In 2016 Bermuda, a wealthy British Overseas Territory, held a referendum on same-sex marriage and civil unions. The questions were put forth simply to Bermudians: “Are you in favour of same-sex marriage in Bermuda? Are you in favour of same-sex civil unions in Bermuda?” Unsurprisingly, the conservative islanders voted overwhelmingly against both; 69% opposed same-sex marriage, 63% opposed same-sex civil unions.
No rainbows in paradise
Bermuda is not a regional outlier. No one knows how many LGBT+ people live in the Caribbean because they usually keep their identities hidden for fear of repercussions. Most islands’ laws call for more severe prison sentences for homosexual activity than actual crimes. For example, the penalty for homosexuality in Barbados is the same as murder — life imprisonment. Jamaica’s “Buggery Law” is light by comparison: only ten years imprisonment with “hard labour” (only for male offenders).
Even if the police don’t lock you up, being LGBT+ in the Caribbean can still mean the death sentence. Those lucky enough are condemned to the fringes of society, living their lives as economic and social outcasts, under constant threat of violence. The unfortunate are killed in cold blood and rarely get justice. In September, leading Jamaican gay rights activist Dexter Pottinger was murdered in Kingston.
Therefore it should go as no surprise that the region has been slow to warm to the idea of marriage equality. In fact, apart from a handful of colonial possessions of America, France and the Netherlands, no former or current British Overseas Territories in the area allow same-sex couples to wed.
Progress for some
That was until an unprecedented decision by the Supreme Court of Bermuda in May 2017, which ruled that refusing marriage on the basis of sexual orientation was “inconsistent” with the country’s Human Rights Act. Many locals saw this as a flagrant example of liberal, worldly values seeping into the island. The family-values group Preserve Marriage launched an unsuccessful campaign to have the then One Bermuda Alliance (OBA) government appeal the decision. Truthfully, the ruling went directly against the so-called will of the people, voted on in the referendum in 2016. However, an often silent—but strong—minority saw this as a major victory in the struggle for equality.
That progress was short-lived. On July 18th Bermuda’s Progressive Labor Party (PLP)—so named for being the first party to stand up for Bermuda’s disenfranchised black majority—was voted into power on a campaign slogan of “Putting Bermudians First”. Their election brought hope for much-needed education reform, as well as restructuring the economy to benefit locals.
Five months in and Parliament has passed two major pieces of legislation: one decriminalising marijuana use, and the other re-banning same-sex marriage. Progress, it seems, is relative.
“The independence question”
Unfortunately for Bermuda’s pious population, the same-sex marriage ban is not yet law. It must still pass the Senate, before being enacted by the Governor. That’s where things get interesting.
The “Domestic Partnerships Act” will allow for same-sex civil-unions—a thinly-veiled attempt of placation. It will probably pass the Senate. The last hurdle could prove too high, though. The Governor is appointed by the British Crown to act on behalf of the Queen’s interests in her colonies. He has final say on all legislation.
In modern times, Governors have tended to avoid the conflict that rejecting a bill would cause. This bill, however, is unprecedented. Not only is banning same-sex marriage at odds with Bermuda’s Constitution, Human Right’s Act and several other British and EU regulations, but it would be an embarrassment to the Crown if it cannot uphold the equal rights of British citizens on British soil. Should Governor John Rankin decide to uphold the right to marriage of all British Bermudian citizens and reject this bill, expect an independence referendum within a year.
Since their election, the PLP has been coy on “the independence question”. Still, they have always been strong supporters of anti-colonialism due to their roots in fighting the status quo. Their last stint in power saw renewed zeal for colonial freedom and self-determination, especially under Premier Ewart Brown.
Sink or swim
In an era of Brexit, Trumpism and wall-building, opponents of marriage equality hope to retain Bermuda’s apartness from the world’s madness in a bid to maintain our prosperity. Irony, it appears, can cross seas.
Whether or not this bill will pass is meaningful, insofar as LGBT+ Bermudians and visitors will either have their humanity stripped or upheld. But the bigger issue remains that, regardless of the outcome, there will be unsatisfied parties. Prominent PLP MP Wayne Furbert gave his unceremonious blessing of the bill, saying, “I support it because at the end of the day it removes the right to same-sex marriage and it tells the court that this Parliament will stand for what is right.” Preserve Marriage believes it didn’t go far enough, worrying that “it is a proven fact that civil unions lead to same sex marriage.”
It remains to be seen how strongly small-minded islands—which rely on openness for survival—will push back against the tide of progress. Still, if a country’s government AND people refuse to update their thinking from religion to reality, it will be difficult to bring about change. For this reason history is not on the side of Bermuda’s LGBT+ community.
Though hopefully the inescapable tide of time is.