TWENTY-ONE years ago, Alan Shea was the figurehead for a campaign for the rights of gay men and lesbians.
Then the Isle of Man was heading for a constitutional crisis over the issue of homosexuality, which was still illegal here.
Today, Alan is celebrating how far gay rights have come in the island after enjoying his civil partnership with his partner of the last 29 years.
Back in 1991, the UK – which was responsible for the island adhering to the European Convention on Human Rights – was pressurising the Isle of Man to change its law, with the ultimate sanction that Westminster could legislate for the island over the head of Tynwald.
In the island itself, the campaign for decriminalisation was motivated not by constitutional issues but by a fight for equality. The law had changed in England in 1967 and many couldn’t understand why the island should still deny its gay citizens their rights.
The campaign culminated on Tynwald Day, 1991.
Alan wore the uniform of a concentration camp prisoner as he petitioned the court. His image appeared in newspapers and on television channels around the world. The uniform is seen to be of such historic importance that it’s now in the Manx Museum.
The campaign prevailed and the law was changed in 1992.
It’s a sign of how much things have changed that same-sex partners can now choose to have a civil partnership in the island – gaining the same rights in law and in tax matters as married heterosexual couples.
Alan, who’s now 49, has just celebrated his civil partnership with Stephen Moore. Friends and family from all over the island and further afield joined in with the celebration.
Alan said: ‘It was an absolutely brilliant day. Better than that Tynwald Day!
‘We signed a piece of paper that showed love for a partner for the first time.
‘Registering our civil partnership made everything legitimate. We were treated in the past as third-class citizens.
‘The Isle of Man has jumped so far in the last 21 years.’
For Alan and Stephen, who’s 57 and runs the Bonded Warehouse in Peel, their ceremony was an opportunity to get their families together for the first time.
‘My family came,’ he said. ‘They are all straight, tough Scousers and they all see it as a marriage. They’ve always called Stephen “Uncle Stephen”.’
Alan, who works at the Co-op on Prospect Terrace, said a number of his customers had congratulated him. He is not religious and regards the civil partnership as more or less the same thing as marriage, although that is an issue which has featured heavily in the headlines in the UK in recent years.
The campaign for decriminalisation began after a young man killed himself after being accused of gross indecency in a public toilet. Alan recalled that the police had threated to tell his family and his employer.
A number of politicians – including the current chief minister, Allan Bell, the current education minister, Peter Karran, and Hazel Hannan, then MHK for Peel – were strong supporters of decriminalisation. Others were hostile to say the least.
Mrs Hannan, who was a guest at the civil partnership, said: ‘It was a wonderful day – absolutely brilliant.’
She recalled the campaign 21 years ago.
‘When we first started we thought it was going to take forever to change ideas because the Isle of Man was against change,’ she said.
‘Some people said we were going to have men kissing in the street – and doing worse in the street – that people were going to be forced into homosexuality and all the usual drivel.
‘Some of the worst comments were in the House.’
Mrs Hannan said that when she campaigned on the issue a lot of her constituents had supported her, in spite of the charged debate led by the more vociferous people who disagreed with legalisation.
‘Now we have got civil partnership and adoption now [for gay couples] it’s wonderful because it’s what life is all about.’
She added that the Isle of Man was still a conservative place but had accepted change.
‘Young people just accept it. They don’t know the issues that had to be fought for.’
Chris Barr was one of the official witnesses at the ceremony.
He said: ‘I was honoured to be asked to be the “best man”. It was no different to heterosexual weddings where I have been best man.
‘I did reflect on the day and remembered the Tynwald Day [in 1991]. I was struck by how far things have come in 20 years.’