Peter Tatchell is not everyone's cup of tea. Actually, let's drop this whole understated, litotical British thing: Peter Tatchell is a thundering nuisance. Self-righteous, hectoring and permanently outraged, the gay rights activist has agitated his way through life without ever having much in the way of a proper job. Since leaving Australia for Britain in 1971 to evade the draft, he has drifted from one political campaign to the next, shouting down the patriarchy, the church and Western capitalism in general.
Still, not even his severest detractors would deny his courage. Many gay activists confine themselves to attacking softie bishops, knowing that bishops are enjoined by their faith not to retaliate. Sure enough, Christians — or Anglicans, at any rate — fall over themselves to apologize for their past oppression of minorities.
Tatchell, though, does something much bolder. He takes on anti-gay Caribbean rappers, hardline Islamist preachers and Third World kleptocrats. Good for him. Surely we can all agree that being executed by having a wall pushed onto you in Tehran, or being murdered in a drive-by shooting in Kingston, is a bigger deal than disagreeing with a clergyman's definition of marriage.
Tatchell is brave in two ways. First, he has straightforward, physical courage: He still carries injuries inflicted on him by Robert Mugabe's henchmen when he tried, for a second time, to carry out a citizen's arrest on the African dictator. But he has political courage, too. By picking on targets who are not exclusively white, Western and wealthy, he challenges the hierarchy of victimhood which underpins the world-view of many Leftists. He tramples across the hypocrisy of those who inveigh against Republican politicians opposed to gay marriage, but who see outright homophobes in developing countries as, somehow, products of colonialism.
This integrity has now brought Tatchell into conflict with other elements of the British Left. The National Union of Students, or at least its LGBT+ officers, won't share platforms with him at universities. His sin? To be in favor of freedom of expression.
It's hard to think of anyone who has pursued the cause of gay rights so single-mindedly. But because Tatchell happens to believe that Christian bakers shouldn't have to produce cakes for gay weddings, his years of activism count for nothing.
We have, in other words, reached the point where people are ostracized, not for holding unfashionable opinions, but for tolerating unfashionable opinions. Calling for free speech is, in the world of our oh-so-sensitive student activists, enough to deny you the right to free speech.
A hundred years ago, British teenagers were fighting in the trenches of Flanders and the alluvial plains of Mesopotamia. Today's teens demand "safe spaces" and protection from the hurtful idea that someone somewhere might say something disagreeable.
What's really going on here, though, is a form of conspicuous consumption. If you want to flaunt your piety, it is no longer enough to say, "Gay people should be treated equally before the law." Most people now agree with that proposition, robbing it of its niche value. To be properly fashionable, you have to find more recherche causes, such as condemning gay people who are insufficiently angry about "transphobia." In the case of the l'affaire Tatchell, we see the ugly culmination of this competitive virtue-signaling: "You want free speech Racist! Sexist! Homophobe!"
The same tendency has led to an idiotic campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from my old Oxford College, Oriel. It's not enough to say, "I disagree with Cecil Rhodes because he was an imperialist." Almost no one these days shares the political opinions of the Victorian diamond magnate. So you have to say, "Anyone who is happy to leave this statue in place is my moral inferior."
Such competitive virtue-signaling has led to a moronic campaign to boycott Israeli exports, and to an equally moronic campaign to ban the boycotts with full force of law.
I can see the attraction. Why give to charity when you can demand higher taxes? Why work as a volunteer when you can wear an awareness ribbon? Why work on being a better parent, child or spouse when you can denounce someone else as a bigot? How easy life must be for the permanently offended.
Dan Hannan is a British Conservative MEP.