LGBT History Month 2018 was marked by Britain moving from playing a complicit role in the unjust treatment of the LGBTQ communities in their Overseas Territories, to becoming an active participant, when the Governor of Bermuda gave assent on behalf of the Queen to legislation that repealed marriage equality and blocked same-sex couples from getting married.
Bermuda has never moved particularly swiftly on the issue LGBTQ rights. In 2013 sexual orientation was included in the Bermudan Human Rights Act, 19 years after the decriminalisation of gay sex.
As a child growing up in Bermuda, I had the same hopes and dreams for my future as my peers; dreams of what I wanted to be when I grew up, of falling in love and having a family. I soon realised that my dreams of love and family were very different from those around me. To add to my despair, I received messages (not always directly), that my dreams were not acceptable. Messages that were embedded in my psyche and shaped my self- worth as a person. Like most children searching for belonging, I buried any parts of me that I felt would betray the truth of who I am due to fear of ridicule and rejection. My camouflage kept me hidden from my closest friends and family. Moving to the UK, away from the societal restraints of my home, I have found acceptance, though not yet agreement. This acceptance was the start of my self-determination, a vital part of the process of truly becoming who I am.
Bermuda’s legislators being the first to repeal same sex marriage has reinforced the belief in an LGBTQ “other”; a dangerous and divisive principle. As Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.
The local group Preservation of Marriage argue that, “the European Court of Human Rights did not impose obligations on countries to introduce equal access to marriage, but did expect states to recognise same-sex relationships, which was fulfilled by the Domestic Partnership Act”. I believe, however, that while the letter of the European Court of Human Rights ruling may be satisfied by civil partnerships, the repeal of the right to marry is not in keeping with its spirit. Any law that creates division of this kind can never expect to be create unity or fairness. How many times do we need to see ‘separate but equal’ policies fail – there are few who would defend Jim Crow, or apartheid – before we learn?
Many Bermudians seem to hate the comparison of LGBTQ struggles for human rights to the struggle for racial justice. While the struggles are different, the principles are the same. While at university in Alabama, I was told that as a Black Bermudian our struggle was not as hard as the struggles of Black Americans. I’m willing to be convinced that this is true, but does it matter? As a gay black male being marginalised for being black feels exactly the same as when excluded for being gay. Many Bermudians feel the fight for LGBTQ rights are a waste of time and we have more pressing concerns, including the racial inequality black Bermudians still face. By this logic, LGBTQ Bermudians are required to wait for racial equality before its their turn to access their human rights. It should not be an either/or but a both/and battle. When will we truly learn we are stronger together and equality can only be realised when there are no “us” and “them”; no “others” when everyone is treated equally?
This legislative reverse showed how much influence churches still have on Bermuda where two thirds of the population identify as Christians. Preservation of Marriage has used the churches’ influence and doctrine as drivers for division and separation. What I believe as a Christian may well determine how I choose to live my life but cannot mean I get to impose my choices on others. Surely the values we hold for ourselves are only strengthened when we value them for others.
Ellen DeGeneres stirred reactions with her tweet:
— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) March 7, 2018
To many this read as a rallying call to boycott Bermuda at least until they uphold equality for all. Others see this as interference by outside parties in local matters.
I do not agree with a boycott of Bermuda, but nor do feel it is my place to tell others what they should do. As a gay Bermudian it is not lost on me that though we are an island our politics can have an impact far wider than the 21 miles of our island home. If I cannot understand why someone may take offence with our policies and choose not to support Bermuda, then how can I expect locals to understand the impact of these laws on its citizens?
What seems to be missing in all of this is understanding. Understanding the images of burning Bermuda branded apparel on social media. Understanding decisions to leave the island or to never return. Understanding the significant hurt caused by the tone of the conversation. A lack of understanding is compounded by a lack of honesty about the actual issues in play.
Reactionary responses are too easy. It takes more courage to stay engaged in the conversation. Rather than a boycott, I intend to respond with the qualities that we have not been shown by others – patience, empathy, compassion and seeking common ground.
Click here to support Rod Ferguson’s legal challenge to the repeal of same sex marriage in Bermuda
Find out more about how LGBTQ Bermudians are organising to secure their rights through the Rainbow Alliance of Bermuda