Lush speak to LGBTQ and human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell about the origins of the pink triangle and what you can do post-Sochi to help repeal the Russian government’s anti-gay laws.
Over the last 40 years Peter Tatchell has fought tirelessly for all civil rights; run as a Labour Party, and later a green Party candidate; and attempted two citizen’s arrests on President Robert Mugabe. He continues to fight for universal human rights via the Peter Tatchell Foundation and was a key speaker at the Sign of Love campaign protest outside the Russian Embassy on Valentines Day 2014.
During the 1980s you battled to allow pink triangle wreaths to be placed outside The Cenotaph War Memorial at Whitehall, can you tell us a little bit about the history of the pink triangle and what it represents?
The pink triangle was a symbol that gay prisoners were forced to wear in Nazi concentration camps to identify them as homosexual - it was the gay equivalent of the yellow Star of David. In the concentration camps gay prisoners were often treated as the lowest of the low. Many other prisoners regarded them as disgusting and vile. Not only did they suffer victimisation by the guards, they also often suffered victimisation by fellow inmates.
From the early 1970s there was a bid to reclaim the pink triangle as a symbol of pride and defiance. Most famously, it was incorporated as an upward pointing pyramid by the AIDS activist group ACT UP.
The story of the pink triangle prisoners was suppressed from nearly all history books about Nazi persecution, right up until the 1980s. It was only as a result of LGBTQ protests that Holocaust memorials and books on the Second World War began to acknowledge the terrible persecution of gay and bisexual men under the Third Reich.
Until the mid-1980s there was an unofficial ban on the laying of pink triangle wreaths at Britain’s main war memorial The Cenotaph. For many years, we had laid wreaths but they had always been removed within a few hours. The Royal British Legion denounced pink triangle wreaths as an insult to the war dead. It refused to allow a gay veterans contingent to march in Remembrance Day parades. It was only in 1985, on the 40th anniversary of VE day, that the government finally relented and allowed us to lay pink triangle wreaths.
Post-Sochi how do our readers stay up to date with what’s happening in Russia and how can they pressure on the Russian government?
I’d recommend people to sign up to All Out and support their online petitions and protests. You can also ask your MP to write a letter of protest to the Russian Ambassador. If you go to writetothem.com you can email your local MP and European MEP direct. If lots of MPs and MEPs write protest letters on behalf of their constituents to the Russian Ambassador it will certainly help alert the Russians to the fact that many British people are concerned about what is happening to LGBTQ citizens in Russia.
Please tell us a little bit about your last visit to Moscow and the people you met?
The five times I’ve been to Moscow it’s been to support the Russian attempt to hold a Pride Parade. Every year it’s been banned by the Mayor of Moscow in defiance of the Russian constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights - which Russia signed and pledged to uphold. Twice out of the five times I was arrested, along with many other activists. In 2007 I was beaten almost unconscious by Neo-Nazis and ultra nationalists in full view of the Moscow police: they stood by and watched while I received a very severe beating and then they arrested me, while allowing my assailants to walk free. It’s a classic example of how the Russian police and homophobic extremists work hand in glove.
During your early campaign years in Australia was there a figure that encouraged you to fight and stand up for what you believe in?
No. I had no role models or mentors. I came to my own conclusion that supporting social justice and human rights is important. One of my early inspirations was the black civil rights movement in the United States. I can remember at the age of eleven hearing in a news report about the bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four young girls about my age were killed. I was horrified and aghast that anyone could kill another human being, let alone four children in church. That made me a life long anti-racist and led me to follow and take inspiration from the black civil rights movement.
Later inspirations were people like Mahatma Gandhi, Sylvia Pankhurst and to some extent Rosa Luxemburg and Malcolm X. I have adapted some of their methods and ideas to the contemporary struggle for human rights - and invented a few of my own.
Similarly what advice would you offer our readers who want to get involved in campaigns or talk about issues affecting them but don’t know how to go about it?
I wouldn’t expect people to do some of the crazy things that I’ve done; like attempting a citizen’s arrest on President Robert Mugabe; ambushing Tony Blair’s speeding motorcade in the street or going into the Archbishop’s pulpit to interrupt his Easter sermon. However, we can all do lots of different things in different ways that add up to making positive change happen. It’s always a good idea to lobby your MP and to join public protests. It’s even better if you join a campaign group and get involved with like-minded people. That way, collectively, you can make a bigger impact. There are lots of groups out there: Amnesty International, Greenpeace, Animal Aid and Rights of Women.
What other campaigns do you have in the pipeline for 2014?
Some of our big upcoming campaigns include a new campaign to challenge homophobia in football; applying pressure on the Commonwealth Games organisers to host a human rights conference and insist that all participating countries pledge non-discrimination in the selection of their team members; plus Gays and Muslims Unite: Fight all Hate.
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My guiding mantra is: Don’t accept the world as it is, dream of what the world could be - and then make it happen.