UN investigates anti-gay island

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The Independent Online
IN WHAT is believed to be the first case of its kind, the United Nations has begun an investigation into anti-homosexual laws in Tasmania to see if they violate human rights.

Nick Toonen, a 27-year-old homosexual activist in Hobart, the Tasmanian capital, has lodged a complaint with the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva on behalf of a gay and lesbian group which is campaigning to force a change in the law.

The island of Tasmania is the only one of Australia's six states where sex between consenting adult males is still a crime. An attempt two years ago by the then state Labor government to overturn the ban was blocked in the Legislative Council, the upper house of the state parliament and a bastion of conservatism.

The legislation, passed in 1924 to outlaw 'sexual intercourse with any person against the order of nature', carries a penalty of 21 years in prison. Although it has not been enforced for 10 years, the law has become the focus of an increasingly fiery battle over the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights group's campaign to bring the island into line with the rest of the country.

Three years ago, homosexuals set up a street stall in Hobart to promote their case for reform. The Hobart City Council banned the stall and police arrested more than 130 gays and their supporters. Amid the ensuing nation- wide publicity, the charges were dropped and the stall is still in position.

George Brookes, an MP who is a leading opponent of reform, told the Legislative Council last year: 'I believe we ought to be tightening up the laws, making them a little more drastic . . . and maybe we would influence a few more of them to take the plane north.'

This was a reference to mainland Australia, whose social influences and legislative interference conservative Tasmanians have always resented. Anti-homosexual groups, such as Cramp (Concerned Residents Against Moral Pollution), produced bumper stickers, such as 'Labor Homos Ru(i)n Tasmania'. Gay activists countered with their own bumper sticker, 'We're here, we're queer and we're not going to the mainland'.

Rodney Croome, campaign manager for the Tasmanian group, believes the issue has caused such a furore because it echoes tensions that go back to the island's 19th-century colonial origins as one of the most draconian British convict settlements in Australia. 'The whole island was a predominantly male prison which spawned a subversive, open and defiant gay sub-culture. Ever since, homosexuality has been associated with subversiveness in the minds of the establishment.' He cited a poem, published in a Tasmanian newspaper, the Launceston Examiner, in 1847:

Shall Tasman's Isle so fam'd

So lovely and so fair

From other nations be

estranged

The name of Sodom bear?

The anonymous verse was entitled 'To the Free Men of Tasmania'. Mr Croome believes it was written by someone who opposed further convict transportation, that had become synonymous with homosexuality.

Mr Toonen signed the complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee because it can investigate such cases only if they are brought by individuals. He said in his submission that Tasmania's law had left him open to discrimination in his work, to a constant threat of invasion of privacy from police legally invading his home, to threats of physical violence and to vilification from public figures in Tasmania who had described homosexuals as no better than Saddam Hussein and murderers.

The UN replied last month that the committee was satisfied that Mr Toonen could be deemed 'a victim', and that his claims were admissable. It is due to deliver its finding next year.

Australia's federal government recently lifted a long-standing ban on homosexuals being members of the armed forces. A UN ruling could oblige Canberra to use its powers under the Australian Constitution to override the state law.

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