In a move that could have wide-ranging international repercussions, Bermuda marriage equality is on the chopping block. Yes, Bermuda is on its way toward becoming the world’s first territory to roll back marriage equality.
It was less than a year ago that marriage equality came to the Island, which is a British Overseas Territory under the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom. Like many colonized areas, Bermuda has struggled to extend civil rights to queer people. Men were prohibited from having sexual contact with other men until the mid-90s. And less than a decade ago, the government attempted to prohibit drag performances. The island still has no nondiscrimination protections for LGBT citizens.
What happened to Bermuda marriage equality?
In 2016, a non-binding referendum showed widespread hostility to queer residents, with 60-70% of respondents indicating opposition to both marriage and civil unions.
But a year later, two men brought suit against the government, and the court ruled in May 2017 that Bermuda’s Human Rights Act requires that same-sex couples be allowed to marry. For a few brief months, marriage equality was legal in Bermuda.
But as in other countries, the backlash was swift. And here, for the first time, anti-equality forces were able to gain a foothold. Legislators voted in favor of a bill that downgraded marriage equality to domestic partnerships. Now the bill awaits the signature of Governor John Rankin.
The Bermuda marriage equality repeal could have international repercussions
This development is of grave concern — and not just for Bermudans. If the bill becomes law, it could provide a roadmap for conservative activists in other countries to try to rescind rights from queer people. Since countries started recognizing same-sex unions in the 1990s, never has any reversed course and revoked the freedom to marry. The closest any has come was California in 2008, but Bermuda is more than just a state — it’s an internally self-governed territory.
It’s a looming disaster for the island’s economy as well, which relies on tourism. Various cruise lines and tourism companies arranged marriage packages, and are now in the process of informing customers that their weddings will not be permitted by the government. With the passage of the marriage ban appearing likely, only a handful of couples have been granted permission to marry.
Representatives of the tourism industry are sounding as loud an alarm as they can. Some have pointed to the economic losses sustained by North Carolina and Indiana when those states passed anti-LGBT bills. In recent years, various businesses, sports events, and celebrities have boycotted states after the passage of laws that harm queer people, and there’s widespread concern that the same could happen to Bermuda.
The UK’s Boris Johnson could save Bermuda marriage equality — but will he?
Ultimately, the fate of Bermuda marriage may lie in the hands of British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Because Bermuda remains under the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom, Johnson must give his permission before the Governor of Bermuda can veto the bill. That would be politically complicated, though, since the British government has maintained a more hands-off approach to its territories over the last few years than it has in centuries past.
And so for now, everyone’s in a holding pattern: gay couples, the tourism industry, Bermuda residents, the British government. There are some difficult decisions that must be made. No matter what, it’s clear that history will look back on this moment.
Featured image by kali9 via iStock