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Gibraltar backs gay law reforms

HOMOSEXUALS in Gibraltar will no longer risk a life prison sentence for consensual sex. Twenty-five years after this was legalised in England and Wales, Britain's colony on the Rock is amending its laws to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights, writes Heather Mills.

Its reform sets the age of homosexual consent at 18. In the UK (the change was extended to Scotland in 1980 and Northern Ireland in 1982), it is 21. But gay-rights activists point out that in both places the age of consent for heterosexual sex is 16. 'It is a step in the right direction but it is still discriminatory,' said Anya Palmar of Stonewall, which campaigns for homosexual equality.

Gibraltar's unnatural offences ordinance - although rarely invoked - made buggery liable to a life sentence; attempted buggery carried a maximum of 10 years; and gross indecency between men, two years. All will be legal for consenting adults.

With 90 per cent of the Rock's 30,000 population being Roman Catholic, the Government had not previously sought reform for fear of protest, even though neighbouring Spain's age of homosexual consent is 12. In the event, only one of the Gibraltar House of Assembly's 15 MPs abstained from voting for the reform, which will become law before Christmas.

John Blackburn Gittings, the colony's new Attorney-General, said he had heard not one voice of protest. That contrasts sharply with the Isle of Man, the last area of the British Isles to accept reform, earlier this year. Legalisation was carried by just two votes in its House of Keys.

Now only the Irish Republic is still in defiance of the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled against its laws criminalising homosexual men in 1988.