Should the extraordinary documentary ‘Hating Peter Tatchell’ have been called ‘On The Right Side of History’?
—Former Archbishop of Canterbury the victim one of Peter Tatchell’s most publicised gay rights protests years later said he was ‘on the right side of history’ and even compared him to Jesus!
Peter Tatchell for more than five decades has been the United Kingdom’s most consistent, fearless, creative and successful gay rights activist and human rights defender and the documentary about his life offered remarkable insights into how he moved from probably at times the most unpopular figure in Britain to what one contributor described as a ‘national treasure’! I first got to know Peter when I asked him to participate in the feature documentary ‘Syria — The Impossible Revolution’ because he was at times a lone voice on the left in the UK standing with Syrian democrats opposing the brutal Assad dictatorship while many of his friends and colleagues like the former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn were bizarrely backing his brutal tyranny! He rejected their Cold War rhetoric arguing the Left should be at the forefront in defending people bravely resisting being gunned down in peaceful protests in the streets and for that he suffered unbelievable abuse from many of his former comrades. His stand on Syria however is just typical of his fearlessness in taking unpopular stands which the documentary showed with such remarkable clarity.
But his significance of an important historical figure in the UK cannot be under estimated in terms of the impact of his work. For example, the renowned actor Stephen Fry said without a trace of exaggeration that millions owe their happiness to Peter and probably do not even know his name such is the significance of his role he played in achieving equality for gay people including the right to marriage equality! But it has not been plain sailing. Peter has even been left with serious disability like injuries arising out of the number of times he has been attacked during peaceful protests. This is the thing that really affected me watching the documentary — the degree to which he so often seemed to put his life on the line to advance the causes he espoused and left me feeling I was watching the life story of a kind of latter day Jesus — albeit a secular version at work!
As the documentary rolled on revealing his remarkable and almost always controversial life showing the challenges and indeed the price he paid for taking so many unpopular stands that comparison only became stronger. To illustrate what Peter was up against when he began over fifty years ago same sex couples holding hands in public could even find themselves in prison. So no surprise he faced incredible hostility. The level of abuse and organised efforts to destroy him reached a fever pitch when he stood for election as a Labour candidate. To show the impact of the tsunami of vitriol and slander he was showered with in that race, and fanned by the tabloid press, when he began the campaign he was ahead in the polls but lost by over 10,000 votes!
But his direct action protests while with the advantage of hindsight were powerful catalysts for change often at the time almost without exception generates as much if not more opposition than support. However the turning point in terms of his popular perception was his typically courageous attempt to carry out a citizen’s arrest of President Robert Mugabe during a visit the brutal Zimbabwean dictator made to London and Peter found himself being brutally beaten by his thuggish body guards, left barely conscious lying bleeding on the side of a busy street in the full glare of the British media. Chris Smith, the first openly gay British cabinet minister, who often criticised his direct action protests, declared that was the point when he moved from being at times the post unpopular activist in the UK to being recognised as ‘a national treasure’ because the Mugabe protest uniquely illustrated his courage, conviction and indefatigable commitment in defending human rights.
But the last person I thought — the victim of one of his most publicised gay rights protests — to effectively beatify him by comparing him to Jesus was none other than the former Archbishop of Canterbury. Peter’s encounter with the Archbishop on Easter Sunday 1998 turned into a compelling media event and headed television news bulletins and the front page in most newspapers! He interrupted the Archbishop while delivering his Easter Sunday sermon in Canterbury Cathedral as it was being televised live across the world with fellow gay rights activists.
Archbishop Carey who had refused for eight years to meet with Peter to discuss his opposition to gay rights was naturally upset and the film used footage of his interview at the time as his expressed his anger and frustration: ‘Why does he do this? It is a kind of scorched earth policy. You don’t make friends when you storm into the pulpit to get your own way, bellow and then retreat. Where is the justification for this?”
However, Archbishop Carey was only one of millions including many in the gay community who attacked Peter over that protest. Peter met the charge of being counter productive I thought convincingly when he said there have always been disputes about direct action protests. He asserted that historians have shown that such action is necessary to build consensus for change. Indeed, in the end Archbishop of Canterbury seemed to be unwittingly agree with these historians the way he changed his mind about Peter comparing him to Jesus: “My assessment of Peter now is that he has been a figure for good and equality. Here is a man of deep conviction. He has rocked the boat. And there is a sense in which there is a parallel to Jesus Christ. Jesus was prepared to stand up against the powerful people in society to represent the smaller people, and while some of us might still question his tactics. No one can actually doubt he is on the right side of history.”
But Peter’s consistency was demonstrated yet again when he turned up at the Frontline Club in London for the premiere of our second documentary on Syria the aptly titled ‘Bringing Assad To Justice’ underlining his commitment to human rights and freedom supporting Syrian democrats and human rights defenders confronting a brutal dictator which bizarrely remains a controversial cause for many on the Left.