‘Some students seem more interested in fighting other progressives than fighting real bigots’

We spoke to Peter Tatchell


Recently, Peter Tatchell became a target of the NUS.

Tatchell is about to celebrate 50 years of activism against homophobia, racism and transphobia. He’s an icon of social movements: a leader who has opposed Mugabe’s human rights abuses, Putin’s persecution of gays, the Assad regime. And earlier this month, he was seemingly branded “transphobic” and “racist” by the NUS’ LGBT+ Officer, Fran Cowling, in a series of private emails Tatchell shared with the Observer .

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Peter Tatchell with fellow demonstrators protesting about a proposed anti-gay bill in Uganda, outside Uganda House in central London (photo courtesy of Lee Nichols)

Ms Cowling accused Tatchell of using racist language, and denounced him for signing a letter published in the Observer last year, expressing support for free speech and opposing ‘no platforming’. She claimed the letter “incited hatred” against transgender individuals.

These claims were slammed, and many branded her ignorant, childish and cowardly. Cowling refused all media comment, and allegedly did not respond to Tatchell’s attempts to contact her for clarification and evidence.

The issue has illuminated a pervasive and dangerous trend: the need among certain youth activism elements to denounce anyone who opposes the position of the NUS.

The Tab spoke to Peter Tatchell to find out what actually happened, and to discuss what he thinks of the free speech in the the student community.

Can you summarise what has happened here? The media furore has only just calmed down. 

I never said I was no-platformed and did not complain that Fran Cowling (LBGT Officer for the NUS) refused to share a platform with me. My sole objection is that Fran said I was racist and transphobic, and refused to substantiate these claims with evidence. Fran is entitled to refuse to speak alongside me, but wrong to make false allegations.

Could this situation purely be based on Fran’s opinions, as opposed to the stance of the NUS?

Fran’s emails stated that she was speaking on behalf of the NUS “membership”, and that they “believe” I am racist and transphobic.

Could taking legal action, as this is defamation, be a sensible way to shock the NUS into seeing that they cannot behave in this manner?

I do not want to go down that path. I politely emailed Fran for 17 days to try and resolve the situation amicably and privately, but she spurned my offer.

Do you think Fran should step down from her position as LBGT Officer, following these baseless accusations?

That is a matter for the NUS to decide – I tried to resolve the situation in a friendly way for nearly three weeks and she rebuffed my efforts. It is down to the membership, as she is accountable to them, not to me.

You’ve become a target of the Left – is this endemic of a wider issue?

The sectarian in-fighting is weakening and undermining progressive movements. Good activists are being driven away as a result. It is very wrong that no-platforming and safe space policies are now being used by some students to denounce and exclude feminists, ex-Muslims and even anti-fascist campaigners. These kind of tactics destroy progressive movements.

The NUS should be concentrating on fighting against policies implemented by the government, instead of denouncing fellow activists.

Some students seem more interested in fighting other progressives than fighting real bigots.

How do you define free speech?

Free speech is an important human right – it is the key to a free and open society. Free speech, however, does not mean that bigots should be given a free pass. They should be protested against. Bigoted ideas are most effectively defeated through open debate, backed up by evidence.

The only legitimate grounds to restrict free speech is if someone makes damaging false accusations – such as accusing someone of rape or tax fraud – or if they engage in threats, harassment or incitement to violence.

What advice would you give to a student who is in a similar situation here, and is being excluded from progressive student movements and denounced?

Sectarian witch hunting by progressives against other progressives is morally wrong and damages the student movement. It is really important that we defend both free speech and the rights of women and minorities.

Do you think Fran is blocking your emails and refusing to speak as she would rather denounce you that admit that she was wrong?

You’ll have to ask her that. But she did block my emails.