Tatchell accepts honorary doctorate for human rights activism

By staff writers
July 20, 2010

Peter Tatchell is to receive an honorary doctorate from Sussex University in recognition of 43 years of campaigning for human rights.

Tatchell, best known for his campaigns for gay rights and for his attempted arrest of Robert Mugabe, said he was initially hesitant about the honour but has chosen to accept.

“I would never agree to a royal honour but this award is different,” explained Tatchell, whose opposition to monarchy and aristocracy is well known.

He explained, "My decision to accept was partly because the initiative for this honorary doctorate was a grassroots one, from the staff and students. I am honoured by their recognition of my human rights work.”

Sussex University's Chancellor, Sanjeev Bhaskar, will confer the award of Doctor of Letters on Tatchell at Brighton Dome on Friday (23 July).

Although an atheist, Tatchell has campaigned alongside Christians, Muslims and other faith groups on issues of human rights and social justice.

But he insisted, “My contribution to human rights is very modest. I am a long way from being a brave and effective campaigner. Many others are much more deserving than me.”

He said he would accept the award in solidarity with the “many heroic, inspirational activists” who he supports in countries including Uganda, Somaliland, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Baluchistan, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Western Sahara, Iraq, Palestine and West Papua.

Activism has been a feature of Tatchell's life since an early age. At the age of 15 in 1967, he joined a campaign against the death penalty in his home town of Melbourne in Australia. He went on to promote aboriginal rights, to campaign against conscription and to oppose the war in Vietnam.

He committed himself to “the struggle for queer freedom” in 1969, after realising that he was gay.

Two years later, he moved to London and became an activist in the Gay Liberation Front. He organised sit-ins at pubs that refused to serve “poofs”, as well as protests against police harassment and the medical classification of homosexuality as an illness. He was evicted from a lecture by Professor Hans Eysenck, who advocated electro-convulsive therapy to 'cure' homosexuality.

In 1973, he was interrogated by the Stasi after demonstrating in East Berlin. Tatchell says that this was the first gay rights protest in a communist country.

Tatchell's political profile shot up in 1983, when he fought the Bermondsey by-election for the Labour Party. He was subjected to a hate campaign by national media and local opponents, who attacked both his sexuality and his left-wing views. The seat was won by the Liberal Party's Simon Hughes, now Deputy-Leader of the Liberal Democrats.

In the 1990s, Tatchell campaigned against homophobia in government and in the Church of England. He attempted to arrest the Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe on allegations of torture when he visited Belgium in 2001. He was severely beaten by Mugabe's bodyguards.

In recent years, Tatchell has focused on marriage equality. He is calling for all couples to have the same legal rights, so that same-sex couples would not be confined to a civil partnership rather than a marriage.

His other recent campaigns have included opposition to arms sales to Saudi Arabia and support for greater autonomy for Cornwall. Now active in the Green Party, he withdraw as Green candidate for Oxford East due to injuries inflicted by Mugabe's bodyguards and later by the Russian police, who attacked him when he joined Moscow Pride.

"The message I will deliver in my acceptance speech is this: Be sceptical, question authority, be a rebel,” said Tatchell

He added, “All human progress is the result of far-sighted people challenging orthodoxy, tradition and powerful, vested interests. Don't accept the world as it is. Dream about what the world could be - then help make it happen. In whatever field of endeavour you work, be a change-maker for the upliftment of humanity”.

Peter Tatchell will be speaking at the Christian festival Greenbelt, which runs in Cheltenham from 27-30 August.


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