been depoliticised to downplay LGBTQ+ human rights demands.
“I organised the big Reclaim Pride March last year after Pride in London was cancelled – our agenda was about reclaiming pride by and for the community and we put LGBT+ human rights front and centre – that hadn’t happened on an official pride in many years.
“Reclaim Pride had a much stronger grassroots community feel, it was joyful and celebratory, but it was also a protest for our freedom.”
‘There’s still so much to campaign for’
Despite his negative experiences in the past Peter, who turns 70 next Tuesday (January 25), is still an active member of protests and demonstrations that can put him into dangerous situations.
He said: “I am undeterred – I have been on plenty of quite dangerous protests since – in Russia I was very badly beaten up by neo-Nazis in Moscow – but I thought it was important to go there and stand with Russian LGBT people who were trying to stage a lawful pride parade that had been banned illegally.
“I went back to Russia in 2018 to stage a one man protest outside the Kremlin over Putin’s failure to stop the murder and torture of LGBT+ people in Chechnya in just a few minutes I was being pulled to the police station but I stole Putin’s thunder.
“It was the opening day of the football world cup but all the front pages were about my protest, arrest and the Human Rights abuses in Chechnya.”
Not only are Peter’s current campaigns seeing him fight for the rights of LGBTQ+ people in far reaches of the world, but closer to home, Peter has condemned the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which saw protesters take to the streets of London last week over the attack on their right to protest.
Peter said: “The policing bill is the biggest threat to the right of peaceful protest for many decades – under this law, the chartists and the suffragettes would have been imprisoned, it would have made the mass protest against the IRAQ war illegal.”
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Peter is currently also fighting for justice over the prolonged wait on the ban of conversion therapy, the need for changes to the Gender Recognition Act to ease the methods by which transgender people can change their legal documents and he is vocal on the LGBTQ+ asylum seekers currently destitute in the UK.
Peter’s work never stops and he said: “There’s still so much to campaign for and so many individual victims of injustice.”
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