Peter Tatchell gave an acceptance of the James Joyce award at University College Dublin on 21st September accompanied by a rather interesting speech. In it, he refers to the Kinsey Scale of sexuality, which professes that sexuality is a spectrum from 1 (being exclusively heterosexual) to 10 (being exclusively homosexual). Recent surveys conducted using the Kinsey Scale have revealed that a smaller percentage than expected define themselves as either exclusively heterosexual or exclusively homosexual. Peter exclaims that research shows that the less homophobic societies become, the less we will see people defining themselves by the exclusive categories of “straight”, “gay” or “lesbian”. Upon this topic of binaries, I thought it would be interesting to start my conversation with Peter by inquiring as to whether he sees a binary between two ideas, whose co-existence with one another has come under scrutiny recently: Islam, and LGBT rights. In particular, I wondered whether Peter finds it increasingly alarming that elements of the far-left now associate themselves with Islamist terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas – both of whom being known for executing homosexuals .
“First of all, lets get some historical perspective,” says Peter. “Up until the mid-1970s, most on the left were hostile to LGBT rights. They took the orthodox Communist line that homosexuality was a sign of bourgeois perversion and would disappear in a pure socialist society. I remember being abused on anti-Imperialist protests in the 1970s as a “fucking queer”, and being told I was not welcome. Within the Labour Party it was never that extreme, but it was thought that gay rights were an electoral embarrassment. Today, though, there is a section of the far left who are aligned with far-right Islamists. Their alliance with the Islamists seems to trump any support for LGBT rights. These people are quite prepared to throw us under a bus, often for the sake of getting Muslim support for the anti-war movement.”
Upon highlighting this issue, Peter also had much to say on why he believed this was the case. “Much of those on the far-left have given up on the white working class. They no longer believe that white working class people can be a force for revolutionary change. Instead, they now pin their hopes on Muslim people, in quite an exploitative way. They fear that if they champion LGBT rights, they will alienate potential Muslim supporters of the Stop the War movement. This presumption is obviously completely cynical, insulting and patronising.
“They pay lip service to LGBT rights, but whenever there is a conflict between radical Islamists and LGBT, they always make an excuse for the Islamists. A frequent re-post is that the Muslim community are victimised, and therefore we shouldn’t criticise them when they are homophobic. These people never turn around and say that the LGBT community is victimised, therefore we shouldn’t criticise them when they are anti-Muslim. It’s a double standard.”
Peter sees the recent rise of alt-right LGBT figures, such as Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopolis, as being a direct result of the failure of elements of the left to sufficiently defend the LGBT community. “They (the left) have created a vacuum into which the right has stepped. It’s linked to why we are seeing the rise of the far right all across Europe; because much of the left has failed to address issues of popular concern. So, when the far-left fails to call out Islamist extremism, in a way that does not generalise all Muslim people, it leaves this space open for the far-right to step in and make sweeping condemnations of all Muslim people. Both are totally wrong.”
In the theme of examining the current disarray of the left in UK politics, I inquire into how Peter feels about some of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s less than savoury political associations. “Most of Corbyn’s domestic agenda, around the health service, railways and education is something I fully support. He’s actually not radical enough in my view; he hasn’t supported electoral reform, a basic citizen’s income, wealth tax on the rich, and worker and consumer directors on the boards of companies. Overall, I believe he is taking the party in the right direction. However, I am critical of his foreign policy stance. He is way too soft on Russia and Putin, and his uncritical association with leading anti-human rights figures from Hezbollah and Hamas is downright wrong. It was a huge mistake for him to attend the 35th anniversary celebrations of the Iranian revolution, given that the regime has executed tens of thousands of leftists and minority nationalities. I wouldn’t have objected so much if he had criticised Iran’s human rights record when he attended, but I didn’t hear him make any such assertions. I’ve no objection to him sharing platforms with unsavoury people, providing he disassociates himself and criticises their anti-human rights record. When I have shared platforms with people I have disagreed with, I have always made a public point of my disagreement. However, while I believe we must challenge Corbyn on where he has made critical misjudgements of this sort, I do object to him being singled out. His critics have shared platforms with controversial figures such as the Saudi, Pakistani and Indonesian leaders, who are implicated in gross human rights abuses. They have to own up that they, too, have been complicit in these abuses.
In the theme of breaking down binaries and segregation, Tatchell’s speech to the university’s L&H society also homes in on his objection to creating LGBT-exclusive laws. He continues to be a campaigner for the legalisation of heterosexual civil partnerships in the UK, in the belief that “all should be equal before the law”. Segregationist policies, however, have emblazoned university campuses, as liberation societies demand spaces exclusively for certain groups of people. Tatchell worries about the infantilising nature of this trend.
“In some circumstances, I can see it is appropriate to have women only, black only or LGBT only spaces, but I wouldn’t like to see that become the norm. It is much better if students mix and engage with others who are different, and to listen, learn and accept people who don’t share their background. In the real world, students will have to engage with ideas they find offensive. To shelter them in the university space is neither realistic or fair”
I then wondered how Peter feels about the recent student campaign for LGBT student only accommodation on university campuses? The University of Birmingham is currently the only institution in the UK to have these facilities, but they are commonplace in the USA. “It’s the same basic issue,” says Peter. “I can see a case for this where someone has been the victim of anti LGBT hate crime, and has been badly traumatised. However, even then it is not ideal. The Harvey Milk high school in New York is there to provide a refuge for LGBT kids who have been brutalised in the school system, but it’s also open to LGBT aware and sympathetic straight kids. I think that’s a better model.”
Finishing off on the issue of student campaigning, Tatchell was earlier this year told that the National Union of Student’s LGBT officer, Fran Cowling, refused to share a platform with him at an event at Canterbury Christ Church University. Her reasoning was that “Peter has not always acted in the best interests of trans, Muslim and black communities.” It was also partly in reaction to Tatchell’s signing of an open letter in The Observer, condemning censorship and no-platforming on campuses. Other students have claimed that Peter is guilty of imperialism in his campaigning. How does he respond to such accusations?
“I’ve been campaigning against imperialism for half a century- from the American intervention in Vietnam, to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. (That I am imperialist) is just another smear, for which there is no evidence. The work I do for LGBT and human rights campaigners is in consultation with, and supportive of, the people on the ground. The Stop Murder Music campaign against the Jamaican singers who advocated for the death of LGBT people in their music was in conjunction with J Flag, Jamaica’s main LGBT group. The whole campaign operated under their direction. What’s interesting about the people who accuse me of imperialism is that they have nearly nothing to say about the neo-imperialism of Russia, Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia. These former colonies are now subjugating other nations, and people within their nations.Their anti-imperialism is highly selective, and betrays some of the people who are contemporary victims of imperialism.”
To keep up-to-date with Peter Tatchell’s work, be sure to follow his Twitter account: @petertatchell
Writer and editor for Conatus News, and contributor to various other publications. Student at University of Birmingham and recovering member of the Labour Party and student politics.