International gay rights campaigner honours public school principal

Dinoo Kelleghan

Peter Tatchell at a rally in London in 2013, the year the UK parliament gave approval for same-sex marriage

Well-known Australian-born British political campaigner Peter Tatchell, best known for his gay rights activism, has paid homage to his public school principal, Mervyn McKay, for getting him started on a lifetime career of opposition to injustice.

Mr McKay, who was in his sixties when Tatchell joined Melbourne’s Mount Waverley High School (now Mount Waverley Secondary College) in 1964, had “radical ideas about education” and “encouraged student participation”, Tatchell writes in the British education journal TES (May 29).

At the age of 13, Tatchell and others obtained Mr McKay’s approval to set up a students’ representative council that decided thorny issues such as what food the tuckshop should sell and that pupils, not teachers, choose prefects. The headmaster gave students permission to make two school films, set up debates, suggested they have a magazine and gave them the resources to produce it, and encouraged them to think and achieve beyond boundaries. “I’m incredibly grateful to have had such an extraordinary, imaginative and pioneering headmaster who helped make me who I am,” Tatchell writes.

At school, Tatchell campaigned on behalf of Indigenous rights, taking the lead in setting up scholarship schemes for Aboriginal students, earning the ire of Mr McKay’s successor, who called him a communist.

He moved to London where over the years he has been in the forefront of gay liberation battles and campaigns against issues such as nuclear weapons, the Mugabe government and the war against Iraq. His activism, encouraged by that long-ago Australian public school principal, has been applauded: he was voted sixth in a list of “Heroes of our time” by readers of the New Statesman magazine and he received a Lifetime Achievement Award in the UK’s first National Diversity Awards in 2012. Peter Tatchell’s address at Eton College on March 2015 on “What’s next for LGBT rights in the UK?” may be viewed at the Peter Tatchell Foundation site.