Peter Tatchell has been campaigning for human rights in the UK and worldwide for over 50 years. The Sunday Times newspaper describes him as “a national hero”. He is currently the Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation: www.PeterTatchellFoundation.org
We're really grateful for Peter's honesty and detail in his answers. There may be things described below that might upset you so do be careful. Take a look at our guide to reading upsetting news on this page in the Student Hub Help.
Can you remember your first protest and if so, can you describe it? What was going on in your head when you were doing it?
extraordinary_olive, Portobello High School
My first protest was in 1967, in my home town of Melbourne, Australia. I was 15 and still at high school. A man called Ronald Ryan was sentenced to be executed for allegedly shooting dead a prison warder during a jail escape. The evidence against him was questionable. I read a newspaper report about the autopsy on the dead warder's body, including the trajectory of the bullet that was said to have killed him. I worked out that from where Ryan and the warder were standing when the fatal bullet was fired it was nigh impossible for Ryan to have fired it. More likely, the warder was accidentally shot in cross-fire by another warder. I felt that Ryan's conviction and sentence was unsafe. I knew there were protests against his execution in the centre of Melbourne but I only heard about them after they happened. So I started doing my own one-man protests in the area where I lived. In the middle of the night, I chalked huge "Save Ryan" and "Stop Ryan's execution" slogans on walls, pavements and roadways. Of course, I was afraid of being caught and arrested. But the possible injustice of Ryan' execution drove me on. Sadly, all the protests failed. Ryan was hanged, even though his guilt had not been proven beyond reasonable doubt. It shattered my trust and confidence in the government, police and judges; making me a lifelong sceptic of authority. It prompted me to question other government policies that I had taken for granted and led me to protest for indigenous people's rights and against South African apartheid and Australia's involvement in the Vietnam war.
I started doing my own one-man protests in the area where I lived. In the middle of the night, I chalked huge "Save Ryan" and "Stop Ryan's execution" slogans on walls, pavements and roadways. Of course, I was afraid of being caught and arrested. But the possible injustice of Ryan' execution drove me on.Peter Tatchell
What is the most difficult protest you campaigned at and what were you campaigning for?
selfreliant_snake, Evelyn Street Primary School
My most difficult protest was in 1994 outside the General Synod of the Church of England, with the LGBT+ direct action group OutRage. We held up placards naming 10 Anglican bishops and called on them to "tell the truth" about their sexuality. They were preaching that the public should tell the truth but they weren't being truthful about themselves. We accused them of hypocrisy and homophobia because they were defending a church that said LGBTs were sinners and must repent. Their church also said heterosexuality was superior to homosexuality and the law of the land should therefore disciminate against LGBT+ people - it should deny LGBTs equal treatment. We never outed them because they were in the closet. It was because they publicly endorsed a church that condemned homosexuality, despite being gay in private. Their behaviour was two-faced and dishonest - and harmful to the LGBT+ community. I argued that outing was queer self-defence and that we were entitled to use any peaceful means necessary to protect our community against a bigoted, intolerant church. Our aim was to embarrass and shame the bishops and the wider church, in the hope that, having been exposed, they would row back on their homophobia and have no credibility if they insisted on pursuing it. Outing was a last resort after decades of appeals to the church had failed. It was a difficult campaign for three reasons. First, the tactic of outing was ethically complex and not our preferred option. Second, we were savagely attacked by the media, politicians and, of course, the church. I was denounced as a "homosexual terrorist" and "public enemy number one." Third, these attacks resulted in a torrent of hate mail, death threats and violent assaults. There were moments when I was fearful that I might be killed.
Do you get a lot of disagreement and anger towards what you protest for, and how do you deal with it?
enigmatic_beaver, Whyteleafe School
Because I'm passionate, forthright and take on often difficult, controversial issues, people tend to love me or hate me. I get both support and hostility. The hostility includes hate mail and death threats, as well as over 300 violent assaults and thousands of incidents of abuse and threats. I've been attacked with fists, boots, bottles, knives and rocks. There have been attempts to run me down with cars and throw me from a speeding train; plus over 50 attacks on my flat, including a bullet posted through my front door and three arson attempts. In the press and via social media I've had thousands of attempts to smear and discredit me. All of this because I stand up for human rights and challenge often powerful tyrants and abusers. Much of the hate is homophobic, in reaction to the way I have challenged anti-LGBT+ prejudice and the bigots who promote it. To be honest, it has been tough and difficult to cope with. Living constantly in fear of being beaten up and defamed with false allegations is very stressful and exhausting. It's hard to get restful sleep at night when my flat has been attacked so many times. I have suffered from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) for nearly 40 years. How do I cope? With difficulty. I focus on reliving and acknowledging what happened to me and then banish it from my conscious mind. I throw myself into the next campaign to distract me from the memory of what happened. I also put my troubles in perspective. I find it reassuring to know that unlike human rights defenders in Russia, Iran, Saudi or China, I am not in prison or being tortured. Of course, I also have a network of close friends to comfort and support me. And what helps keep me going is the masses of positive support I receive from members of the public. The success of so many of my campaigns is also a great motivator. To know that I've helped transform some people's lives for the better puts all the negative, hateful stuff in the shade.
The success of so many of my campaigns is also a great motivator. To know that I've helped transform some people's lives for the better puts all the negative, hateful stuff in the shade.Peter Tatchell
How can people in countries like Russia, North Korea and China stand up for what they believe in? Because if I were in their shoes I wouldn’t know what to do without getting punished.
alert_meaning, Lyon's Hall Primary School
I am inspired by the courage and determination of campaigners in repressive countries, where they risk arrest, beating, jail, torture and even death. Despite these dangers, we've recently seen brave mass protests in Russia, Hong Kong, Uganda, Belarus, India, Lebanon and Tunisia. My foundation does what we can to publicise and amplify the voices of campaigners in these countries and to back solidarity protests and petitions in support of their cause. These efforts can get results. I've been involved in campaigns that have led to planned executions in Iran being halted. The Amnesty International 'prisoner of conscience' letter-writing networks have helped stop torture and get political prisoners released. This kind of international solidarity gives persecuted people hope. It provides them with a much-needed psychological and emotional boost to know that people on the other side of the world know and care about their plight. For people living under tyrannical regimes, the cost of protest can be very high. But they know this is often the price of progress: that they and their friends may suffer. Yet they bravely choose to put their heads above the parapet and take a stand for justice. For some of them, six months in jail to secure freedom is better than a lifetime of enslavement to a dictatorship. No one wants to suffer or die. But all throughout history, there are people who have stood up to tyranny and eventually defeated it. Some activists find novel ways to protest and evade arrest: by adopting false social media identities, using encrypted messaging systems like WhatsApp and Signal and by doing hit and run protests that are filmed and over before the police arrive. In Russia, I participated with LGBT+ campaigners to 'leak' protest disinformation to the police. When they turned up to what they thought was the protest location, no one was there. Meanwhile, we freely staged our protest three miles away and were already dispersed by the time the riot police showed up. We secured loads of media publicity for the LGBT+ cause and none of us were arrested. Alexei Navalny's recent online video that exposed President Putin's new £1 billion palace was a low-risk, media savvy way to undermine the Kremlin regime. It circumvented state censorship of the media and could not be shut down by the secret police. It has been watched over 100 million times.
Do you believe in such a thing as a perfect world - a utopia where everybody lives equally and happily, getting what they deserve. Or do you think that the world, no matter how hard we try and change it, will always have some dark element that we can't remove?
patient_truth, Boutcher Primary School and careful_science, Faringdon Community College
A perfect world is impossible but a closer to perfect world is definitely possible - and we should certainly strive to achieve it. The course of human history has tended, overall, towards greater prosperity, freedom, equality and peace. Today's world is, for all its many faults, a better place than 500 or 1,000 years ago. Of course, there have been many setbacks on the way, such as the Black Death, inquisition, trans-Atlantic slave trade, two world wars and the Holocaust. But in my lifetime, thanks to protest, I've seen the end of apartheid in South Africa and Franco's dictatorship in Spain. Laws now protect women and black, disabled, elderly, LGBT+ and religious and non-religious people against discrimination. The poll tax and blasphemy laws are history. Employees have rights that never existed before; so do consumers and tenants. And all these progressive advances began with protest. People got up off their knees and said: Enough! Looking at the arc of history, I'm confident that one day, probably far in the future, racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, homophobia and anti-Muslim hatred will be prejudices of the past - or at least reduced to a tiny inconsequential rump at the margins of society. But that will only happen if we make it happen. Just look at the way same-sex marriage was unthinkable only 20 years ago, yet after concerted lobbying and protests it became legal in 2014 and now most people take it for granted. I'm an optimist but also a realist. I realise that things could go temporarily backwards. Germany went through the Enlightenment, then succumbed to the despotism of the Third Reich and is now a modern democratic nation again. It is a warning from history: the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
Looking at the arc of history, I'm confident that one day, probably far in the future, racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, homophobia and anti-Muslim hatred will be prejudices of the past - or at least reduced to a tiny inconsequential rump at the margins of society. But that will only happen if we make it happen.Peter Tatchell
A big thank you to Peter Tatchell for such inspiring and informative answers. What have you learnt from reading them? Add your comments below.