Peter Tatchell has been a central figure in LGBTQ activism both in the Anglosphere and throughout the world. For decades, he has been a dogged crusader that will not back down from a fight against any homophobic law, institution, or regime. So why is he, as the title of director Christopher Amos’ documentary indicates, so hated? Not surprisingly, a lot of the hatred directed at Tatchell was generated by homophobes who felt threatened by an articulate and politically active man who was openly gay.
But, and this is the surprising part, some of the vitriol directed at Tatchell came from the more moderate segments of LGBTQ activism that felt that his tactics were too radical. Hating Peter Tatchell is a survey of Tatchell’s life as activist and polarizing figure. The film also serves as a crash course on the history of LGBTQ activism.
Tatchell was born in Australia to parents who were fervently doctrinaire about their Christianity. As he tells it, he feared coming out to his parents because he suspected they would have reported him to the police and have had him arrested. Tatchell grew up in an era in which LGBTQ individuals were seen as others and, as was the case in Australia and England, non-heteronormality was criminalized. Inspired by the Black Civil Rights Movement and anti-war movements in the United States, a young Tatchell moved from Australia to England and went all in on the fight against institutionalized homophobia.
What makes Hating Peter Tatchell such a compelling watch is Amos’ focus on both Tatchell as person and Tatchell as protest technique. As a young man, Tatchell began developing the nuts-and-bolts of effective protesting—mobilization and media attention. A failed political campaign as a parliamentary candidate for the Labor Party—his one flirtation with mainstream politics back when Labor could truly be called a non-centrist party on the left—was an anomaly in a career mostly focused on grassroots groups such as the Gay Liberation Front and Outrage! And it was precisely his protest tactics with Outrage! that earned him the most attention and ire. Tatchell interrupted a mass given by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
He made sure media were present beforehand to capture his protest “performance.” He staged protests in front of police stations wherein men would kiss and be arrested. Tatchell was fully aware that the media spectacle created by such stunts would eventually steer the conversation in the direction of LGBTQ rights. His most controversial tactic—the one that earned the most scorn within the LGBTQ movement—was his attempt to publicly out gay bishops. His tactics were not just aimed at criticizing homophobic British institutions, but also homophobic institutions and regimes throughout the world. Tatchell organized protests behind the Iron Curtain—most notably in East Germany. He staged a citizen’s arrest of Zimbabwean President and notorious homophobe Robert Mugabe. The Mugabe stunt and other stunts throughout the world have resulted in barrages of punches directed at Tatchell by government thugs. He has paid the price for his courage. As Tatchell admits, head traumas have resulted in semipermanent brain injuries.
While Hating Peter Tatchell does not shy away from the criticisms aimed at Tatchell’s militant stance, it does give Tatchell an opportunity to defend himself in his own words. This is precisely where Tatchell shines. He defends himself with composure. When he is accused of extremism in outing gay bishops, Tatchell makes it clear that he is not outing rank and file members of the LGBTQ community. He is outing hypocritical individuals within the church hierarchy who collude with homophobic institutions and the laws upheld by said institutions. Church members who point out Tatchell’s lack of decorum in interrupting a religious ceremony are countered by his conviction that when it comes to the violation of human rights, lack of decorum is a mere trifle.
In fact, appreciation for Tatchell’s work shines brightest in relation to his opposition to the Thatcher regime’s upholding of the Section 28 law. Section 28 banned the “promotion” and “normalization” of homosexuality in schools. Tatchell was an outspoke critic of Section 28. The unavoidable irony in all this is that Tatchell—considered a radical in the 80s for his opposition to Section 28—was ahead of the mainstream. In 2021, LGBTQ inclusion in education—at least in the Anglosphere—has gained widespread acceptance. The fruits of Tatchell’s “radical” efforts have ripened in 2021.
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