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How Bermuda’s gay marriage U-turn has ignited racial division on the island

Following the country’s landmark decision to repeal gay marriage, we look at how a complex debate is being made into a black and white issue

“I'm currently reading this news and I'm scared,” 22-year-old Kjeld Conyers tells me. Last week, reports surfaced that his home country, Bermuda, had become the first place in the world to repeal same-sex marriage. Conyers is gay, and he, along with many others, fears that this is a tremendous leap backwards for LGBT civil rights. “No one wants to protect me.”

Despite initial reports, there has never been an official law allowing for gay marriage in Bermuda. Gay sex was only legalised on the island in 1994; until then, men who were caught could spend up to ten years in jail. In 2016, the country held a non-binding referendum in which 68 per cent voted against same-sex marriage. The results were deemed invalid, as under half of the eligible voters turned out. Many pro-same-sex marriage islanders complained that the voting took place during schooling hours, meaning the results unfairly reflected the views of the older generation. But other polls show that support for same-sex marriage in Bermuda is at 48 per cent – nowhere near a consensus.

Same-sex couples were allowed to marry on the island after a Supreme Court ruling in 2017 set a precedent, leading to eight marriages between May and December. But it was short lived. When the Progressive Labour Party came to power in February 2018, after making it clear that their stance on the issue was that same-sex couples should have similar legal benefits “save (except) for marriage”, they announced a new bill. The Domestic Partnership Act, made it so that gay couples can only legally enter into a partnership – not a marriage (which internationally, of course, doesn’t give them the same rights).

Jonathan Starling once ran to become an MP as an independent candidate in Bermuda and has written legislation for marriage equality. “This is a bit like Scottish Independence or Brexit,” he explains. His comparisons to British politics are probably intentional, due to the island’s estranged relationship with the UK – technically, our politicians could have stopped the U-turn or made some efforts to intervene (but to do so would only reinforce our harmful colonial presence on the island). Despite people like Conyers, who would have liked Boris Johnson to intervene, Starling thinks that would only make things worse. “I don’t think it’s the UK’s place to dictate to us. We’re a devolved, self-governing territory. It’s not their place.”

The debate has already dug into the unhealed wounds of its residents, many of whom believe that a push for equal marriage is an anti-black influence on Bermudian culture. In a Facebook group discussing Bermudian politics, expat Ian Smith is being lambasted for being a “Canadian transplant” pushing his beliefs on Bermudians. “Politics here are not divided between liberal and conservative. They are divided between ‘black’ and ‘not’. I will never be ‘Bermudian’ in some eyes,” he explains. “Some feel that even discussion of liberal values is an imposition of white values.” So much so, he says, that the one gay bar he was aware of for many years has recently gone underground.

To understand Bermudian politics, you have to acknowledge that race colours everything. A government that was 80 per cent white in the 60s is now 80 per cent black, and although black people make up over 50 per cent of the island compared to whites (who account for less than a third), the latter are perceived to be significantly better off. Smith believes that the PLP, which has been referred to as “the black party” on the island, has hijacked the conversation and weaponised a human rights issue for their own gain.

“Bermuda has real issues: debt, divided community, inequality, educational failure, corruption, international business in crisis, spiralling health costs, out-migration, immigration policy problems, even a trash collection crisis. To victimize a dozen (same-sex married) couples, we embarrass ourselves around the world, while the government and press have real work to do. I see it as a shameful failure of leadership as part of a cynical campaign strategy.”

One disgruntled islander who did not wish to be named felt that white people on the island cared more about gay marriage than social issues black islanders still face after decades of segregation. But the irony is that homophobia was a British export, through the religious indoctrination of slaves, and this conservatism has made it harder to push for gay rights on the island. The church still has an incredibly strong presence among black Bermudians, only 17 per cent of the island identified as atheists in the 2010 census.

“Politics here are not divided between liberal and conservative. They are divided between ‘black’ and ‘not’. I will never be ‘Bermudian’ in some eyes. Some feel that even discussion of liberal values is an imposition of white values” – Ian Smith

Today, a lot of white Bermudians are recent immigrants hailing from the UK, America, Canada, and other European countries, which are now significantly more liberal when it comes to LGBT relations. Conyers explains that all of the above facilitates the idea that same-sex marriage is a recent white invention: “You do notice more white LGBT members are out. They grow up in more accepting and diverse schools. They have experience being accepted. When it comes to blacks and Portuguese, it's very different. Most of those individuals are in public schools, I went to a public school growing up and you wouldn't want to be an openly gay kid in my school. I was outed the last semester of my last year in high school and that was the worst three months of my life,” he says. After being repeatedly chased and having other children throw rocks at him, he moved to Canada to study a few years ago. “I spent 18 years of my life either hiding it, or suppressing it, or looking over my shoulder to make sure that no one saw who I was dating.”

Conyers sees the new ruling as the beginning of something sinister. “Most massive injustices don't occur overnight, but (the government) are normalising inequality, and once you do that, you start to normalise dehumanising a special group of individual.”

However, LGBT organisations on the island have a slightly different outlook. A spokesperson from OUTBermuda says that “rolling back full marriage equality is regressive”, but it would be a mistake to view it as a measure of a “lack of progress on LGBTQ issues” on the island.

“While we are disappointed, we are not powerless,” the charity says. “Much has happened in recent years for Bermuda’s LGBTQ community to celebrate, which makes OUTBermuda believe that there continues to be forward momentum here in Bermuda.”

Meanwhile, Tony Brannon from Same Love Bermuda assures me that “the fight” continues. “I can tell you there will be a legal challenge led by my former Attorney General of Bermuda Mark Pettingill on behalf of an undisclosed client. What the LGBT community themselves do I am not sure. I will say it is not in their nature to block access to parliament or be retaliatory in any way. They believe in love, unlike the Bermuda government.”

Among the religious lobbying and Bermudian bickering, what remains clear are the leftover scars from centuries of oppression and abuse. The tiny island’s dark history means that the black majority are now grappling with how to identify, and how to establish a code of ideals for themselves after centuries of white rule. Even though they think they're shaking off Western trends they're sadly falling right into the mindset beaten into them during slavery. Unfortunately, due to a so many warring factors, a fight for gay equality is now viewed as an issue in competition with the fight for racial equality. Not only does this ignore queer people of colour in Bermuda, it also means that the country has adopted the same intolerant beliefs that helped suppress them for centuries.

If there’s one thing Bermuda’s activists, politicians, and residents alike can agree on, it’s that issue is unbearably divisive.