Gay campaigners on Guernsey sail into a storm

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Gay rights have erupted on to the political agenda in Guernsey, where homosexuality is still an unpalatable subject and sex is illegal between men under 21. As Kathy Marks discovered, a proposal to reduce the age of consent is meeting vitriolic opposition on the island.

The young men seated around a table in Dix-Neuf, a stylish brasserie in St Peter Port, the Guernsey capital, appear the height of respectability. They are clean shaven and smartly dressed, fresh from their jobs in the finance industry. Some of them live at home with their parents. Their only brush with the law has been the occasional parking ticket.

Yet all of them, according to the local penal code, are criminals. They are gay men who have had sex before the age of 21. Across the water, in Great Britain, their actions would be legal. In the tiny Crown dependency where they grew up, they could be put behind bars.

Until recently, they resigned themselves to this peculiar anomaly. It was hard enough being different in a close-knit community with ultra-conservative social values, in a place where homosexuality was talked about only in whispers, where the gay population was fragmented and invisible.

Last month, after Labour promised a free vote on reducing the homosexual age of consent to 16, a vote that will have no impact on self-governing Guernsey, these men finally lost patience. They founded the island's first gay support group, Courage, and persuaded Carol Fletcher, a senior deputy in the States of Deliberation, the island's parliament, to take up their cause.

When Ms Fletcher announced that she planned to bring a private member's Bill to harmonise the age of consent law with the mainland, the reaction was instantaneous. Peter Bougourd, a fellow politician, went on BBC local radio to denounce homosexuals as "people who breed by contamination". During an angry exchange of letters in the Guernsey Evening Press, one correspondent wrote: "If I had my way, these people would be classed as third-rate citizens with no rights to social services, and struck off the electoral roll."

In a more sinister turn, liberal-minded politicians have been sent a venomously homophobic leaflet that lists in stomach-curdling detail the supposed sexual practices of gay men. These include, according to the leaflet - which was published by the Family Research Institute in Colorado Springs - the consumption of each other's bodily waste products.

Courage believes that such tactics can only help its campaign. Members are still anxious about being identified. One of the uglier consequences of their higher profile has been a spate of "queer-bashing". Gay men have been chased, harassed and threatened. In one incident, a gang of youths trapped a man inside his car, smashed the windows and turned it over.

Jamie, 18, believes that the criminalisation of teenagers breeds bigotry. "I grew up feeling like a freak, totally isolated." For people like him, loneliness is compounded by the complete absence of gay bars or clubs. A pub on the harbour front recently offered an upstairs room one night a week. But gay couples would not dream of strolling along the cobbled lanes of St Peter Port hand in hand. "People would keel over," says Paul, 27.

It was only 10 years ago that sex between men was grudgingly legalised here, following a debate in which one politician warned that Guernsey would become famous as "the island where the pansies come out early".

Carol Fletcher, whose Bill will be debated in the New Year, hopes the climate has changed. She points to letters in the local press pleading for tolerance. "For me, this is a human rights issue," she says.

Fear and ignorance are fertile territory for Guernsey's numerous fundamentalist preachers, who have thundered from the pulpit about "unnatural practices" and issued dire warnings about the corruption of impressionable young men.

At his fishmongers in St Sampson, Mr Bougourd, an affable man, says he has been misunderstood. "People are making me out to be some kind of homophobe," he says. "I've got nothing against homosexuals; it's buggery that I can't stand."