Happy birthday Peter! We salute you!

Peter Tatchell at his home in south London. Photograph: Richard Saker

It looks as if Robert Mugabe will die in his bed rather than in the prison cell where he so richly deserves to eke out his days. During his time as dictator of Zimbabwe, he has had just one intimation of the fear he has inspired in so many others.

On 30 October 1999, while Mugabe was visiting London, two men jumped in front of his car. A third stood behind, so the driver could not reverse away. A thin, neatly dressed Australian opened the passenger door. He held up his left hand, palm forward, to show that he was not carrying a gun. He laid his right hand on the tyrant’s shoulder and said: “Robert Mugabe, you are under arrest on charges of torture. I am now summoning the police.” Mugabe’s eyes popped, his jaw dropped and the blood drained from his face.

The police came, sure enough. But they showed their pinched priorities by arresting Peter Tatchell and his fellow gay activists. The moment is worth savouring, nevertheless. For a few seconds, Tatchell had succeeded in giving Mugabe a taste of how a just world would treat him.

Tatchell turns 60 this week. January 2012 also marks the 45th anniversary of his career as a human rights and gay rights activist. These labels have been so devalued I need to elaborate. Every respectable person claims to support human rights. In Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding’s Mr Darcy was no longer the wealthy landowner of Jane Austen’s imagination but a wealthy human rights lawyer.

Tatchell is no one’s idea of a good catch or reliable provider. He lives in some poverty and suffers for his beliefs. As for gay rights, when even the leader of the Conservative party finds it politic to legislate for gay marriage, homosexual liberation appears the most mainstream of causes. Yet Tatchell wants nothing to do with the British political class and the feeling is reciprocated. Rather than showing how yesterday’s rebels become today’s conformists, Tatchell’s life illustrates a rarer and nobler theme: how a commitment to freedom for some can meld seamlessly into a commitment to freedom for all.

If he were not an atheist, who receives death threats from Islamists, I would say that there is something of the saint about him.

He lives in the Elephant and Castle in south London, one of Britain’s great planning disasters. His tiny flat is on the first floor of a deck-access block, in a district riven by urban motorways and pockmarked with decaying council estates. Inside, you cannot move without stumbling over piles of books and papers. The only modern appliance is his desktop computer, on which he receives 900 to 1,000 emails a week. With typical courtesy, he replies to them all.

Tatchell reveals in an embarrassed voice that he manages on about £8,000 a year. It’s not the meagre income that worries him. He does not want us to think that he engages in anything so solipsistic as self-pity. “I’m not poor,” he shouts as he turns his life into an argument. “I can wake up every morning and run clean water from my taps. One billion people don’t have that. If the world were to cut defence spending by 10% – just 10% – everyone could have what we have.”

Apart from the clutter, the visitor cannot help but notice the oppressive security. Tatchell lives with CCTV cameras, a reinforced steel front door, fire extinguishers in case arsonists attack and a rope ladder to throw out of his bedroom window if he needs to make an escape. He has been beaten up dozens of times. At first, his enemies were white homophobes. They were egged on by the 1983 Bermondsey byelection, one of the filthiest campaigns of the 20th century, in which Tatchell stood as the Labour candidate. The Liberals and others made sure the voters knew he was a homosexual and were in no way abashed when Simon Hughes, their victorious candidate, turned out years later to be gay too. Then black thugs came for him because he campaigned against homophobic rappers. Then Islamists came for him because he loathed the theocratic superstitions of the religious right and had the courage to say so.

Unlike so many, when Tatchell says he believes in universal human rights he has the scars to prove he means it. When he was a teenager in Australia, he opposed the execution of a man many in authority believed was innocent; he came to Britain in 1971 to avoid the military conscripting him. He found a British left that regarded homosexuality as a “bourgeois deviation” and despite the abuse he received set about trying to change it.

He was the first man to stage a gay rights protest in the old communist bloc and was arrested by the Stasi for his impertinence. Ever since, from Castro’s Cuba to Putin’s Moscow, he’s been prepared to put his body on the line to protest against oppression.

In 1994, Tatchell outed gay bishops. I criticised him at the time for behaving like a tabloid editor. He is too polite to bring up my unduly harsh words but explains that he was not revealing private secrets for the hell of it, but exposing phonies who conformed to society’s prejudices by calling for gay teachers and youth workers to be sacked.

Who now denies that his shock tactics had an effect? That he taught powerful closet cases that if they oppressed homosexuals they could not expect homosexuals to keep quiet about their private lives?

Far from making him a single-issue campaigner, gay rights brought Tatchell a universal understanding of human suffering. Because he knew that the left could be as prejudiced as the right, he never fell into relativist excuse-making for socialist dictatorships. Because he opposed the supremacist attitudes of heterosexual men towards gays, he became a natural supporter of the emancipation of women. Because he saw how religion is everywhere used to justify the persecution of homosexuals, he became an unbending opponent of all God-inspired hatreds.

He warns anyone seeking political change that they must prepare for the long haul. “Savour your victories when they come,” he says, “and don’t be put off by defeat. Above all, never lose your idealism.”

Happy birthday, comrade. If the British are slightly more tolerant than we once were, it is in part because we had the good fortune to have you live among us.

The Guardian | Nick Cohen | Sunday 22nd January 2012

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