Sexual orientation and gender identity
Sexual orientation and gender identity

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Sexual orientation and gender identity

6 Conversation with an expert

Peter Tatchell is one of the leading gay-rights activists. He was involved in the Gay Liberation Front in the early 1970s and was involved in organising London’s first Gay Pride march in 1972. In the 1990s he was involved with the direct action pressure group Outrage! More recently, his campaigns have been organised through the Peter Tatchell Foundation; they have focused not just on LGBT rights in the UK, but have had an increasingly global focus. 

In this interview, Peter reflects on the changes in legal approaches to homosexuality and the social and cultural changes which have taken place alongside these legal reforms.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Paul Catley talks to Peter Tatchell
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Transcript: Paul Catley talks to Peter Tatchell

PAUL CATLEY
I’m delighted today to be joined by the world famous gay activist, Peter Tatchell, who has been involved for many years in a whole host of different campaigns to promote gay rights. Peter, what was it that first led you to become a gay rights activist?
PETER TATCHELL
I guess it was first and foremost realising that I was gay, and recognising the scale of homophobic oppression that existed at the time in the 1960s when I was a teenager.
PAUL CATLEY
So, what was the legal situation at that time?
PETER TATCHELL
Well, up until 1967, sex between men was punishable by maximum penalty of life imprisonment, and gay men could also be required by the courts to undergo compulsory psychiatric treatment. There was no support for LGBT people at all in that era. Pretty much the whole of society was against us, and I felt that I wanted to do something together with others to change that.
PAUL CATLEY
So, in the time since then, what would you say have been the big changes?
PETER TATCHELL
Well, of course, Britain today is almost a different country compared to the 1960s. Not only do we have almost legal equality, not quite, but almost legal equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, but we also have a huge shift in public attitudes. Now, only just over a quarter of the British public believe that homosexuality is mostly or always wrong compared to three quarters 40 or 50 years ago.
PAUL CATLEY
That’s a huge cultural change.
PETER TATCHELL
It is a massive change and there’s, of course, the issue of visibility. When I was growing up, there were no public figures who were openly gay, not one, and the only time you ever heard about gay people in the news was when they were arrested for mass murder, child molestation or spying. You know, the media coverage was overwhelmingly negative and, of course, it led to internalised homophobia among a lot of LGBT people, which prompted severe depression, often drug and alcohol abuse, and even suicide.
PAUL CATLEY
So, what do you think led to those changes?
PETER TATCHELL
The changes came about when LGBT people said ‘we’ve had enough’ and, of course, the number of people who said that at first in the 1960s was very small.
But gradually, slowly, more and more LGBT people came out, which is still the single most important thing that any gay person can do because we know that if someone knows a gay person as a workmate or family member or neighbour, they’re much less likely to be homophobic. They’re much more likely to support equality and non-discrimination. So, that’s really still important. Also, of course, just the cultural representation of LGBT people. We’ve got so many famous people in politics, entertainment, sport who are now openly gay, lesbian or bisexual or transgender. We’ve got a whole host of TV programmes, soap operas, documentaries, films, radio plays, books, which have LGBT characters, so it is a huge cultural, legal and political change that we’ve witnessed, and it has been, I’d say, the most successful law reform campaign, if we’re talking about law, in British history. When you think about it, in 1999, or up until 1999, Britain had by volume the largest number of anti-gay laws of any country in the world, some of them dating back centuries. So, for example, the law against anal sex between men was passed in the reign of King Henry VIII in 1533. It was not repealed until 2003. Likewise, the law against other sexual acts between men, the so-called Gross Indecency Law, which sent Oscar Wilde to prison in 1895, it was not repealed until 2003. So, a lot of people out there have the false impression that the 1967 Sexual Offences Act legalised homosexuality. It didn’t. It was a limited, partial decriminalisation. It didn’t apply to Scotland or Northern Ireland. It was only applicable in England and Wales. It didn’t apply to the Merchant Navy or to the armed forces where same sex relations remained totally in all circumstances criminalised and, of course, what was actually legalised was just the very narrow remit of between two men aged 21 or over, in the privacy of their own homes behind locked doors and windows with the curtains drawn, so sex between two men in a hotel room was deemed not to be a private place. If more than two people were present in a house, so for example, if a gay man lived with other people, shared a flat with other people, and brought his partner home, if he and his partner had sex while flatmates were in the kitchen or living room, they were committing a criminal offence because that was deemed to not be a private place, and the other people were committing a criminal offence because they were deemed to be colluding with and aiding and abetting an unlawful homosexual act.
PAUL CATLEY
So, in terms of equality, the 1967 act was nowhere near making it equal with heterosexual couples?
PETER TATCHELL
It was an important reform but it was not nearly as liberal as it could and should have been, and most aspects of gay male life remained criminalised and, on top of that, it remained lawful by default because there were no laws to forbid it, for an employer to sack someone because they were gay, or a landlord to evict someone because they were gay. There was no legal protection against discrimination.
PAUL CATLEY
And those rules on discrimination are now in the Equality Act of 2010, but do you think that has now really made the situation absolutely equal?
PETER TATCHELL
Well, no, because even the Equality Act is not really equality because there are certain clauses such as the clauses on harassment, which state explicitly that these protections against harassment shall not apply on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity. And then we have other exemptions for religious organisations, not just places of worship but faith-run schools, hospitals, nursing homes and shelters for the homeless. They are allowed by law to discriminate against LGBT people if they can demonstrate that it’s necessary in order to preserve their “religious ethos”. So, we’ve got faith organisations that have exemptions that do not apply to anybody else. They have these privileged exemptions and I think that’s profoundly wrong, because just as much as I would oppose a person of faith being discriminated against or people being given exemption to discriminate against a person of faith, I think people of faith and their organisations should be held to the same equality commitment criteria as everyone else.
PAUL CATLEY
How do you think in the situation where you’ve maybe got a person who holds profoundly strong religious beliefs; for example, someone running a bed and breakfast establishment, who then wishes to discriminate against, say, same-sex couples. That’s a difficult issue for the law of balancing, if you like, the interests of those two groups.
PETER TATCHELL
Well, the law has decided that if you provide a public service, you’re not allowed to discriminate on the grounds of race, gender, sexuality or any other reason, and the purpose of that is to maintain a cohesive, open, welcoming society where everyone is accepted and has equal treatment. So, just to reverse the situation, if a gay-run bed and breakfast refused to accommodate someone because they were Christian, because they objected to their Christian faith because the Christian faith is traditionally homophobic, that would be unlawful and I would support that being unlawful because I don’t think people of faith should suffer that kind of discrimination.
PAUL CATLEY
So, do you think the law has got the right balance at the moment?
PETER TATCHELL
Absolutely, the law is right to say ‘if you offer a public service, and a bed and breakfast is a public service, you are obliged by law to not discriminate.’
PAUL CATLEY
Do you feel then that the situation is, if you like, transformed and the battle is won?
PETER TATCHELL
There has been huge positive change and that is down to the tens of thousands of LGBT people who’ve been part of this great historic law reform and social reform movement and, of course, very importantly, our straight friends and allies. Together, we have made these changes possible, and they are huge, they are extraordinary. I mean, just think, you know, since 1999, almost all anti-gay laws have been repealed or amended. That’s a phenomenal pace of change across a whole breadth of legislation. There’s no other social law reform movement in British history that has been so successful in repealing so many laws in such a short space of time, but we still do have issues and problems. For example, there is still a ban on same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. Gay couples who love each other are not allowed by Northern Irish law to marry the person they love. LGBT asylum seekers who flee persecution in viciously homophobic countries like Uganda, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Jamaica, Iran, and so on; they are often denied asylum, they are often refused and ordered to go back to their home countries where they will be at further risk of, not only perhaps arrest and imprisonment, but even murder by homophobic mobs. There’s also the fact that we still don’t have mandatory sex and relationship education in our schools, let alone such education which includes reference to LGBT issues in order to reassure young LGBT kids, who we know half of whom are bullied at school. Half of all LGBT kids in our schools face bullying, ranging from teasing and name-calling to physical threats and violence. It is truly, truly shocking that this is still continuing. On the other side, we also have a third of all LGBT people have been victims of homophobic hate crime, again ranging from abuse and insults to actual physical violence. That’s over a million people. Over a million LGBT people in this country have been victims of homophobic hate crime, often not once but perhaps three, four, even five times.
PAUL CATLEY
So, in addressing that hate crime, do you feel that is a matter for the law or will it just gradually recede as social attitudes change? What’s your prognosis?
PETER TATCHELL
Well, we now have legal protection for homophobic, biphobic and transphobic hate crime and that’s good but, deep down, what we need is a change in attitudes, in the culture, and I think this is where education is so important and I feel very, very upset that successive Labour and Conservative governments have refused to address these issues in schools. My argument for a long time is that there should be mandatory equality and diversity lessons in every school from the first year of a child’s primary education continuing right throughout their primary and secondary schooling, and that these classes should tackle all forms of prejudice, not just homophobic, biphobic and transphobic prejudice but also racism, misogyny, prejudice against disabled people, minority faiths, majority faiths, people with no faith. I think we know, undoubtedly, that children are not born bigoted. They become bigoted largely because of the influence of peers around them or perhaps parents and other adults. Early education against prejudice can really make a big difference, and so if we want to tackle bullying in our schools and hate crime on our streets, equality and diversity lessons are part of the solution.
PAUL CATLEY
In terms of the situation worldwide, what would you say are the really big issues currently?
PETER TATCHELL
We still have a situation where nearly 80 countries in the world today continue to criminalise same-sex relations; with penalties ranging from a few years’ imprisonment right up to life imprisonment and even the death penalty in a handful of Muslim-majority countries. When you look at this picture in terms of the Commonwealth, the Commonwealth is one of the worst offenders. 40 out of 53 member states still have a total prohibition on same-sex relations. That’s 80% of Commonwealth member states. Yet, the Commonwealth as we know has a categoric commitment in its charter to equality and non-discrimination for all Commonwealth citizens. So, there really is a lot more work to be done on the international stage but there are glimmers of hope. We’ve had the decriminalisation of homosexuality in recent years in Mozambique and also just very recently in Nehru, the pacific island state of Nehru, so things are moving forward but still there is a long way to go to ensure that parity on a global scale for LGBT and straight citizens. In many of these countries, it isn’t just a matter of changing the law, it’s also about tackling extreme anti-LGBT violence, whether it be from homophobic mobs who are just enraged that someone is gay or suspected to be gay, or also it’s sometimes the case of organised death squads in countries like Brazil and Mexico or homophobic mobs in countries like Russia and Uganda. LGBT lives are at daily risk in nearly half of the countries on this planet and that is truly, truly shameful in the 21st century.
PAUL CATLEY
And do you think there is something which either the UK Government or UK citizens could be doing about this?
PETER TATCHELL
There’s no doubt at all that Britain ought to be playing a part with the wider international community. It’s not our responsibility as Britain to do anything specifically, although we could, but really we have to do it in partnership with the wider international community, with the Commonwealth, with the European Union and, of course, through the United Nations. But we can do things ourselves, for example, Britain is to some extent, but could be doing more, to fund LGBT human rights and equality organisations in countries where they are struggling against dictatorship or criminalisation. There’s a great role to be played by the British Council in using its resources to profile LGBT issues in countries where there is not yet understanding and acceptance. Britain has a commitment at the moment to make aid conditional on recipients’ support for LGBT rights. It’s not that Britain will cut aid but the official policy is that the British government will switch aid from homophobic governments, to organisations that don’t discriminate, and this is what has happened in Malawi. Some of the aid to the Malawi government has been withdrawn because of the anti-gay laws and persecution there but it hasn’t been taken away from poor vulnerable people. It’s been switched to local NGOs and aid agencies in Malawi that do not discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity. I think that’s the right approach. Don’t cut aid. Switch it.
PAUL CATLEY
So, if any students listening to this would like to know more, where would you suggest that they look?
PETER TATCHELL
Please go to my website: petertatchellfoundation.org. You’ll find a wide range of news releases and campaign materials covering LGBT human rights and other human rights both in the UK and internationally.
PAUL CATLEY
And what would your final message be on this topic?
PETER TATCHELL
Don’t accept the world as it is. Dream of a world without homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, and then get active to help make it happen.
PAUL CATLEY
Well, that’s a very positive end note to leave this on, so thank you very much, Peter, for your time.
PETER TATCHELL
My pleasure.
End transcript: Paul Catley talks to Peter Tatchell
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