May 28, 2021 - 12:04pm

There can be no doubt that human rights activist Peter Tatchell has done some fine work. A gay rights activist who has travelled the world to lend support to oppressed communities under siege, Tatchell has sustained injuries from being beaten by thugs during protests and is today seen as a cross between martyr and saint. A new Netflix documentary, Hating Peter Tatchell, is a 90-minute biography that tells the tale of his life.

Produced by Elton John and David Furnish, the film covers Tatchell’s upbringing in Australia. It looks at his attempt at entering mainstream politics as well as his prominence in the lesbian and gay liberation movement. And it describes his involvement in the key moments of that history, such as the fight to equalise the age of consent for gay men (it was 21 for gays, 16 for straights), the AIDS pandemic, and the campaign to end Section 28. Tatchell is interviewed by Ian McKellen, with further commentary by Stephen Fry, former MP Chris Smith, and various lesbian and gay activists.

One minor but significant problem with the film is that throughout it Tatchell uses the tongue-twisting and inaccurate acronym LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) when recounting battles and scenarios that a) were only relevant to lesbians and gay men, and b) to describe events during a time when the rainbow coalition was a mere sprinkling of fairy dust in the minds of Foucauldian scholars.

The major irritant for me, though, is that aside from one or two gently critical remarks from interviewees regarding his controversial tactics, the film ends up being a tedious hagiography of a flawed figure. Not one of the many feminists who have rigorously called St Peter to task over the years over his child-abuse apologism was asked to contribute.

In 1997, Tatchell wrote to the Guardian in support of a book, Dares to Speak, a favourable exploration of child sexual abuse, stressing the “positive nature” of some adult male/boy child sexual relationships. When the journalist Ros Coward reviewed Dares to Speak in the Guardian she was unequivocal: “The book refuses to take seriously sexual abuse and its consequences.”

Tatchell was not happy, and in a letter to the newspaper quoted from one of the chapters, written by an anthropologist:

Prof Herdt points to the Sambia tribe of Papua New Guinea, where all young boys have sex with older warriors as part of their initiation into manhood. Far from being harmed, Prof Herdt says the boys grow up to be happy, well-adjusted husbands and fathers.
- Peter Tatchell, letter to The Guardian

The Sambia boys are, in fact, emotionally, physically and sexually tortured into manhood (they are made to fellate older men and drink their semen).

I would have thought that issues like these are a big enough deal to be tackled in the film — but instead we have a dull depiction of a far from perfect man.

Julie Bindel is an investigative journalist, author, and feminist campaigner. Her latest book is Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation. She also writes on Substack.