The Isle of Man is often cut off from the rest of the world through a shroud of ocean mist. Its seemingly untouched splendour is loved by locals and tourists alike, but how much does this isolation cloud the opinions of those who live on it. It certainly did in 1991 when the video The Rites of Man was made.
Sir Ian McKellen hosts the short film, immediately revealing his 49-year struggle to come out as a gay man in a society that believed he “had something to be ashamed of”. For some in 1991, this struggle was not over. McKellen travels to the Isle of Man, the only place in the British Isles where those accused of making love with a member of the same sex in private still faced life in prison. There he interviews various members of the Manx community amongst eerie shots of Tynwald Day. It feels more like The Wicker Man than the Tynwald ceremony we know, as Anti-Gay protesters display ‘H.I.V Positive. S.I.N Positive’ banners. Questioned by McKellen, a local protester proudly declares that if he were in charge he would “birch homosexuals” and condemn them to “hard labour for life”. The views don’t improve much on this throughout the rest of the film and at one point even a member of the House of Keys calmly confides his disdain for the gay community. Yes, those involved in the documentary are only a small sample of the overall population at the time, but nevertheless, it’s a tough watch and McKellen comes away exasperated with the closed-mindedness he encounters.
One Manx local interviewed by McKellen is Alan Shea, described as the “one citizen, brave enough to publicly identify himself as gay”. At the time, Shea was a local activist working to fight the systemic homophobia rife within Manx society. Backed by the queer pressure group Outrage! he attended Tynwald Day in 1991 dressed as a concentration camp inmate. He modified some pyjamas by adding stripes and a pink triangle symbol that the Nazis used to label their homosexual inmates. His prisoner number was the government’s telephone number and inside the pink triangle, he had drawn the three legs. A powerful, but peaceful protest against a society that persecuted him for being born a certain way.
Now, the Isle of Man has grown, and it has learned. Civil partnerships have been legal since 2011 and same-sex marriages since 2016, but despite these legal changes, how deep-rooted is this new-found tolerance for the gay community? Is the Isle of Man just trying to keep up with a progressive society to maintain its place in the world, or have these views filtered down to the Manx locals who just 28 years prior demonstrated how bigoted a small isolated community can be?
One person who has experienced the entirety of this shift is Alan Shea, the same man who outed himself in that earlier unaccepting society. He has lived in the Isle of Man for much of his life and I caught up with him to discuss the changes he has seen and how far we still have to go.
In the Rites of Man, it seems that the laws against homosexuals seemed to validify homophobic behaviour – was it a scary time and place to be an openly gay man?
Alan: When I was campaigning it was yes. The reason I started was because at the end of the 80s a lot of men were getting arrested in public toilets. After they were arrested a few people killed themselves. One was only a young man at 18. None of these people even got to court. They were interviewed by the police and they told them that they were now going to tell their employers, their parents… and out of the shame and embarrassment, these people were killing themselves. Basically, the police over here were more like the Gestapo – that’s why I wore the costume on Tynwald day. When I started to campaign, my home was watched by the police. Once, the police even searched my house under the pretence that I was involved with the IRA. It was a very difficult time and it took me a while to even get a job after the campaigning.
Do you feel that most people had the same negative sentiment towards the gay community or was it the minority?
Alan: No, it wasn’t everyone – some were very homophobic. I would often walk down the street and someone would call me a “dirty puff” or something like that, but then I had many Manx friends who were all very accepting.
You mentioned the day at Tynwald where you protested the laws against same-sex sexual activity. What was that experience like?
Alan: It was a terrifying experience. I had a death threat prior to the event in which he threatened to use a knife. My friend came as a form of protection to make sure that nothing happened. We put the pressure on because we wanted the Isle of Man to change. There was also a movement involving the inter-Island games in Ireland. We told our gay friends over there that the Isle of Man were coming and asked them to give them the greeting they deserved. There was a big demonstration. They greeted the Manx athletes by telling them “please go home”, because they knew that they weren’t accepting of the gay community. It was around the same time as apartheid in South Africa and their athletes were banned from the Olympics (from 1964-1988). We thought if the Manx government aren’t going to accept human rights either then it should be the same.
In the time that you’ve lived in the Isle of Man, you have experienced some huge changes in the laws towards the gay community. Do you think this was a gradual change?
Alan: Change seems to have gone through very quickly. First, we got the 21 law (legal consent for same-sex sexual activity at 21 years old – 1992), then the 18 law soon after that (2001) and finally the 16 (2006), which we got quite easily. Then civil partnership in 2011 which I was surprised they agreed upon, and finally in 2016 we got the gay marriage. I thought “the Isle of Man is jumping quick”. The bill in 1992 was more advanced than the UK one. It included male rape – so a man could not rape another man, a woman could not rape another woman. Then England jumped ahead after that and the Island slowed down for the years following, but we’ve caught up now and we couldn’t be happier. Me and my partner converted our civil partnership to a marriage in 2012. We’ve been together for 35 years.
Do you think that this shift in the legal recognition of the gay community has filtered down to all parts of the Island? Is homophobia a thing of the past?
Alan: Of course it never leaves completely (Alan directs me to his Facebook page where a hateful comment has been left on one of his uploaded videos), but me and my partner walk down the street now and we see the young LGBT guys and girls holding hands. I’ll say, “did you see that”… I just think GOOD for them, well done them. No one bats an eyelid and its good for the Isle of Man. It’s just incredible that 28 years ago it was such a different place, and this video really shows that.
Alan is dedicated to sharing these videos of the past in order to educate locals on their history, which although dark is important for many reasons. None more so than a desire to never let it repeat itself. McKellen summarises at the end of The Rites of Man that these are the “outdated, mean-spirited and barbarous views of an Island mentality”, and it would be hard to disagree with him. However, since 1992 these “barbarous views” have gradually been overcome, one bill at a time… and now it’s our job to keep it that way.
See the full Rites of Man video below: