Guernsey may legalise homosexual sex at 16

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THE FIERCELY conservative island of Guernsey could become the first place in Britain to legalise gay sex at 16 after a vote this week on reducing the age of consent.

As MPs at Westminster prepare to debate the issue again today, self-governing Guernsey - where the homosexual age of consent is still 21 - has decided to go it alone.

A private member's Bill to decriminalise gay sex at 16 will be brought before the States of Deliberation, the island's parliament, on Wednesday, together with an amendment that would lower the age to 18.

But plans to liberalise the law have split the close-knit Channel Islands community, and sparked warnings that Guernsey will become a holiday destination for paedophiles. For right-wing States deputies like Peter Bougourd, the Bill is the first step toward turning the island into a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah. "To legalise is to normalise, and buggery ain't normal," said Mr Bougourd last weekend.

Harold Allen, another deputy, agreed. "At the moment, the homosexual thing is a small problem here; it's the few," he said. "My concern is that, if this law is passed, it will become the many."

Mr Allen is proud of Guernsey's tradition of stubborn resistance to social reform. Abortion was legalised in the Crown dependency only two years ago, and the States have yet to ratify an EU convention on equal pay.

The private member's Bill is the fruit of a campaign by the island's fledgling gay rights movement. For Carol Steere, author of the Bill, the age of consent issue is about human rights. "I find it unacceptable that young men are being treated as criminals," she said.

These young men are now raising their heads above the parapet for the first time. Braving bigotry and harassment, they have formed a pressure group and taken part in radio and television debates. They have even persuaded a pub to host a gay night once a week.

Jamie Loughlin, 20, believes that the visibility of the community is creating a new climate of tolerance. "Until now, gay people in Guernsey always lived in the shadows," he said. "We're showing that we're real people, ordinary people, no different from anyone else."

Reform of the law is supported by local branches of the British Medical Association and the NSPCC children's charity. But this backing fails to impress the island's fundamentalist preachers, who have thundered from the pulpit about "unnatural practices" and warned about the vulnerability of young men.

The Evangelical Alliance wrote to all States members last week to tell them that homosexuality was "an affront to God".

The Rev Eric Gaudion, minister of the Shiloh Baptist Church, said a change in the law would "send a signal to society that homosexual acts are equal to heterosexual acts".

At a recent public meeting, islanders were divided. There was uproar when Pat Mellor, a politician sympathetic to Mrs Steere's Bill, pointed out that buggery was not an exclusively homosexual practice.

On the mainland, a Bill to lower the age of consent will receive its second reading in the House of Commons today, after being thrown out by the Lords last year.