Monday, 26 June 2017

Bergerac’s Island - Jersey in the 1980s - Part 1

The exhibition in the Museum - "Bergerac’s Island - Jersey in the 1980s" - shows how shocking legislation was for gay people in Jersey and how the attitude for gays was entrenched in predudice which erupted as Aids sufferers - initially mostly homosexuals - were demonised by the press.

Elliot Tiber in his memoir “After Woodstock”, describes how Aids hit the world:

“By 1983, it seemed like gay men in New York were dying in unprecedented numbers. My friend and lover, André Ernotte, and I were shocked as we started to hear that more and more friends of ours—men we knew from the clubs and colleagues in the arts community—were suddenly being hospitalized. The pain and suffering they endured was horrible; it seemed that death was their only reprieve.”

This is typified in a Daily Mail’s headline. Always the beating pulse of British prejudice, it came out with “Britain threatened by gay virus plague” (6th January 1985)

As there was no known cause or cure, the media spread the idea that Aids could be passed on in the air—or by kissing, or touching, or just being near a gay person.  It took Princess Diana to shift perceptions in a 1987 visit to a hospital ward of HIV / Aids sufferers..

In front of the world's media, Princess Diana shook the hand of a man suffering with the illness. She did so without gloves, publicly challenging the notion that HIV/Aids was passed from person to person by touch. She showed in a single gesture that this was a condition needing compassion and understanding, not fear and ignorance. 

But to seek treatment or testing in Jersey was problematic if you were gay, because it was illegal. Always legal for women, homosexuality was decriminalised for men in 1967 (England and Wales), 1980 (Scotland) and 1982 (Northern Ireland). But in Jersey, prior to 1990, same-sex sexual activity was a criminal offence if practiced in public, such as in holding hands, or displays of affection. 

As the States Minutes record, in 1989, Deputy Edgar John Becquet told members:

Because of the incidence of AIDS during the last few years and because of the relationship which sodomy has to this dreaded affliction and because of the necessity of protecting the population of this Island my Committee is of the opinion, after consultation with the Public Health Committee, that it should not bring in legislation to repeal the 1938 Law on sodomy and bestiality as it considers that in the matter of the rights of individuals to indulge in unnatural practices the question of the health of the population of this Island must take precedence. 

However, following recent discussions with H.M. Attorney General on the interpretation of paragraph (ii) of Article 8 of the Convention and in the light of the possible constitutional implications my Committee considers that it would be desirable to hold discussions on these matters with the Home Office and the Policy and Resources Committee respectively

He also suggested that repealing the laws would actually make dealing with Aids harder:

It would be detrimental to the AIDS Advisory Committee's campaign, and in fact, I believe would put it back several years, if we were to give the impression that the Laws should be changed on the back of our AIDS problem. This would infer that AIDS is only a gay problem and therefore further stigmatise the condition.

Deputy Mike Wavell, however, argued that the two should not be linked in this way:

`Sir, on a point of order, I must challenge that. I think, if you read on, I said that I didn't think it should be changed solely on the back of the AIDS issue, but did state that on moral grounds and other grounds, there was every indication that it should be changed.''

And the Attorney General, in the course of his discussion on the European Convention on Human Rights, and homosexuality, noted that:

I am asked whether Jersey has a legal obligation to rescind legislation affecting the rights of homosexuals. The answer to that is clearly in the affirmative unless it can be shown that there are `serious reasons' founded on public health for the interference with the human rights of homosexuals. Put another way, it would be necessary to show that the decriminalisation of the act of sodomy between consenting adults in private would seriously affect the health of the community. I am aware of no evidence that such is the case.''

Jersey is not a sovereign state but is a dependency of the United Kingdom. While the Island has a substantial measure of autonomy in domestic affairs and it is a well established constitutional convention that the United Kingdom Parliament does not legislate for Jersey on a domestic issue without the consent of the States, Her Majesty's Government, as the Deputy correctly states, is responsible for our international relations. If the Island maintained a refusal to alter its domestic law so that, as a result, the United Kingdom was itself in breach of its international obligations, I have little doubt that Her Majesty's Government would, in the last resort, with or without the consent of the States legislate to alter that domestic law. This would, in my opinion, be a matter of grave constitutional significance.

Deputy Roche mention that "I must tell the House of the great concern of the Public Health Committee, in as much as to date in the United Kingdom, there have been 1,259 male deaths from AIDS, and out of that number, 1,051 have been homosexuals.''

In 1990, the Minutes record this:

The President of the Legislation Committee made a statement in the following terms - ``A delegation, comprising the Bailiff, myself, Senator Jeune, the Attorney General and the Greffier, met at our request the Rt. Hon. John Patten, Minister of State at the Home Office on Thursday 19th April, to discuss the implications for Jersey of the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights that a law which makes homosexual practices in private between two consenting adults illegal, was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. 

Very full and frank discussions took place from which it has become clear that the Convention contains no provisions which permit of any departure from that judgment. The Minister explained that that judgment was binding on Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom as a signatory to the Convention and that Her Majesty's Government had already taken steps to bring the law in Northern Ireland into line with that in the rest of the United Kingdom which was in conformity with the judgment."

"The Minister reminded the delegation that the Convention had been extended to Jersey at the request of the insular authorities and it was the responsibility of Her Majesty's Government to fulfill its international obligations by ensuring that Jersey law was not in breach of the Convention. He said that the customary law in Jersey regarding sodomy was in breach of the Convention and that it was therefore imperative that the law was changed and he hoped that the Island would legislate accordingly. He made it clear that, if the Island did not, then in order to fulfill its international obligations, the United Kingdom reluctantly would have no option but to legislate itself in this matter."

This did not please Senator Dick Shenton who led a private contingent of States Members to attempt to block Jersey legalising homosexuality. This attempt was crushed by the UK Home Affairs Minister; it is recounted amusingly in Peter Crills A Little Brief Authority - the Jersey delegation troops in, Dick Shenton at head, ready to be belligerent. Minister - "Well, gentlemen, are you going to pass the legislation, or are we going to have to do it for you". Crill's acerbic comment: "collapse of stout party!".

However, the age of consent was 21. The Sexual Offences (Amendment) (Jersey) Law (1995_ - five years later - reduced the age of consent for sexual intercourse between males from 21 to 18.

The age of consent was equalised, regardless of sexual orientation, in 2001 at 16 in England, Scotland, and Wales. In Jersey, the age of consent has been equal since 2006. Again it lagged behind the UK.The debate saw some vile language from States members - words such as "buggery" were used by some members.

It is a measure of how the States have caught up that the discussion on gay marriage resolutely steered away from any such language, but it has been a long road!

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