An Open Letter to Peter Tatchell Regarding Fran Cowling, Power, and Public shaming

This is a bit of a departure from my usual blog activity, but it’s been really bothering me and I wanted to get it off my chest..


EDIT: so this post has been getting a lot of attention, which is nice. I wanted to add a few things to it in light of some of the responses.

1) if you look below, you’ll see Peter Tatchell has given a response. Unfortunately he’s basically ignored the entire point of the article, and instead claimed that he never said he was being no platformed, despite the fact that in the post he made he clearly claims he is a victim of silencing through no platforming, and everyone arguing for him is also describing it as such. He’s saying the problem is just the fact that Fran called him a transphobe and a racist, though of course he still hasn’t shared the actual email so we don’t know what they actually said and are just going by his word (rumour is it was far more nuanced and thought out than he’s claiming).

2) I haven’t been approving most of the comments on this post, simply because most of them were just parroting Tatchell’s original statement and responding to them would have simply been repeating myself which I can’t be bothered to do. They talked about how terrible no platforming is (despite Tatchell claiming he never said he was no platformed) and that Fran deserves it because of what they wrote about Tatchell (despite the fact that none of us have actually seen what they wrote). Of course there was also people saying I should worry about more important things, because of course as we all know it’s physically impossible to care about more than one thing at once.

Basically if you’re not adding anything new to the conversation I’m not going to approve your comment.

3) Check out this other open letter to Tatchell

EDIT 2: Fran has responded to Tatchell’s allegations. Their reasoned and nuanced tone makes a massive contrast to Tatchell’s bombastic and dramatic post about it. Of course it probably won’t get anywhere near as much press as he did, but I hope people will at least consider it before claiming Tatchell is beyond reproach


Dear Peter Tatchell,

We’ve been talking on Twitter about this but I wanted to write something here to you as there’s a lot that I want to say and a 140 character limit just doesn’t work for me.

The last few days I’ve been reading the many articles based on your statement about NUS LGBT officer Fran Cowling, and how they refused to share a stage with you at an event. Many, many articles. Every single one of these are supporting your claims that you are being unfairly silenced, that this is an example of how freedom of speech is being eroded in universities and activists are becoming unreasonable and turning on innocents.

However what is missing from all this is that you were never actually under attack. Fran isn’t a well known figure beyond their own circles, and they weren’t even making these comments publicly – it all happened in private emails between them and the organisers of the event. They had been invited to speak alongside you, and they responded that they didn’t want to. Now this is something which they are completely within their right to do, freedom of speech is also freedom to not engage. So then it seems the organisers forwarded the email onto you. It’s understandable that you might want to reach out to them, to see if you could talk it through. But they didn’t want to have that conversation with you, which again they are free to do.

Now most people at this point would just shrug it off and leave it be – so someone doesn’t want to hang out with you, no biggie, not everyone can like you after all. Some might have a bitch to their friends about it then move on. But you took it one step further, writing on your website, naming and shaming Fran, saying their desire not to engage with you represented an oppressive erosion of free speech. And this got picked up by pretty much all the national newspapers, and many other blogs and websites, all overwhelmingly supportive of your point of view and joining in in berating Fran and lamenting the ideology you portrayed them as representing.

You claim that you wrote this public response to a private email as a “defence”, but my question would be what exactly were you defending yourself from? Did you honestly feel like your freedom of speech was under threat, especially when you consider that you spoke at the event in question after all, and that you’re sitting comfortably with your regular Guardian column and the foundation which bears your name?

Meanwhile when you google Fran Cowling the results are dominated by articles about you. Everyone is writing about them, and the tone ranges from the mainstream broadsheets cooly reporting on your original statement to aggressive hate filled rants about how Fran represents everything that’s wrong with modern student activism. How do you think this has affected them, and will affect them in the future? So far it’s resulted in them shutting down their Twitter and LinkedIn accounts, and I’ve heard from those close to them that it’s been incredibly difficult for them (Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed goes into detail about how these kinds of shamings can and do ruin people’s lives, job prospects and mental health). And not forgetting that these things are always harder for people perceived as women.

There’s one simple fact that you don’t seem to understand in this situation where you’ve painted yourself as the poor victim of an over-zealous oppressor, and that is that you are the one with the power in this situation. Fran is a young student activist, while you are a celebrity with a Guardian column and a foundation named after yourself. Fran Cowling is not a threat to your freedom of speech. However your actions have harmed them in a way which sends a clear message that you are not to be messed with or criticised, even in private, otherwise all hell will break loose and you’ll release the hounds/press releases. Now I don’t know about you but that sure doesn’t sound like a situation conducive to freedom of speech to me.

My assumption is that you are so used to seeing yourself as the oppressed underdog that you simply didn’t realise what you were doing. That you see Fran as similar to the closeted politicians who you outed in the 90’s,  powerful public figures who needed to be held to account for the hypocrisy of being complicit in the oppression of LGBT folk whilst engaging in gay sex romps. That you forgot that Fran is not like those people, and that you don’t need to protect yourself from things they say in a private email that wasn’t even intended for you or anyone else to see.

The alternative, that you knew exactly what you were doing and purposely wanted to ruin the public reputation of a young activist who privately criticised you and refused to respond to your emails, is something that I really don’t want to believe, of you or anyone.

Check out this statement of solidarity written by members of the NUS

26 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Peter Tatchell Regarding Fran Cowling, Power, and Public shaming

  1. I never said I was no platformed. I never complained that Fran refused to share a platform with me. I defended her right to refuse to speak along side me. My sole objection was her false allegations of racism and transphobia. She declined my request to offer evidence. For nearly three weeks I emailed Fran politely seeking a private amicable settlement. Fran ignored my friendly overtures. Please make this clear in your article. Thank you

    1. Fran said these things in a private email to someone else and you felt this deserved a public shaming. Fran has the right to not engage with you if they don’t want to, but apparently you don’t believe they do and instead think this means they deserve to have their name smeared in public.

      And you *do* say in your article that this is an attack on your free speech and that you’re being no platformed, so you can’t now claim you didn’t.

      Your exact words:

      ” Free speech and enlightenment values are under attack in our universities. In the worthy name of defending the weak and marginalised, many student activists are now adopting the unworthy tactic of seeking to close down open debate. They want to censor people they disagree with. I am their latest victim.”

    2. You also haven’t addressed my main point of why you felt a public shaming was an appropriate response to something said in private, especially considering how much cultural power you hold these days which gives It the potential to really harm people

    3. Hear hear Peter. Chris you cannot defend libellous accusations that beggar belief. Do you really think that just because she isn’t a well known person she is exempt from reply? She does not have a free pass to lie about people in such a scandalous way. To let it pass is to let people think such behaviour is acceptable and it is not.

  2. You also haven’t addressed my main point of why you felt a public shaming was an appropriate response to something said in private, especially considering how much cultural power you hold these days which gives t the potential to really harm people

  3. Why did the person who made the accusations either provide the evidence or retract the accusations in private, before it all blew up? University students are adults who are old enough to vote and old enough to join the army. They can’t just regress to a child like state and expect irresponsible behaviours, even those made in private, to go unchallenged.

  4. Nice one Chris. Excellent blog. Though I don’t agree with the ideas of non platforming, nor can I accept the hypocrisy of Tatchell.

    He recently claimed in his defence to have campaigned for LGBT rights for 49 years or so.

    Strange that considering Stonewall decided to campaign on Trans rights in 2015 and prior to this many in the LGB community considered Trans issues a threat to their genitalia based political campaigns and the guy identity.

    Tatchell is a prime example of antiquated binary sexist bigotry.

  5. AIDS Charity money thousands used to gagg and silence community but everyone stays quiet on this issue Commununity not only denied voices but paid with Aids charity money to keep quiet and gagged . News is censored the lgbt community hears by the gay men running the lgbt media as above proves

  6. There are a couple of uses of an incorrect pronoun for Fran, in the sentences starting “So far it’s resulted” and “However your actions”.

    1. Thanks for pointing those out! I blame the fact that Tatchell, and thus the rest of the media, have been mispronouning them throughout this whole thing. These things creep into your head. I’ll edit it asap!

  7. How did it become public knowledge that Fran Cowling attacked Peter Tatchell in this way? I know if someone falsely accused me of racism, transphobia or any other ism or phobia my instinct would be to defend myself with whatever means at my disposal. Concern for the welfare of my attacker would not be high on my list of priorities. Sorry if this sounds harsh.

    1. It became public knowledge because the organisers of the event forwarded the email to Tatchell, and he then wrote about on his blog (and in the process leaving out any actual nuance involved of course)

  8. I think you are saying PT should have turned the other cheek when accused of racism and transphobia. If he felt too aggrieved to do so, what exactly are you suggesting he should have done?

      1. To be fair many people would have sued for libel and if you think that’s extreme then imagine someone was writing to your colleagues, employer, even friends with potentially career and reputation destroying allegations. It’s not an unfair point about the power imbalance, but does that really mean that Peter should just suck it up because he has a foundation and occassionally gets published in The Guardian? What’s been missed in this entire debate is a duscussion of libel, both how it’s currently applied legally and also the moral implications. My feeling is that if you are going to make allegations against people then you’d better have some pretty clear evidence that they are true, and if you don’t, then you should probably expect some sort of reaction to that – one that you won’t be in control of and you probably won’t like. It is tempting to say who gives a fuck what gets said about powerful people (although Peter Tatchell is hardly Prime Minister) but an erosion of this principle would not work out well for the most marginalised – think what the Daily Mail would be like if their was no accountability at all for the things they published about those they seek to torment. Be careful what you are arguing for.

      2. One thing that’s being ignored is that no one’s actually seen the emails – my suspicion is that he hasn’t sued for libel because if we saw what Fran actually wrote we would see that he wouldn’t have a car

      3. Hmmmm. No-one from the NUS has denied that FC refered to PT as a transphobe and a racist. PT chooses not to turn the other cheek but instead uses his media presence to call her out after she refuses to reply to his emails. PT may not warrant the title or Victim here, but FC most certainly does not either. I note that you did not seem to have any suggestion as to what PT should have done….. Try walking in his shoes on this one. FC might want to be more thoughtful before libelling someone, especially from an elected position.

      4. He should have left it. Or published the actual email and let everyone make their own minds up, rather than just using the dramatic manipulative hyperbole which everyone seems to have been taken in by.

        Bear in mind that the NUS hasn’t said *anything*. I’m sure the organisation had strict rules about how they deal with the media so can’t just bash out a response to something like this.

      1. Even if PT has such power, it doesn’t mean that accusations/calling him out do not also have a very personal impact on him, and that he is deserving of compassion too.
        If we’re not compassionate for all sides in a conflict, nothing will change.

  9. I actually think she did deserve this. She tried to get him no platformed from the event in Canterbury. She could have simply withdrawn from the event quietly. She didn’t but instead made baseless accusations against a brave and committed activist who has done more for everybody’s rights than she will ever do. She has reaped the whirlwind and deserves to!

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