Guardian Millennials Project: How I survived my twenties
Adventure trekking, revolutionary politics, humanism, gay liberation
By Peter Tatchell
The Guardian – London, UK – 14 March 2016
Preface: I am one of a number of people who were asked by the Guardian to write recollections of what they did during their twenties and how they coped with life’s challenges during that period of their lives. These are my ramblings:
My father was a factory worker. I grew up in a narrow-minded conservative evangelical household, similar to the one depicted by Jeanette Winterson in her book, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Life revolved around the family and church. I left school at 16, with limited horizons and no prospects of anything.
My twenties, which spanned 1972-82, were my decade of escape to freedom, to experience things beyond my limited background and to forge my own identity and life. They were challenging, often anxiety-provoking, years – but also a very exciting and transformative period of my life.
To make up for my sheltered childhood, I became an explorer of all things new and different. I devoured books on philosophy, politics and psychology. I went to night school to get my A levels and later, as a mature student, to the Polytechnic of North London to do a degree in sociology. I experimented with LSD; finding it a profoundly mind-expanding and spiritual experience. My cultural milieu was a mix of left-wing politics and youth counter-culture.
In several different treks over the decade, I walked and hitch-hiked around Morocco, East Africa and the South Pacific islands; mostly sleeping rough in trees, cemeteries, roadside verges, beaches and church yards. I was poor. It was tough. I often did not eat well and got dysentery in the Sahara, which nearly killed me. I had two other narrow escapes: falling when climbing cliffs in Hawaii and being dragged out to sea while surfing in the Solomon Islands. These were nevertheless thrilling adventures for someone like me, who had never travelled far and been long stifled by family and church.
Trekking in developing countries educated me about other cultures and global poverty. They strengthened my internationalist outlook and commitment to justice for the world’s have-nots. As a result of what I experienced, I wrote reports exposing Indonesia’s brutal occupation of West Papua, the feisty independence movement in the New Hebrides and the scandalous labour conditions on British-owned tea estates in Malawi.
This commitment to social justice led me to revolutionary socialism. I never joined any party. The far left was sectarian, dogmatic and unrealistic. I was too independent-minded. I saw through the totalitarianism of orthodox communism and embraced a radical leftism imbued with democratic, humanitarian and pluralistic values. At the same time as I campaigned against the US war in Vietnam, I also campaigned against the pro-Soviet tyrannies in Eastern Europe.
Having witnessed the flaws and failings of the revolutionary left, in my late twenties I succumbed and joined the Labour Party. It was far from perfect. But inspired by the rise of the left within it, I saw Labour as the most likely practical means to secure political power and effect radical social change. A sadly misplaced hope, as it turned out.
Previously, when I was 20, I ditched my superstitious Christian upbringing in favour of a rational scientific understanding of the world; embracing atheism, humanism and secularism. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights replaced the Bible as my moral compass. I transposed the positive exhortations of Christianity – ‘Love thy neighbour’ and ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ – into a non-religious humanitarianism. This break with Christianity at times strained relations with some family members, which was very distressing.
I’d accepted my gayness and come out; becoming an activist in the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in London from 1971-74. After campaigning so long for others, this was my chance to campaign against a persecution that affected me. GLF was the watershed movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) liberation. It changed the queer mind-set forever, from victims to victors, and moved the LGBT agenda beyond law reform to a wider social transformation. Adapting the non-violent civil disobedience tactics of the US black civil rights movement, we did protests like staging sit-ins at pubs that refused to serve ‘poofs’ – securing an end to discrimination.
Looking back, GLF was decades ahead of its time. It espoused a non-violent revolution in culture; critiquing heterosexual supremacism, marriage, the nuclear family, monogamy and patriarchy. Although against homophobic discrimination, GLF’s main aim was never equality within the status quo. We saw society as fundamentally unjust and sought to change it, to end the oppression of LGBTs – and of everyone else.
We understood intersectionality decades before the word was invented and advocated a rainbow coalition of the oppressed long before it became a popular idea. GLF aligned with the movements for women’s, black, Irish, working class and colonial freedom. We challenged the homophobia of many on the “straight left.” Despite their denunciations of homosexuality as a “bourgeois perversion” many of us saw ourselves as not just as LGBT but also as part of the broad anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist movement, striving for the emancipation of all humankind.
Our idealism envisaged a new sexual democracy, without homophobia, misogyny, racism and class privilege. Erotic shame and guilt would be banished. There would be sexual freedom and human rights for everyone – LGBT and straight. Our message was “innovate, don’t assimilate.”
Looking back, I have only a couple of regrets. I wish I had the campaign skills then that I have now. I would have been more effective. I also wish I had used ethical outing in the 1970s to expose homophobic public figures who were hypocritically condemning LGBT people despite their own homosexuality. This might have hastened the demise of many homophobes, as it did when I used the outing tactic in the 1990s.
At the end of my twenties, in 1981, I was selected as the Labour candidate to fight what became the notorious Bermondsey by-election – one of the dirtiest and most violent UK elections in the twentieth century. It was my political baptism of fire; being denounced by the then Labour leader, Michael Foot, for my left-wing politics and advocacy of extra-parliamentary action against heartless Thatcherite policies. The tabloids slaughtered me with an almost daily avalanche of smears and fabrications. Labour’s national executive banned me as a candidate for 15 months, before finally allowing me to stand. Despite losing the election in 1983, it made me a public figure and gave me platform, which I have used ever since to champion human rights.