I am always willing to listen to, and engage with, my critics—but not everyone isby Peter Tatchell / February 19, 2018 / Leave a comment
I got a taste of the free speech wars on British university campuses in 2016, at Canterbury Christ Church University. Given my long career of activism against homophobia, I had been invited to take part in a panel discussion on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) rights, alongside other activists, including Fran Cowling, the LGBT+ officer for the NUS.
To my surprise, I was informed by the university that Cowling refused to share the stage with me, because she claimed that I was racist and transphobic. She offered no evidence of either. But her allies later claimed that I was anti-trans because I had been one of many signatories to a letter in the Observer the previous year, expressing concern that freedom of expression was being inhibited on some campuses by no-platform policies and intimidation. The letter was a defence of free speech—not an endorsement of transphobes, who I have opposed for decades.
I was perplexed by Cowling’s refusal, but defended her right to not speak alongside me. I emailed her seeking a dialogue. She didn’t reply. I followed up by asking her to give me examples of my supposed racism and transphobia. Again, she blanked me and then blocked my emails.
With my private overtures rebuffed, and infuriated that she was spreading her false allegations to others, I went public—not just for my sake, but in a bid to deter Cowling and fellow NUS officials from making accusations against other people. Cowling’s supporters went on the counter-attack, claiming that my polite emails to her constituted “harassment.” I was denounced by them for having “ruined the life” of a “vulnerable” young woman.
Read two student journalists on the inside story of the campus free speech debate
When I publicly challenged Cowling, some students retorted online that I was abusing my “privileged public position” and trying to “deflect criticisms” made by Cowling. Further pressed, some claimed that my campaigns against the tyranny of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Jamaican dancehall singers who incited the murder of LGBT+ people were somehow racist. But I was not making an issue of anyone’s race. My targets were dictatorship and murderous homophobia, at the request of activists in those countries.