BACK in 1991 the staid and conservative ceremony at Tynwald Field (the Isle of Man’s equivalent to the Queen’s opening of Parliament in the UK) became very lively when an OutRage! demonstration called on the island to decriminalise homosexuality. Tynwald Week has never been so interesting since.
At least, not until this year, when Peter Tatchell (who actually missed the 1991 demo) visited the island to help move things on.
Peter spoke as the guest of Isle of Man Freethinkers, to launch a Manx campaign for marriage equality and the speedy introduction of an Equality Bill. When we originally invited him it was understood the Bill would be introduced before the next General Election in 2016.
Only two weeks before he arrived, we learnt it had been moved to a “reserve list”. This means it only reaches the House of Keys (Manx Parliament) should other scheduled Bills be dropped at the last moment. The quiet mothballing was hidden deep from public scrutiny, within a long written answer to a parliamentary question. Not any more though.
In fact, we had stirred up a media shit-storm by the time Peter landed on the evening of Tynwald Day. The next morning our guest was doing the rounds of local radio stations. The day after he had a private meeting with Alan Bell, the Chief Minister, reported back to and was further briefed by the IoM Freethinkers and local gay activists – and there was still a day to go before he actually addressed a public meeting.
The next night, that meeting was packed out by an encouragingly broad cross-section of interested people. Peter – nominally only booked to give a talk on his lifetime of campaigning – linked significant events in this with local concerns. Well primed by members of Manx Rainbow Association, the local gay group, he outlined a history of late-20th-century Manx homophobia little known outside the local gay community (excepting my previous attempts to relate it here)
Peter particularly praised the efforts of Chris Shea, a sole Manx campaigner for gay rights in the late 1980s who not only suffered abuse and violence from the general public but even more so from a Manx police force which, at the time, was led by a protégé of James Anderton. Quite understandably, in recent years Chris has retired from campaigns which are now led by younger gays (equally energetically but to far less open hostility). This meeting marked the first time anyone outside a tiny and insular gay community has ever applauded his astonishing bravery, and possibly the first time most in the room had even heard of it.
With Peter’s speech over, the floor was open for questions and comments, which came in abundance. In particular, Lee Vorster, of Manx Rainbow Association, castigated government for breaking promises over the Equality Bill made to his face by politicians, and also their reluctance to follow the UK in “upgrading” from civil partnerships to full marriage equality.
Paul Beckett, a local human rights advocate responsible for the abolition of Section 38 (the island’s equivalent to the infamous Thatcher era Section 28) , was next up. He pointed out that just as Section 38 had been quietly and cynically dropped into a Bill meant to decriminalise homosexuality, so the only barrier to full marriage equality was a clause similarly quietly dropped into a 2011 Bill meant to modernise marriage law by allowing ceremonies in venues other than churches or registry offices
This (surprisingly, perhaps, for the first time) introduced a binding definition of marriage in Manx law as an arrangement between one man and one woman. As Paul said, it would be five minutes work to legally draft, debate and pass an amendment in the Keys. More time than that is spent on prayers in the House each morning.
One excuse used by the politicians for the delay of such changes is that the Attorney General’s Office can afford only one employee to draft all new Manx laws. Andrew Dixon, my predecessor as chair of the IoM Freethinkers, promptly offered to crowd-fund one to draft the Equality Bill, if that was honestly the only obstacle.
Other questioners included schoolkids who wanted to know how to fight prejudice in the classroom (to my certain knowledge, the next day headteachers at two of the island’s four secondary schools were asked by pupils to establish diversity forums), Christians grumbling that they were now being ridiculed just as gays used to be (oh, how we laughed at that) and an elderly woman who asked for – and was duly and politely given – an explanation of the difference between civil partnership and full marriage (because, as she rightly said, everyone else she knows is too embarrassed to admit they don’t know either).
At the invitation of Peter Karren, Member of the House of Keys and the sole politician to attend the meeting, the next day Peter Tatchell had a tour of the Tynwald building and was introduced to other politicians.
This caused him to be interviewed again in depth for local radio and press, which in turn meant his visit, and the elusive Equality Bill, became headline news in a week when government had planned to publicise other matters.
The next week, as debate raged on the island, I was asked by the northern editor of the Guardian to help her sound out local feeling on marriage equality. Primed with pages of useful contact details, she then arrived, spent two full days researching and interviewing, and delivered a report which put a big and scary gay cat amongst all our political pigeons.
What next? Who knows? But when politicians come crawling for votes next year, any who hold up the Bill will get a lot of doors slammed in their faces. In 1991 – or even 10 years ago – it would have been the liberalisers getting that treatment. I am proud to say that the rowdy, headline-hogging antics of the Manx humanist group I now chair had a lot to do with that.
THREE decades after it was decriminalised in Britain, sex between consenting male adults was still punishable by life imprisonment on the Isle of Man. Until the law changed in 1992, gay men regularly complained of being harassed by police – their lives torn apart when they were forcibly outed by the courts.
According to a report in The Independent, shortly before the island’s 1,000-year-old Parliament, the Tynwald, voted to bring the jurisdiction in line with the rest of the civilised world, 21 men had been rounded up accused of gross indecency at a public toilet.
In the atmosphere of the time, two men killed themselves – one after making a tearful appearance in court, the other after the police went to his home. They were among half a dozen who took their own lives as a result of discrimination, campaigners say.
Things began to change for the better when the ban was lifted. But in 2013, the tiny Irish Sea territory, home to some 85,000 people, was forced to face up to its recent history again when two young women – Kira Izzard and Laura Cull, above – were told by a local Independent Methodist minister they could not rent a house from him because they were in a same-sex relationship.
Despite international outrage over the incident and condemnation from the Chief Minister, Alan Bell, it emerged that the island’s failure to bring in an Equality Act meant that such blatant discrimination was entirely legal.
Bell has long stood up for gay rights on the island and after the story broke, promised to speed up the passage of the Equality Act, which will finally outlaw discrimination not just against same-sex couples but all minorities. “The island went through a difficult time 20 years ago,” he said, “when we had to fight hard to decriminalise homosexuality, and then over the years we have brought our legislation up to date, culminating two years ago with civil partnerships being introduced. We have moved a long way”.