It is hard to believe that it is possible for the far left to secrete a worse image of itself than it is at present. When we’re not having exposés in the papers of inept Trotskyists and cranks infesting the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn the left makes the news by eating itself in some of the most bizarre ways. I’m talking about the attacks on Peter Tatchell, who has given his entire life to the struggle, particularly the struggle of the LGBTQ community. He was recently called racist and transphobic by NUS officer Fran Cowling who did not wish to speak at an event alongside Tatchell.
Rightly Tatchell has sought to defend himself and thus cue the gaggles of identitarians flocking to social media to reiterate Cowling’s lies creating the bizarre spectacle of Tatchell having to explain why he is not transphobic. Further the man who attempted to arrest Robert Mugabe for his crimes against the Zimbabwean people, stood and got battered alongside the Russian LGBTQ community in Moscow, opposes the attacks on the Muslim community and who fights tooth and nail to stop the deportation of LGBTQ asylum seekers back to their deaths is somehow labelled a racist. They spin and spin more and more lies about him, notably that he had critical books pulped, threatened legal action against critics or uses his fame and position to silence his detractors.
Smears, lies and collective dementia
It is worth taking up these claims to see what they amount to, and importantly, the context in which they were thrown at Tatchell. The book Out Of Place was not withdrawn but did not get a second print run by the publishers because it contained an essay (Gay Imperialism: Gender and Sexuality Discourse in the ‘War on Terror’) that included lies about Tatchell. His detractors venturing out from the dark crevices of social media want to hold this up as Tatchell being censorious, using his position and what not to silence criticism. This is repeated ad nauseum yet the accusation doesn’t actually stand up to scrutiny. The book in question was printed in 2008 by, the now defunct, Raw Nerve Books and the chapter attacking Tatchell was written by academics Jin Haritaworn, Tamsila Tauqir and Esra Erdem. Their chapter came at a time when parts of the left were willing to look the other way, ignore and even prettify the violence of political Islam against LGBTQ people, women and dissidents. It was at a time when the Stop the War Coalition was expelling Iranian exiles and others (including myself) for the crime of suggesting the anti-war movement has more in common with Iranian students fighting the regime than the Iranian regime itself. Oft repeated were smears against those who wanted to tell the truth and offer our hands in solidarity to those in Iran were Islamophobes and racists, patsies for US imperialism and, in the case of Tatchell, part of the pink contingent of the “khaki war machine”. Whilst apologising for the inaccuracies within the book the publishers stated that “[w]e regret that this chapter contains serious, defamatory untruths concerning Peter Tatchell and OutRage! It casts unjustified doubt on their character, motives and integrity, and involves a fundamental misrepresentation of their campaigns.”
Some of those writing on social media about this episode were either not around at that time or have seemingly forgot about it. Where was Tatchell during this time? Was he on the TV like George Galloway telling the British public that Iran only hangs child sex offenders whilst discussing the deportation of a gay man whose boyfriend was executed? Was he turning up at NUS conferences, like members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) did, proclaiming Iran is progressive because gay men could get a sex change for free from the Iranian state? Was he being paid by the Iranian regime to spew lies and excuse their abuses on TV? No. Well, unlike the baying mob on social media I was there and I remember. Tatchell stood on the side of truth, the Iranian masses and those suffering under the heel of a vile theocracy. The one time I met Tatchell was in 2008 when I spoke alongside him as he joined campaigners to stop the deportation of Mehdi Kazemi to his death in Iran. We won. Despite having Galloway and the the backwards sections of the left accuse him promoting a cover for the warmongers he remained resolute. My partner at the time interviewed him after the rally and he was constantly at pain to stick to the political issues and worked with her to avoid personal attacks. This was something his detractors in their chapter for Out Of Place failed to do and when they failed to produce evidence of Tatchell’s alleged racism, Islamophobia or having a white saviour complex the publishers rightly decided that it was not worth re-publishing such a compromised title.
Another controversy Tatchell’s detractors hold up is around a discredited essay by Scott Long, then Director of Human Right’s Watch LGBT programme, published by Routledge in the journal Contemporary Politics in 2009. The publishers had to issue an apology, and also decided to not re-publish it because of the numerous falsehoods directed at Tatchell. In the end Long apologised accepting that the essay was “intemperate” and “inaccurate”. Long had been running a smear campaign against Tatchell and OutRage! over his views on the Iranian regime’s homophobic laws and opposition to political Islam. Again, the accusation of Islamophobia was wheeled out and, again, was shown to be a dirty device to undermine Tatchell and by extension the movement’s opposition the Iranian regime and fundamentalist inspired violence against the LGBTQ community.
In the Out Of Place essay Tatchell’s condemnation of homophobic lobbying and views within the leadership of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) is held up as an example of Tatchell’s Islamophobic views. Yet again the accusation only sticks if we forget the details of issue. The, then Labour, government was beginning to discuss the introduction of new equality legislation (Equality Act 2010) which intensified debates with religious authorities and campaigns against discrimination. The MCB welcomed the new legislation on the basis that it would extend protections to religious communities that faced discrimination. What Tatchell and LGBTQ Muslims raised at this time was that the MCB continued to promote the idea that homosexuality is “sinful” and “forbidden” and were not too hot on the idea of extending protection to those who faced abuse because of their sexuality. The MCB was led at the time by Sir Iqbal Sacranie who was on record as stating that homosexual relationships were harmful, immoral and had opposed the abolition of Section 28. All Tatchell and OutRage! did was point out to anti-fascists and trade unionists who were inviting Sacranie to speak on platforms that his, and his organisation’s views, on LGBTQ rights are at odds with the struggle for equality.
Tatchell’s detractors, in a mendacious open letter, also criticise him for opposing fundamentalist preachers who advocate violence against the LGBTQ community being given platforms on university campuses. So much for safe spaces. The problem his detractors have is that Tatchell has opposed a handful of Muslim speakers who are known for their abhorrent views on LGBTQ rights and women. The same way he has opposed such hatred coming from Christian fundamentalists and the far-right. For this, Tatchell is apparently an Islamophobe. These quick thinking critics who want to see anti-trans feminists removed from platforms somehow think Tatchell is in error for opposing religious fundamentalists who espouse violence. Though considering the NUS voted down a motion partly written by a Kurdish student opposing the Islamic State, you do have to wonder what planet this section of the movement is on.
The period in which these accusations surfaced saw sections of the left adorning the T-shirts of Hezbollah, waving the flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran, organising tours for anti-semitic Jazz musicians, hosting homophobes on panels and cheerleading for regimes that brutally oppress their own people. It was in this environment that Tatchell got called an Islamophobe despite his work against attacks on muslims, his participation in the Palestine solidarity movement and decades of anti-racist activism. Those who are repeating these smears today need to ask themselves, would they usually repeat lies promulgated by the likes of George Galloway, the leaders of the SWP and other backwards elements or is it just when they can jump on a bandwagon to smear Tatchell?
For further context this was all happening during the Respect episode, a miserable lash-up between the SWP, George Galloway and an odd assortment of Trostkyists and Muslim community leaders. At that time the SWP were bending every which way to forge an alliance with Muslim community leaders declaring to the 2005 Respect conference that LGBTQ rights were not a shibboleth. Imagine the uproar if at the time the SWP were saying women’s liberation, BME or religious rights were not a shibboleth. Those who didn’t go along with such opportunism were labelled Islamophobes, racists and party to the establishment attack on Muslim communities. This is where Tatchell’s principled promotion of universal rights for all along with opposition to reaction and backwardness got him into trouble.
The dilemma is a simple political choice. Are you with Tatchell and those who oppose discrimination and violence against the LGBTQ community regardless of where it comes from? Or will you join those who look away and excuse discrimination and violence on the basis that such violence is carried out by those claiming to be Muslims or by states currently at odds with the United States and Israel?
It is an unfortunate lack of memory of these events and the context around these smears that leaves Tatchell’s detractors hamstrung. They think they’re being very clever in repeating the Islamophobe and racist smears but have in doing so only exposed the poverty and lack of seriousness in their own politics. It is because of ignorance, sheer laziness and opportunism that sections of the movement could parrot these false accusations against Tatchell with such bombast and vitriol.
Guilty by association
The other accusation that Cowling used to excuse herself from speaking alongside Tatchell is that he is transphobic. Tatchell was guilty of signing a letter against Germaine Greer’s exclusion from a panel and highlighting the growing flight from debate at UK universities. Whether it was right to sign the letter or not is certainly debatable, my opinion is that he was probably right to sign it. Not because Greer is right but because so often young left activists spend time appealing to university authorities to protect them from backwards, retrograde and uncomfortable ideas when they should be confronting them. Whether that means disrupting an event, organising a walk out or giving bigots a thrashing from the stage. The lack of agency and self dependency is a weakness and gives public institutions the power to decide what is and what is not harmful to the student population. Such an abdication from political struggle can only ever strengthen our enemies. In defeating Greer and her followers those who support trans rights must learn to rely on their own strength, ideas and organisation not university authorities or the state.
In an article attacking Germaine Greer’s disgusting views on trans women and the liberal cover for it Paris Lees wrote that “[T]here is a shameful body of people who stay silent when they see others being abused or, indeed, deflect attention away from that abuse.” It is undoubtedly true, and in the aftermath of Greergate trans people were subject to appalling abuse. Peter Tatchell is one of the few people in public life who has never stayed silent, looked the other way or deflected attention away from the abuse of trans people. When almost nobody else was talking about trans rights in public life, he was. When almost nobody cared to listen about the ill treatment, violence and death transphobia was causing, he was. What Cowling and the identitarian mob is trying to do is get people to accept that Tatchell is guilty by association. Somehow his views on rigorous debate and free speech means he must agree with the views of those who have been removed from different platforms for their views on trans rights. This is so unserious that it is hard to actually deal with because surely we should judge Tatchell’s views on trans rights on what he has written, his activism and what he has said publicly. There is no other approach for a movement that wishes to be taken seriously.