Veteran human rights campaigner, Peter Tatchell, gave a talk on campus. Known for his work with the LGBTQ+ community, he spoke about free speech under attack and the concept of economic democracy. The event was organised by award-winning society Liberate the Debate (LtD). I sat down with Tatchell to talk about gender, Brexit and direct action.

I wondered if you had an opinion on gender neutral toilets, changing rooms and other spaces? I’ve heard you speak about it in the past.

The number one priority is to recognise and act to stop the horrendous prejudice, discrimination and hate crime that trans people face. That must take precedence over everything else.

Then when it comes to the whole broader issue of trans rights, we need to recognise that people who define themselves as trans have a genuine, sincere, heartfelt belief. It is not delusional.

No one would put themselves through the trauma of declaring a trans identity unless it was a total and utter conviction.

So many trans people face rejection by their families and friends. Many have direct experience of discrimination and violence.

Sadly, nearly half have suffered from such acute depression and anxiety that it has driven them to attempt suicide.

Our feelings must be one of solidarity with trans men and women.

The idea that .002% of the population can threaten the rights of women is frankly absurd. It’s the kind of scaremongering that was used by the Nazis and anti-semites today against Jewish people. It’s totally and utterly wrong.

The arguments against gender-neutral toilets or changing rooms is based on the presumption that trans people are predators, violent and sexual perverts. That’s the underlying assumption.

There have been hardly any examples of trans women doing bad things to other women and even in those cases it’s not to do with their trans identity, it’s because of the character flaws of those individuals.

No one would find it acceptable to demonise gay people because there have been a few gay serial killers, so nor should trans people be scapegoated and vilified.

Trans critics tend to reduce gender to genitals and quite clearly gender is about much more than that. And the latest research suggests that, in all likelihood, there are brain structural differences between trans and non-trans people which may be part of the explanation for gender identity.

The arguments against gender-neutral toilets or changing rooms is based on the presumption that trans people are predators, violent and sexual perverts. That’s the underlying assumption.

How important is direct action in your opinion?

Every social gain that has been won has been at least in part the result of people taking direct action. So often, people and power and authority ignore traditional lobbying and even wider public opinion.

The suffragettes showed that direct action is a necessary part of the equation to win votes for women. By their actions, they empowered and gave a place at the table to the suffragists.

Now the suffragists wouldn’t have got action to government if there hadn’t been people outside of the establishment, rattling the cage in support of women’s franchise.

I think it’s very important that direct action is within the confines of non-violence because once you start using violent methods, then the focus of public debate is the methods, not the cause.

Gandhi and Martin Luther King showed the enormous power of nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience and it has been reapplied many, many times by subsequent movements to win change.

In the 1990s when the political establishment would not move to secure LGBT legal rights, the direct action group Outrage played a very important role in doing direct action to raise public awareness about the different aspects of same-sex relations that remained criminalized and discriminated against.

That eventually enabled more conservative, mainstream groups like Stonewall to get a hearing from the government.

I think you’ve talked also in the past about social media as a tool because there is an assumption that social media activism can’t be as effective as direct action. I wondered if you stand by that and your opinions on that?

Direct action is one of the highest forms of democracy. It is about people taking power for themselves rather than relying on representatives to do it for them.

Social media is a form of activism and can be very effective but usually only when you get hundreds of thousands of people to sign up for a cause. Plus it’s not a substitute for other forms of protest but often as an adjunct to them.

Social media is a great way to mobilise people for protests to lobby people in power to change their policies.

But you also need to have a back up as well. It is very important that protest is not seen as an end in itself. Protest is a means to an end. So the end is to get an institution to change its policies.

This means you not only need to know what you’re against but also what you’re for and to be able to set out a plan of action that includes practical policies to resolve the issues that you’re concerned about.

In the 1990s when the police were still witch hunting LGBTpeople, the direct action group outrage protested against police harassment by invading and occupying police stations, interrupting the press conferences of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and puting warning notices in places where undercover police officers were seeking to entrap gay men.

These methods shamed the police into eventually beginning serious negotiations with the LGBT community for the first time. But I remember going to those meetings at New Scotland Yard and backing up our protest by going to meet with the police.

They thought we were just a protest group and that they’d be able to palm us off quite easily.

What they weren’t prepared for was we came with a document outlining 12 policies for a non-homophobic, non-biphobic, non-transphobic policing policy. That completely threw them.

We were offering practical ways in which they could change based in many cases on best practice by police forces in more liberal places such as Copenhagen, Stockholm and Amsterdam.

The end result was that within a year the police had agreed to ¾ of our demands and within 3 years the number of gay and bisexual men convicted fell by two thirds. The biggest fastest fall ever recorded.

So for us, direct action backed up by practical reform proposals got results whereas previous negotiations hadn’t.

So we literally saved thousands of men from the humiliation and stigma and legal penalties of a conviction.

Does it reassure you at all that Mugabe has now stepped down?

It is great that Mugabe is gone. There is a new leader but the same system is still in place. So there has been change at the top but the system hasn’t changed. ZANU PF still control the state apparatus including its repressive organs, the police and military.

As we saw immediately after the election, many, many opposition supporters and activists were arrested and hunted down. As far as I know, not a single political prisoner has been released since Mugabe was deposed.

The secret police still exist and remain unreformed. The media is largely state-controlled. So not a lot has changed.

We can not say that the elections earlier this year were free and fair.

Whether the opposition won those elections it’s hard to say but certainly, they were not fully democratic in the way that we and international human rights conventions expect.

You have an honorary degree from Sussex; in your acceptance speach you said you didn’t feel deserving of that. Do you feel like you’ve achieved anything or what do you feel there is still to achieve that would make you feel deserving of something like that?

I’m rather doubtful about the impact and effectiveness of what I do overall. No individual makes change. It’s usually an individual working with a collectivity.

So whatever reforms I’ve helped to win after the last 52 years of my activism has been in collaboration with many other people.

I think every effective social change is as the result of collective action. Every social change worth having is for the sake of the individual.

So there’s a tension there; I think a lot of traditional, left-wing politics has focused on the collective to the neglect of the individual.

But for me and indeed for people who inspire me, like Rosa Luxemburg, we’re doing this for the sake of each and every individual.

When we lose sight of that, then all kinds of terrible things can be done in the name of ‘the collective’.

So following on from that, what do you feel like the issues we need to focus on in 2018 are? The big issues that you’d fight for?

Well the single greatest threat to global security and the future of the human race is, undoubtedly, climate destruction.

If we don’t act fast, we are at grave risk of irreversible climatic changes which will result in routine, freak, horrific weather incidents ranging from hurricanes to massive tidal surges and so on.

Climate Destruction has the potential to raise sea levels to submerge most of the world’s major delta regions which are the highest concentrations of human population and the most productive agricultural land.

That would mean the creation of hundreds of millions of climate refugees with no homes and no jobs and a massive depletion in global food production. Potentially leading to mass starvation.

Even countries like Britain will not be immune; rising sea levels are likely to submerge large parts of East Anglia, Kent and Sussex leading to hundreds of thousands of people having to move home and move housing and employment.

And of course the loss of a lot of very productive agricultural land which would have a very damaging effect on our ability to feed ourselves from our own land production.

Where to start!? The other issues…

Another huge issue that humanity faces is the resurgence of religious fundamentalism even in some western countries which is putting the rights of women, LGBT people and religious minorities under threat.

Current migration policies and especially the current approach of the UK government, you could argue, are just not compatible or suited to the current issues that we face?

Explain, sorry?

So in light of the Windrush scandal, for example, or the hostile environment that you could argue that the Conservative government is fostering around migration. The mainstream press won’t improve this either. Earlier you mentioned mass migration as a result of climatic change so I suppose you could argue that such policies are incompatible at least.

We need to challenge the anti-immigrant agenda by looking at the evidence. This shows that EU migrants to Britain contribute far more to the economy and to taxation receipts than they take out.

In fact, their net contribution is greater than the average British person.

I recently had to have a medical procedure at St. Thomas’ hospital and nearly all the staff were from other EU countries or the developing world.

The NHS simply could not function without those skilled, dedicated doctors, nurses and ancillary staff.

Also linked to that is Brexit. To my knowledge, you support a so-called People’s Vote. I’m interested in the reasons why you support that and whether you feel like that would go against the mandate from the original referendum.

I’ve always said from the outset that we do need to respect the referendum result but that was a vote on the principle of whether we leave or remain. It was not a vote on the terms and conditions of the final deal.

I think it’s in the interest of both remainers and leavers that everybody’s given a chance to vote on the actual terms we’re being offered; that is not a subversion of democracy, it’s the extension of democracy.

The idea that the final decision be left with government or parliament is anti-democratic.

My view is we should take back control, and that means giving the people a vote on the actual terms and conditions.

Going back to direct action and non-violence; are you of the position to say that violence is never acceptable even if it is supposedly to achieve social justice?

It’s impossible for me to morally justify violence because violence is against my moral and ethical values.

It’s also impractical in the sense that once you resort to violence the issue becomes your violent methods not the goal you’re seeking to achieve.

For five decades I’ve supported a united Ireland but I strongly disagreed with the IRA tactics because instead of focusing the public debate of whether Britain should be in Ireland, the debate focused around the violent methods and consequences of what the IRA did, that actually undermined the cause of a united Ireland.

The Northern Irish civil rights movement in the late 1960s which did mass marches and civil disobedience against the British occupation was far more effective.

It won huge public sympathy in Britain, highlighting the endemic discrimination and state violence against the Catholic and nationalist population.

Once the IRA resorted to bombings, that level of public support massively diminished.

You’ve previously criticised and protested Jeremy Corbyn for not saying enough, not being forthright enough about aid drops in Syria for example, but you would also support him as Prime Minister. I just wondered if you could explain that a bit more?

The choice at the next election is going to be Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn [laugs]. There’s no contest. Jeremy Corbyn, whatever his faults are, is infinitely better than Theresa May.

His domestic policies are exactly what Britain needs to reboot the economy and to overcome injustices and inequalities faced by the many marginalised people who in desperation voted for Brexit.

In terms of international policy, I’ve got very strong criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry and the other Labour leaders.

They have utterly failed on Syria. I can’t remember a single statement in solidarity with the millions of Syrians who marched and were massacred when they protested for democracy and human rights.

I’ve never seen a single Labour Party banner on any of the protests in Britain in support of Syrian democrats, socialists and civil society activists. That is utterly shameful.

When Guernica was being bombed by fascists in Spain in 1937, the whole of the left rallied to support Guernica.

When Aleppo, Homs, Idlib and other Syrian cities have been bombed back to the stone age, Western lefts and liberals have been nowhere to be seen.

Almost total silence and inaction. They have completely abandoned the principles of international solidarity.

On Venezuela, Chavez did a lot of good things in the early period of his rule. I was fulsome in my support, but certainly in the last few years particularly since his death, the regime there has gone from liberation to tyranny.

Yet all Jeremy Corbyn can do is say: “I condemn violence on all sides”.

Well hang on, the overwhelming violence is coming from the Maduro regime which is shooting dead peaceful protestors, jailing people on trumped up charges and causing mass hunger and death from a failure to provide food and medical treatment to the poor.

The Venezuelan regime is an anti-socialist, anti-working class regime and should be opposed by everybody on the left, right and centre.

Additionally, I think it has also been said in the past that direct action and large protest scares the government away from intervention. I feel like underlying this claim is the assumption that intervention is always a positive thing; you could look to the UK involvement in Yemen for example. I wondered if you had anything to say on that issue?

Well I totally agree with Jeremy Corbyn and Emily Thornberry when they condemn Saudi war crimes in Yemen and British complicity through our arming of Saudi Arabia.

But I’m appalled they also won’t speak out against the war crimes by the Houthi rebels aided by Iran.

It’s double standards and that moral and political inconsistency undermines the credibility of Labour and the left.

Equally, why do they so persistently speak out against Saudi war crimes in Yemen but not Assad’s war crimes in Syria?

They pay lip service every now and then but there’s no consistent, forceful condemnation.

Even when Syrian civil society activists made the very modest request that Jeremy Corbyn and Labour should back humanitarian aid drops of food and medicine to besieged civilians in cities like Aleppo they were rebuffed, Labour refused.

Jeremy Corbyn could’ve made parliamentary time available for a debate and vote on humanitarian aid drops but he declined to do so. That is beyond disgraceful.

And it’s issues such as this, for example, that have driven your support away from Labour and more towards the Green Party?

I left Labour over the rightward drift under Tony Blair! But I’m disinclined to rejoin Labour given the leadership stance on a number of key issues.

I am way to the left of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour.

But from a moral and ethical standpoint, that I think enjoys broad public support, I joined the Green Party in 2004.

Overall the Greens are much more radical than Labour but also more practical and sensible.

It’s great that Labour is now talking about economic democracy, but the Greens were talking about this ten years ago!

Image credit: Alisdare Hickson

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