An extraordinary artefact dating back just 22 years can be found in the permanent collection of the Manx Museum in Douglas. Alongside the ancient Viking treasures and relics from the island’s heyday as a Victorian holiday resort is a pair of pyjamas.
Purchased from a local Marks & Spencer and painted with stripes to make them look like a Nazi concentration-camp uniform, they were worn by gay-rights activist Alan Shea as he presented a petition of grievance to highlight the Isle of Man’s then-status as the only territory in Western Europe since the fall of Hitler’s Reich to persecute homosexuals. It was a landmark moment in the island’s history.
Three decades after it was decriminalised in Britain, sex between consenting male adults was still punishable by life imprisonment. Until the law changed in 1992, gay men regularly complained of being harassed by police – their lives torn apart when they were forcibly outed by the courts.
Mr Shea’s partner, Stephen Moore, who was present on that day, says many of those scars have yet to heal fully. “It was a really, really hard time. I know some people might not like to hear this but it is something we should not forget,” the 58-year-old retired marine engineer says.
“The police were harassing people as they were walking home, asking them where they had been and where they were going to. They were targeting the cottages,” he says. Mr Moore and Mr Shea had their house raided by police looking for a “terrorist”. “A lot of my gay friends believe there should be truth and reconciliation and officers have a lot to answer for,” he adds.
Mr Moore, like other gay people living on the island, which is home to some 85,000 people, agrees that their lives have transformed since the ban was lifted. But this week, the tiny Irish Sea territory was forced to face up to its recent history again when two young women – Laura Cull and Kira Izzard – were told by a local Independent Methodist minister they could not rent a house from him because they were in a same-sex relationship.
Despite international outrage over the incident and condemnation from the Chief Minister, Alan Bell, it emerged that the island’s failure to bring in an Equality Act meant that such blatant discrimination was entirely legal.
Tony Watterson, 55, a retired ship’s master who has founded an HIV support group on the island, vividly recalls the repressive atmosphere of the not-so-distant past. “I knew three people who were prosecuted. They were ostracised by the community. The worst case, I knew someone who was in a cruising area and he was trapped. The police said if he did not confess they would find his wife and tell her. Shortly after that, he committed suicide. That’s a typical example of what happened,” he says.
Shortly before the island’s 1,000-year-old Parliament, the Tynwald, voted to bring the jurisdiction in line with the rest of the civilised world, 21 men had been rounded up accused of gross indecency at a toilet. In the febrile atmosphere of the time, two men killed themselves – one after making a tearful appearance in court, the other after the police went to his home.
They were among half a dozen who took their own lives as a result of discrimination, campaigners say.
Mr Bell has long stood up for gay rights on the island and since the story broke this week has promised to speed up the passage of the Equality Act, which will finally outlaw discrimination not just against same-sex couples but all minorities.
“The island went through a difficult time 20 years ago,” he says, “when we had to fight hard to decriminalise homosexuality, and then over the years we have brought our legislation up to date, culminating two years ago with civil partnerships being introduced. We have moved a long way”.
Laura Cull and Kira Izzard had hitherto lived a quiet life together with their dog after meeting in Ramsey four years ago. They had been excited about moving into the new property because it was next door to Ms Cull’s sister and her young son, whom they had hoped to watch grow up. This summer, they will form a civil partnership.
Ms Cull, 29, an administrator for a payroll firm, has lived here since she was one. She said the couple were “sideswiped” after being so blatantly – and lawfully – discriminated against.
“It is a beautiful place,” she says. “We just need the laws to catch up. People have been coming up to us saying they are proud of us for being brave enough to stand up. There was one personal email but the positives have completely outweighed the negatives.”
Sales assistant Ms Izzard, 26, grew up on the mainland but came out after moving to the island. She says that islanders have been overwhelmingly supportive: “It has been completely humbling. We never realised we had so many people on our side.”
LGBT activist Nathan Rogers, 23, came out after moving to the Isle of Man from his native Essex. But the IT consultant says the winding-up this year of the long-standing gay-rights group Carrey Friend could leave the community without an organised voice. There is no gay venue on the island and there are ongoing issues over anti-HIV education and prevention.
“There are bars where there are gay couples holding hands, dancing together and kissing and no one blinks an eye,” he says. “I see the older generation as champions of their time. We haven’t had to struggle as much as they did. We have had it easy,” he says.
1992 The year when same-sex sexual activity became legal on the island