Never a stranger to controversy, human rights activist Peter Tatchell will give this year's Amnesty International lecture in Belfast at a time when homophobia is high on the news agenda in the North, writes Fionola Meredith
HOW EXACTLY DID the public perception of Peter Tatchell shift from "homosexual terrorist", as one newspaper dubbed him - the kind of man who caused a collective tut across middle England when he stormed the Archbishop of Canterbury's pulpit - to widely-feted human rights hero? It was probably the moment when he was knocked unconscious by Robert Mugabe's bodyguards as he tried to perform a citizen's arrest on the reviled Zimbabwean leader in Brussels in 2001.
The "have-a-go" bravery of the physically slight activist's attempt to take on Mugabe and his heavies impressed even those who found his previous direct-action stunts a bit too anarchic for comfort. But as far as Tatchell is concerned, it was simply business as usual: the latest stand against bigotry and injustice in a lifetime spent dedicated to the cause. And it certainly didn't mean he was giving up on the colourful "protest as performance" tactics that he pioneered with the gay rights group OutRage! For instance, when Prince Charles re-married in 2005, up popped Tatchell again, waving a banner saying: "Charles can marry twice - gays can't marry once". He was detained by police under the Terrorism Act for his trouble. More recently, there's been a round of pop-eyed spluttering at Tatchell's renewed call for the lowering of the age of consent in Britain and Ireland. Oh, and he thinks that porn can be good for you (if it's made the right way). So, after over 40 years of campaigning, it's clear that he has no intention of becoming the tame pet of the political establishment any time soon.
The Melbourne-born activist, now aged 56, will give this year's Amnesty International lecture as part of the Belfast Pride celebrations, at a time when the issue of gay rights is once more high on the Northern Ireland news agenda. Claims by the DUP's Iris Robinson, chair of the Stormont Assembly's health committee, and wife of the First Minister, that homosexuality is "an abomination" have sparked an unholy row in the North, as Old Testament principles clash once more with 21st century rights-based democracy.
As the man who once observed that "the Bible is to gays what Mein Kampf is to Jews", what does Tatchell make of it all? "I am delighted to be coming to Belfast at a time when the lesbian and gay community is challenging the prejudice and verbal bullying of some local politicians. It's really shocking that leading politicians can make statements that legitimate and fuel prejudice," he says. "Our political leaders are supposed to represent all of our communities and to set straight people against gay people in this way is truly wicked."
TATCHELL IS WELL known for his uncompromising stance on all varieties of religious fundamentalism, considering it one of the biggest global threats to human rights "In every country where religion has political power and influence it suppresses democracy and civil liberties," he says. But his tendency to wade in where many fear to tread - criticising Muslim religious edicts that curtail human rights, describing Sharia law as a "clerical form of fascism" - means he has, on occasion, been forced to defend himself against charges of Islamophobia by members of the left, and it clearly rankles. "Sadly, sections of the left have mirrored the dogmatism of the Catholic church," he says. "They have their own dogmas, and treat anyone who strays from their party line as a heretic. It's tragic to see sections of the left now defending clerical fascists like the regime in Iran, Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. These regimes and movements are diametrically opposed to the humanitarian values that the left has always stood for."
That disparaging reference to the Catholic church is no accident: Tatchell - who had a devout Christian upbringing, and was a Sunday school teacher in his youth - reserves some of his most serious invective for Pope Benedict. Describing him as "the ideological inheritor of Nazi homophobia", he claims that "ever since he went to the Vatican the Pope has waged an almost unceasing war against lesbian and gay people and our human rights. He has denounced us in the most foul, vile language, and demanded that we be denied equal rights in law. He has even threatened legislators with excommunication from the Catholic church if they vote for gay equality."
No-one could ever accuse Tatchell of sitting on the fence, and his blunt, outspoken language and in-your-face tactics alienate some who would otherwise support him. But behind the strident rhetoric, there is a subtle, nuanced intellect at work. "Equality is not enough," he once remarked, "there is little point in being equal in a fundamentally unjust society."
And he has no time for crude, one-sided genetic explanations for homosexuality, or the idea of being "born gay". "Surely we merit human rights because we are human beings," he argues. "The cause of our homosexuality is irrelevant to our quest for justice . . . What's really important to gay people is not why we're gay but the ostracism, prejudice, discrimination and violence that many of us experience."
Not surprisingly, Tatchell has strong views on the rows over gay clergy currently causing ructions in the worldwide Anglican communion. "It's very sad to see a good man like the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, going to such extraordinary lengths to appease homophobes within the Anglican communion. He'd never try to appease anti-Semites or racists. The Anglican communion's obsession with homosexuality is not normal and not healthy. It indicates a collective sexual neurosis. Its neglect of issues like the arms race, global warming and mass poverty in the developing world is truly shameful — it has deserted Christ's gospel of love and compassion in favour of a homophobic and misogynistic agenda."
With his fierce, evangelical zeal, and dogged adherence to the truth as he sees it, Tatchell is unsparing in his criticism of those who fall short - even when they are personal heroes and world icons. Recently, he accused Nelson Mandela of betraying Zimbabwe by failing to speak out against Robert Mugabe's terror campaign: "Silence is collusion with Mugabe's murder and mayhem," he said. Tatchell campaigned for 20 years for Mandela's release from prison; how difficult was it to speak out against the man he describes as "the closest thing we have to a living saint"?
"I thought about it long and hard and finally concluded that Mandela needed to be called to account for his silence. He's a great leader. But from great leaders we expect great leadership. On Zimbabwe, he hasn't shown it. Even his statement in London describing the Mugabe regime as a failure of leadership was disappointingly weak and brief. He should have said something much stronger. Let's not forget that Mugabe has murdered more black Africans than even the evil apartheid regime."
HIS - LITERALLY - bruising encounter with Mugabe isn't the only time that Tatchell has paid a bodily price for his convictions. He has been physically assaulted over 500 times (he puts the lack of serious injury down to "quick wits and fast legs") and his home - a council flat in London - has often been targeted by arsonists. "From the outside, my flat looks like a prison, with iron bars on the windows and a thick steel-frame door with three giant bolts," he has previously admitted. "But the high-security isn't to keep me in; it's to keep my violent opponents out." And in May 2007, at the Moscow gay pride march, Tatchell was punched in the face during an attack by religious conservatives. Especially as he gets older, isn't he bothered about his own personal safety? " I've used up most of my nine lives," he laughs. Serious again, he adds that, "the risks I take are nothing by comparison to the risks being taken by human rights activists in Iran, Burma, Zimbabwe and Uganda. I've got off lightly, many others have been left permanently disabled or even murdered."
There's no such thing as small talk with Peter Tatchell. A curious mixture of theatricality and asceticism, it's clear that he lives and breathes for his campaigns, running on unsullied idealism and little else. (One interviewer claimed that he lived "the life of a monk" and had carrot soup for dinner. Does he? "Well, I lead a modest life, but it's not monastic.") So why does this one-man human rights crusade put himself through it all? It's simple, as far as Tatchell is concerned - "I love other people and I loathe injustice". Not a million miles from "Christ's gospel of love and compassion" after all then.
Peter Tatchell will be delivering the Amnesty International Pride Lecture at The Black Box, Hill Street, Belfast, on Monday at 6.30pm.