‘I’ve had hundreds of death threats, hundreds of violent assaults’
Interview with Zoe Williams from The Guardian:
I speak to Peter Tatchell by zoom from Sydney, where he has recently arrived after his day in Qatar, protesting against that nation’s human rights abuses. He hasn’t slept in three days but is perfectly lucid and the weariness only tells in his minute corrections: “No, let me rephrase that”; “Sorry, let me think.” He is 70 years old, wrung out, back in Australia where he was born and raised, talking to me while fielding frequent phone calls. Has he no plans just to hang out for a bit, see some cousins? He’s a bit bemused by the question: “That’d be a very fine thing. But after Qatar I’ve got two other campaigns coming up – quiet time would be a stretch. I, with many others, have contributed to so many positive changes. It’s a great motivator.”
The protest in Qatar, which happened on 25 October, comprised only Tatchell and a colleague, Simon Harris, from Tatchell’s eponymous foundation. It featured a single placard, which they had smuggled into the country between the pages of a copy of the Daily Telegraph. “The only existing broadsheet newspaper today,” he says, pleased at the irony of the paper coming in handy, despite itself. The wording on the placard was: “Qatar arrests, jails & subjects LGBTs to ‘conversion’ #QatarAntiGay.” “I never dictated the terms,” he says. “I took the message directly from my contacts in Qatar.”
Tatchell held up his placard outside the National Museum of Qatar in Doha at 11.30am. “A Muslim woman walked past,” he says, “a horrified look on her face. She said: ‘You’d better put that away, you’ll end up in prison.’” He corrects himself. “Maybe those weren’t her exact words; she basically warned me that it’s not permitted.” He didn’t put it away, and 35 minutes later, state security officials arrived in big white Land Cruisers, the police soon joining them, nine men in all. Harris managed to upload some video of the protest – on Instagram, Tatchell looks dignified, solitary and incongruous, stood on sandy pebbles in front of the statement architecture of the museum – before the police took his camera and deleted the rest. The pair’s details were taken, their documents scrutinised. Tatchell says they were told, “what you’re doing is illegal, it’s not permitted in Qatar, the conversation was a mixture of broken English and broken French. It was very clear that we were not free to leave. We were there for 49 minutes before they eventually said: ‘OK, we advise you to go to the airport and get your flight.’ I interpreted that as a warning.”
There was some beef on social media later, as Tatchell’s YouTube channel had described the men as being “seized by the Qatari security services”; one academic at Qatar’s research university complained that Tatchell had misled people, lied even, since they were not arrested. It was just the fog of protest, the office losing contact briefly with Tatchell and Harris. Maybe Tatchell himself puts things a little strongly at times, but it’s hard to overstate how much sheer cortisol is coursing through the man during actions like these. “I knew that it was possible I’d spend some time in a police cell and possibly be prosecuted, even jailed. The view was that was unlikely and more likely that I’d be deported straight to Sydney. But I was very anxious, and we were always worrying that we’d made some inadvertent misstep and put the security services on to us. On Sunday night [before they left London], I hardly slept, rehearsing in my mind all the different scenarios. On the Monday night – it was an overnight flight – I was so anxious I couldn’t sleep a wink. In Doha on the day of the protest, my stomach was churning over, I had a very strong headache and despite the heat, I felt cold and a bit shivery. I had a constant urge to urinate and defecate.” The idea that he does this stuff blithely, for self-promotion, is for the birds, I think.
Yet, as last year’s Netflix documentary, Hating Peter Tatchell, puts it pithily, he is the focal point of an awful lot of hatred: “I’ve got a lot of bile and hatred against me over the decades because I ruffle feathers. I have made powerful people and their apologists very angry. It’s led to tens of thousands of hate mails, hundreds of death threats, hundreds of violent assaults.”
But if you engage seriously with what Tatchell is saying, I feel that he’s only doing what we all should be doing: the World Cup is about to take place in a country where LGBT+ people, women and migrant workers are oppressed and victimised. In waving this through on the promise that Qatar would somehow change, between the decision in 2010 and now, Fifa has legitimised the nation’s impunity and traduced the idea of universal human rights as a minimum entry requirement into the international club. The foreign secretary James Cleverly – this was presumably inadvertent, like so many of his remarks – distilled what this actually means, when he asked football fans to be “respectful of the host nation”, concluding: “I think with a little bit of flex and compromise at both ends, it can be a safe and secure World Cup.” Be a bit less gay just for a couple of weeks, and it’ll all be fine.
“The primary motivation of my work has always been a love of other people and a love of freedom, justice and equality of all human beings on this planet. I wouldn’t like to suffer. If I was suffering, I’d want other people to help.”
He hasn’t come out unscathed from this life. “It’s very tough,” he says at one point. “I have periods of real emotional meltdown and depression, feeling that despite the efforts of myself and many, many other people, we haven’t been able to prevent some terrible abuses.” But “lots of the issues that I and others championed decades ago are now mainstream,” he adds. Besides, “when you’re living under a tyrannical regime, you need international solidarity. The roll of issues that need to be addressed is endless.”
Records of gay military sackings deleted by Ministry of Defence
Military police records of service personnel who were dismissed from the Armed Forces for being gay have been destroyed.
Veterans who requested documents about investigations and interrogations into them by the military police have been told the files were deleted in 2010.
The Ministry of Defence advised it had a legal duty to ensure the details were erased from service records.
But one veterans’ group said: “To many, this may feel like a cover-up.”
The MoD only revealed the data had been destroyed after two veterans had been unable to obtain records of military investigations into their sexuality.
Campaign group Fighting with Pride said, without the information, it could be difficult for its members to reclaim lost pensions or compensation from the government.
Until 2000, people who were gay were barred from serving in the military. An independent review is currently looking at how the Armed Forces dealt with members of the LGBT+ community.
Full of shame
Jean MacDonald was a lance corporal in the Women’s Royal Army Corps. But in 1981 she was dismissed from the service for being gay.
“All of a sudden you’ve lost your whole career, you’ve lost your friends, you’ve lost your accommodation, you know, your whole way of life – it’s just full of shame,” she said.
After years of poor mental health she was diagnosed with complex PTSD. And in May this year, she requested her complete service records from the MoD.
Earlier this month, she received an email saying all record of the investigation into her by the Royal Military Police was destroyed in 2010. The email said it followed an order from the “Defence Police Chiefs’ Council”.
It added: “All investigations into offences relating solely to sexuality … were to be removed from our systems and deleted from the records of the affected service personnel.”
A search of the service police database produced only one document, which detailed the reasons for her dismissal. It read: “Conducting oneself disgracefully – unnatural act.”
Ms MacDonald said it left her feeling “invisible”. “We’re a bit of hidden history”.
Another veteran also discovered his Military Police Service record had been destroyed.
Tremaine Cornish, 66, was a private in the Royal Army Catering Corps, and also passed the All Arms Commando course. He joined at the age of 15 and was dismissed in 1977, having been accused of being homosexual.
It makes me furious
He said the Army “took away my life, my prospects, my sense of worth”.
When he applied for his complete service records this year, he was also told papers relating to the police investigation were “safely and appropriately disposed of”.
He was told it was done “in accordance with policing and data protection principles”.
However, Mr Cornish said it reinforced “the institutional homophobia we were attacked with”. “It makes me furious – furious about the state, furious about the institution, about the forces that we had signed up to.”
In January this year, the government announced it was setting up an independent review to look into the impact of the military ban on members of the LGBT+ community.
Lord Etherton, who is leading the review, has begun gathering evidence and is likely to look at possible means of compensation.
A MoD spokesman said the “historical policy prohibiting homosexuality in the Armed Forces was abhorrent”.
The spokesman added: “We deeply regret LGBT+ members serving in defence suffered injustice as a consequence. Our priority now is to understand the full impact of the historic ban and find appropriate ways to address the wrongs of the past.
“The policy followed at the time was to remove references to these former offences and investigations from service records. There was a legal duty to ensure these records were erased from individuals service records.”
Fighting with Pride estimates that between 5,000 and 15,000 men and women may have been affected by the policy between 1967 and 2000.
Craig Jones, from the organisation, is now calling for an urgent meeting with the defence secretary. “You can imagine what that looks like to people who will have a great deal of difficulty trusting the MoD and the government.”
Mr Jones said the MoD needs to provide clarity about what it has done and why.