Belfast Telegraph

I’m inspired by man who truly loves his neighbour

By Fionola Meredith

Peter Tatchell, the veteran human rights activist, is an extraordinary man. Listening to him speak at a question-and-answer session in Belfast last weekend, I was deeply impressed by his compassion, his grace, his bravery and his selfless commitment to challenging injustice wherever he finds it.

It made me think of the lines by the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins about the spirit of Christ appearing unexpectedly in ordinary men's faces — ‘lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his’. I believe that Peter Tatchell is the closest thing we have to a truly Christ-like public figure today.

I'm aware that, to some, this will seem like an outrageous claim. Ever since Tatchell led a group of gay rights campaigners into the pulpit at Canterbury Cathedral in 1998, interrupting the Easter Sunday sermon being given by the then Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, he's been reviled in some circles as a ‘homosexual terrorist’.

It was a peaceful protest against Carey's support for anti-gay discrimination, timed so as not to disrupt any sacred parts of the service — in fact, by comparison with the suffragettes, who burned down churches in the name of equality, it was a fairly mild intervention.

But, from then on, Tatchell, a passionate advocate of direct action, was regarded with suspicion and unease as a dangerous subversive, out of control.

I think it's fairly safe to say that Tatchell himself would repudiate the idea of having Christ-like attributes. Although he was brought up in a deeply evangelical Christian family back home in Melbourne and was at one point a Sunday school teacher, he's just been named Secularist of the Year 2012.

Then there's the fact that he is a modest man, playing down the personal price he has paid for his 45 years of human rights activism, claiming that his own efforts are nothing compared to those of activists living under repressive fundamentalist regimes, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, who have been maimed and even murdered for their cause.

But there's no doubt the personal cost has been high: Tatchell was beaten up and knocked unconscious when he attempted a citizen's arrest of Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean president, on charges of torture.

He has been assaulted more than 500 times and his home — a tiny council flat in London, where he works a seven-day week on human rights issues, on a pittance of £8,000-a-year — has iron bars on the windows.

He has suffered eye damage and brain injuries from these attacks, yet his fierce evangelical zeal for truth and justice continues undimmed.

Interestingly, Tatchell often uses simple Biblical language to explain his quest. For instance, in Belfast last Saturday, he said that he was motivated by the conviction that “we should not walk by on the other side when people are suffering”.

Tatchell is a man who sticks to his principles, however unpalatable they may be to others, even to his own fellow-travellers.

In speaking out against Muslim religious edicts that curtail human rights — he has described Sharia law as a “clerical form of fascism” — he was forced to defend himself against charges of Islamophobia by sections of the Left.

Yet, last week, Tatchell received a call from a gay Muslim man who was determined to kill himself, because he was being forced into an arranged marriage.

He stayed on the phone with the man for an hour and eventually managed to dissuade him from going ahead with his desperate plan.

He considers it a great privilege to be in a position to assist people in this way: “A lot of my shoes have holes, but no money could compensate for the emotional and psychological fulfilment I get from helping others.”

Now, I'm not saying Tatchell is perfect. For example, I felt disappointed when he spoke warmly about a letter he had received in the 1970s from a republican prisoner at Long Kesh, swearing support among many inmates for the gay rights cause.

On Tatchell's part, it was a classic instance of English Leftist romanticism about the republican movement. He seemed to forget that, if you were a gay cop in 1970s’ Ulster, your personal struggle for sexual liberation wasn't exactly uppermost in the mind of republican terrorists. And yet Tatchell's life is, in many ways, exemplary. Asked what motivates him, he replied simply, “Love. I love other people and I loathe injustice.”

That comes closer to Christ's gospel of love, understanding and compassion than many self-declared Christians ever do.

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