This is our truth, tell us yours
I actually chewed over whether to bring his early career as a window dresser into a blog about Peter Tatchell, but it turns out his supportively edited Wikipedia page includes it anyway, and endorses my tentative conclusion that it has a certain coherence with his theatrical approach to politics.
Of course, the debate about whether what Peter does is theatre, or window dressing, and has any effect other than to contribute to his beatification as some kind of liberal secular saint, or national treasure, is the debate Peter wants us to have.
Amongst the debates Peter doesn’t want us to have is the one about whether, far from being a national treasure, he’s actually a spiteful, malignant figure in our political life, always holier than thou and never sparing of the feelings or rights of others if there’s an opportunity for self promotion.
Think that’s a bit strong? Ask Fran Cowling. After being invited to speak at an event that included Peter Tatchell, Fran declined. Never one to miss an opportunity to claim to be making a principled stand, Peter went rushing to the press with the story about how he was being no platformed, even though that wasn’t what was happening. In the process he unleashed a media storm that swept up Fran Cowling, with no regard for whether they wanted to be a bit part player in the Peter Tatchell show.
Peter has form of course for this. One of the less pleasant occasions when I’ve met Peter was when he visited Durham to make a point about the then Bishop, whose life had, at some stage, been complicated by his being arrested for indecency. Peter, being Peter, believed then that that gave him the right to conscript anyone he wanted into Peter’s campaigning work for his version of gay rights, irrespective of the consent or concerns of Peter’s targets.
This blog has always taken a principled stand against outing; part of the origins of that came in a recognition that if it was wrong for the police to out gay and queer men, by arresting them, then surely there was no moral difference in gays outing other gays? The point that such stories are always more complicated than can be fitted on an Outrage placard can be beautifully illustrated by the story of Eryl Stephen Thomas, Bishop of Llandaff until he was outed by the police. Stephen was a decent man who had to give up his post as a result of his conviction. According to the morally superior Peter Tatchell he would have been a hypocrite; in the political lexicon of this blog he must have been a complicated man in a complicated world, loved by his wife and four children, respected and liked for his charisma and commitment by his parishioners, a mess of intersections amongst which a liking or need for sex with men was only one strand.
Can I be honest about why I would refuse to debate with Peter Tatchell? It’s not just because he seems uncaring about those he hurts in his crusade to promote the Peter Tatchell Foundation and whatever it stands for. It’s because he has always been a political thespian, one step to the left of anyone he debates with, preferring to be apart and elevated in his moral superiority. If you debate with Peter Tatchell there is no prospect that he will change his position, nor that you will achieve anything by debating with him. The argument about no platform isn’t won by debating with Tatchell; it’s won in trades unions, in student unions and in workplaces.
Peter, and the members of the commentariat who lionize him, who’ve been quick to criticize Fran Cowling, are quick to assert that they are entitled to a platform, to be heard. Apparently it’s a privilege they’ve earned by a process that makes the election of a pope look democratic and transparent. Not for them the hard yards of winning elections, or organizing support services for LGBT people out in the community. Peter Tatchell is a political stuntman, heroic, foolhardy, and entirely free from the hard labour of community leadership, of working out how you get help for that LGBT kid in an FE college in a remote rural town where no-one cares or knows what it’s like to be them.
I don’t know if Fran Cowling is any good as an NUS LGBT officer; I know they’re trying, and in the world this blog inhabits, those acts of caring, of trying to change lives, is of more value than a hundred acts of political theatre.