Ian McKellen in documentary about gay rights activist Peter Tatchell

From THE AUSTRALIAN By MATTHEW WESTWOOD, ARTS CORRESPONDENT

Activist Peter Tatchell and actor Ian McKellen were batting for the same team but didn’t always see eye-to-eye. Tatchell in the early 1990s was part of the OutRage! campaign in Britain to end police persecution of gay men. His methods then and since have been direct action: confronting the problem at the source. When negotiation with police didn’t work, Tatchell and others started picketing police headquarters at New Scotland Yard, invading police stations and publicly calling out over-policing.


“It literally saved thousands of gay and bisexual men from criminal convictions, fines and the knock-on effects of perhaps being rejected by friends and family, their jobs, perhaps their homes,” Tatchell says. “Within a year of that campaign, the Metropolitan Police agreed to most of our demands for a non-homophobic policing policy. Within three years, the number of gay and bisexual men convicted across England and Wales fell by two-thirds, the biggest, fastest fall ever recorded. So direct action worked where lobbying had failed.”


McKellen was fighting the same fight from a different quarter. The actor was a founder of Stonewall, a group of gay men and lesbians committed to overturning the Thatcher-era ban on the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools. Stonewall’s methods were the arts of persuasion and lobbying, compared with Tatchell’s take-no-prisoners approach.


“He thought we were rather sedate and perhaps not aggressively active enough – that wasn’t our style,” McKellen says. “Our theory was that if you talk to politicians, you’ve got a better chance of affecting their actions and their votes than if you have demonstrations and marches in the streets.

“Not that we have anything against that activity, but we felt there was another way of doing it that may have more effect. Peter now is absolutely reconciled with Stonewall – he thinks it’s a very good organisation.”


McKellen is speaking via Zoom from Windsor, England, having just come off stage. The octogenarian actor has been playing the Prince of Denmark in an “age-blind” production of Hamlet. But he’s taking the call to speak of his friend Tatchell and a new documentary film that charts the activist’s career.


The film’s title, Hating Peter Tatchell, gives an idea of the strength of feeling about him. Tatchell isa well-known public figure in Britain and these days is regarded almost as a national treasure. But his outspokenness, his visibility as an openly gay man speaking for gay rights and his confrontational methods have earned him opprobrium, threats and sometimes vicious personal attack.

The documentary has its premiere this month at the Melbourne International Film Festival, which is fitting as Tatchell, 69, was born and grew up in Melbourne. As a schoolboy he campaigned for Aboriginal land rights and against the death penalty. Soon he was joining the demonstrations against the Vietnam War, and he recalls that protesters stood on the steps of Melbourne’s General Post Office, which was commonwealth property, to evade arrest by the Victoria Police.


He moved to Britain in 1971 and began his high-profile campaigning for gay rights and against human rights abuses in general. In the documentary, director Christopher Amos has assembled a wealth of footage and Tatchell always seems to be in the frame.

In one protest that received wide media coverage, he pushed aside Anglican archbishop of Canterbury George Carey during Carey’s Easter sermon to speak out against the church’s discrimination of gay people.


There also is brutal footage of Tatchell’s attempts to make a citizen’s arrest of Robert Mugabe when the Zimbabwe dictator was visiting London, and the assault the activist suffered at the hands of Mugabe’s thugs.


The documentary, co-executive produced by Elton John, follows Tatchell to Russia during the2018 World Cup, where Tatchell was determined to draw worldwide attention to the persecution of gay people in Chechnya. He made sure the news cameras were rolling when he pulled out his placard in Red Square.

“We had known about the roundup, torture and in some cases murder of known or suspected gay and bisexual men in Chechnya,” Tatchell says.


“I thought it was important to use the opportunity of the World Cup to shine a light on the crimes in Chechnya, for which President Putin, as head of the Russian Federation, bears a direct responsibility. That’s why my placard outside the Kremlin and my speech highlighted PresidentPutin’s failure to stop the persecution.”


Tatchell, in his campaigning for gay and lesbian rights – now more broadly LGBTQ+ rights – has had the uncomfortable benefit of seeing homophobia up close. Especially worrying is the increasing hostility towards LGBTQ+ people in Poland and Hungary, but those are not the only places where homophobia persists.


“A lot of homophobia is driven by fear and ignorance – fear of the unknown, fear of the other,”he says. “A lot of it is also driven by partly political but more often religious hatred. Globally, the single biggest threat to LGBTQ+ rights is organised religion. Of course there are some notable people of faith, like archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa, who have been great champions of LGBTQ+ rights, but they are the exceptions.”


Perhaps surprisingly, Tatchell does not seek to deny a voice to those who discriminate against LGBTQ+ people. Cancel culture is not his style. But he demands the right to argue most vigorously against his opponents and to show they are wrong.


He has followed the case of football player Israel Folau, who used social media to say hell awaits unrepentant homosexuals and who was sacked by the Wallabies for expressing his views. Tatchell says he does not stand in the way of Folau’s right to free speech but would vehemently and publicly disagree with him. He adds there also should be the possibility for forgiveness and making peace.


“My attitude is very simple: if people are homophobic or hold any other form of prejudice, they should be challenged and protested against,” he says. “But they should only be banned or cancelled in very limited circumstances …


“We don’t want to keep enemies as enemies, we want to win them over, and make them friends and allies. I don’t hold grudges. We need to be ready to forgive and move on, if the apology and change of heart is genuine and sincere. I would love to see Israel Folau change his mind, and come over to the side of the angels.”


McKellen appears with Tatchell in an interview in the documentary. He says they first met whenStonewall and OutRage! were getting started in their work to overturn discrimination against gay people in Britain.


“I’ve always felt glad that I was on Peter Tatchell’s side because his strength is formidable,”McKellen says. “He’s a self-righteous person, which is not a bad thing to be when you’re on the side of right. I’ve always been an admirer, long before he became a national hero, which he has now.”


Tatchell has suffered terribly for his efforts: more than 300 violent assaults, death threats, and attacks on his property. He lives in constant fear, like being in a “low-level civil war”.


“It’s impacted my mental and physical health, but I am very stubborn,” he says. “I don’t want to let the bigots win, so I keep fighting. And I take inspiration from human rights defenders in much more dangerous countries like Russia, Uganda or Iran, where they are at risk of arrest, imprisonment, torture and even murder. If they can take these risks, then I can take a few chances as well.”


Hating Peter Tatchell streams on Netflix.