I do not often find myself in sympathy with gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. Indeed, I still remember as a teenager being delighted and relieved at his defeat in the 1983 Bermondsey by-election. It symbolized so well how the new Left, with its preoccupation with gay rights, was of marginal interest to the poor and the working class. Still, it is hard not to have some sneaking admiration for a man who has tried to arrest Robert Mugabe not once but twice.
Yet this veteran human rights campaigner now finds himself on the receiving end of the latest campus malice and silliness. Scheduled to speak at an LGBT event, he has found that another speaker, Fran Cowling, the L.G.B.T.+ officer of the National Union of Students, is refusing to share a platform with him because of alleged transphobia and racism.
As I said, I am no fan of Tatchell, but the idea of him being racist is about as plausible as a claim that Adolf Hitler is alive and well and working as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago. And as Germaine Greer can attest, transphobia is the unforgivable sin du jour of anyone with the temerity to suggest that a man who thinks he is a woman is not necessarily so and has no automatic rights to the narrative of female victimhood. In fact, the claims against Tatchell are groundless, the only evidence of his bigotry being his signature on a letter to The Observer last year, supporting free speech.
Tatchell is right in seeing this as yet another attack on freedom of speech. I agree with him that the best way to fight bad ideas is with good ideas. But I also wonder if Tatchell is perhaps unwittingly more a part of the problem than he cares to acknowledge.
For example, he himself has been an outspoken critic of people like Germaine Greer on the matter of transgenderism. He would no doubt defend her right to hold her opinion but there is more to the matter than simply the principle of freedom of speech. The philosophical significance of his own attitude to transgenderism seems lost on him: Transgenderism raises fundamental questions about the nature of the human person—indeed, about whether one can even speak in terms of human nature anymore in any universal, meaningful sense. The psychologizing of humanity which underpins the sexual revolution has rendered all talk of what it means to be human at best highly attenuated at worst meaningless subjectivism.
Thus, when Tatchell talks of Enlightenment values and human rights, he is on very slippery ground, and that made slippery by the very philosophies of sexuality and identity to which he has committed his life. This is ironic, perhaps even a little tragic, for a man who has given himself so passionately to the cause of human rights. For if these terms are to have any robust meaning, they must be grounded in some universal reality. Yet his support of the radical politics of polymorphous and plastic sexual identity over many years has undermined such. Indeed, notice the significance of the ‘+’ sign on the job title of the N.U.S. officer.. When the catena of kaleidoscopic identities is open-ended, the meaningfulness of universal human nature and thus of everything predicated on that—including universal human rights—becomes vanishingly small.
Welcome to the world at whose birth you helped as midwife, Mr. Tatchell.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.