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What we can learn from the story of the Geneva school boy executed by drowning 450 years ago

14 June 2013


In 1566, Bartholomé Tecia, a 15 year old student, was tried in Geneva, Switzerland, for the crime of homosexuality after allegedly making sexual advances to two of his comrades. He was convicted and sentenced to death by drowning. The execution took place on 10 June, 1566 in the River Rhone in the centre of Geneva. More than four centuries later, Tecia’s story was unearthed from the Geneva State Archives by Jean-Claude Humbert, whose 2008 play is based on the events surrounding the teenager’s death.

On 10 June 2013, at the initiative of Network, a Swiss non-governmental organization, a commemorative plaque was unveiled on the banks of the Rhone at the spot where Bartholomé was executed. Representatives from the UN human rights office, together with the mayor of Geneva and other city officials, took part in the ceremony to dedicate the plaque.

“If indeed there was some emotion around Jean-Claude Humbert’s play, in particular because of Bartholomé’s young age, it occurred to us that his was only a case among many,” noted Dominique Rachex, who heads Network’s regional group. “It is quite emblematic of a society that condemns homosexuality: you’ll find a denunciation, a trial and a confession that was obtained under torture; a ruling with a sentence to set the example, as well as a public execution. All these elements echo what is happening around the world today. Through this case in our local history, we wanted to denounce the persecution still affecting LGBT populations worldwide,” he said.

Representing the UN Human Rights Office, Marcia V.J. Kran, Director of the Research and Right to Development Division, reflected on the relevance of Bartholomé’s story for modern human rights activists.  “Standing here by the banks of the Rhone on this beautiful late spring morning, modern Geneva going about its business all around us, the story of Bartholomé Tecia seems to belong to a distant age. But the uncomfortable reality is that traces of Bartholomé’s world survive to this day,” said Marcia V.J. Kran of the UN Human Rights Office. “The same taboo that sent Bartholomé to an early death in the waters behind me continues to fuel ignorance, fear and hate – and to cut short promising young lives,” she added.

Homosexuality was effectively decriminalized in Switzerland in 1942. Today, it remains a criminal offence in at least 76 countries around the world, and national law in five countries provides for the death penalty to be applied to anyone found guilty of consensual same sex conduct. Tolerance of any type of prejudice leads to discrimination, bullying, stigma, and human rights violations. It needs to be confronted by education, and laws that protect the human rights of all.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called violence and discrimination against LGBT people “one of the great, neglected human rights issues of our day.” In recent years, far more countries have recognized the reality and gravity of human rights violations perpetrated against LGBT people, and the need to respond effectively. In 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a historic resolution that for the first time recognized homophobic violence and discrimination as human rights abuses that warrant attention at the level of the United Nations.

“In 1566, as Bartholomé was led to his death, no one stood, as we stand today, to decry the State-sanctioned killing of a child on suspicion of homosexuality,” said Marcia V.J. Kran. “No-one was prepared, as we are today, to challenge homophobic prejudice, to insist on the equal worth and equal rights of every person, irrespective of their sexual orientation and gender identity.”

“It would be beautiful to think that out of this one sad, lonely death in the Rhone, more than four centuries ago, might come some good; that passers-by who see this plaque will pause and reflect on the folly of homophobia; and that we can all draw from Bartholomé’s story the strength to continue our modern day struggle to achieve equality for LGBT people everywhere,” Kran added.

14 June 2013