The NUS’ LGBT Officer has refused to attend an event where celebrated gay rights activist Peter Tatchell was speaking, raising questions about his conduct and ideology
Fran Cowling, the LGBT Officer for the National Union of Students, refused to attend an event alongside gay rights activist Peter Tatchell at Canterbury Christ Church University, after accusing Tatchell of being “transphobic” and “racist”. The event, titled ‘Re-radicalising Queers’, was aimed at tackling discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and organisers have expressed disappointment at Cowling’s absence at the talk.
It was reported that Cowling sent an e-mail to the organisers prior to the event detailing her decision not to attend, referring to Tatchell’s signature in an open letter in The Observer against the common trend of “no-platforming” at UK universities as part of the “safe space” policy. According to Cowling, the letter incites hateful behaviour and violence against transgender people.
He recently made headlines when his position on free speech was challenged after he openly supported a Christian bakery in Belfast that refused to decorate a cake with the gay rights slogan. Justifying his decision, Tatchell claims that a Muslim printer should not have to publish cartoons of Muhammad, or a Jewish printer publish books of a Holocaust denier, so why should Christian bakery be denied the right to refuse service to customers whose beliefs stand in direct contrast to the firm’s owners.
In light of Tatchell’s history as a leading gay rights activist, news of his support of the Northern Irish bakery surprised some of his fans. In his life, he has been arrested over 300 times, co-founded Outrage!, an LGBT* rights direct action group, attempted a citizen’s arrest of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe for his homophobic stance, and in 2007 he was among a group of protestors fighting for the right to hold a gay parade in Moscow, who were harshly beaten by a group of Russian men.
In response to Cowling’s accusations, Tatchell has stated publicly that he would be happy to debate with Cowling in order to challenge each other’s views in a professional manner. He has since expressed his discontent about Cowling’s decision, saying “Fran and the NUS have refused point blank to engage with me […] They have turned down debating me on Newsnight. It seems she is willing to make accusations that have no foundation and then is not prepared to defend her position.”
Following the controversy surrounding the talk, he tweeted: “Fran Cowling made false allegations re my supposed racism & transphobia. Her supporters now try to make out she’s the victim. Shameless!”
In a statement to The Mancunion, the University of Manchester Free Speech and Secular Society said: “Looking at past reporting on Peter Tatchell, the accusations made against him by Fran Cowling seem unlikely. He’s not transphobic, he simply stood up for the freedoms of people who’ve said transphobic things.
“He’s also not racist; he’s simply challenged people from those countries where homosexuality still carries a jail sentence or the death penalty. However, that is not the relevant point here. The fact that this is now being proposed against a renowned progressive campaigner highlights the pitfalls of no-platforming. It quickly spreads to everyone who does not conform to a narrow set of ideals held by the censors.”
In a statement to The Observer, the NUS commented that Tatchell has not been “no-platformed” by the union in general, adding that the decision has been left entirely up to Cowling regarding her plans for the event. Cowling has yet to issue an official statement about her failure to attend the talk.