With the ratification of same-sex marriage becoming commonplace across the world, it would have been thought impossible to all but its most ardent opponent to see it repealed. However, this unthinkable act has happened. What is more surprising is where it happened. It was not in an officially religious state, or in a dictatorship. Rather, it was in the British Overseas Territory of Bermuda.
On the same day that Australia legalised same-sex marriage after an intense debate, Bermuda’s lower house, the House of Assembly, approved a bill which would derecognise SSM only eight months after a ruling of the Bermudian Supreme Court legalised it. It is a strange turn of events in a country which, despite British rule, is still more socially conservative than the home nations. Furthermore, there is the question of the flow-on effects were Britain to veto the bill.
Even though Bermuda is a tiny dot on the map, with a hard-right government in control of America 665 miles away, there is the question if whether such a precedent could embolden American Christian conservatives.
Going Against the Tide
Until the Bermudian Parliament voted to abolish SSM, it would have been thought impossible to reverse its legalisation. Ever since the Netherlands legalised SSM, it has been an ever-growing trend in western nations to see its legalisation.
Of course, many nations have refused to consider it on social and cultural grounds – Russia and Uganda spring to mind. However, no nation which had previously legalised SSM had even considered its repeal. Rights won are hard to take away. Obviously, no one told this to the MP who tabled the repeal act. Wayne Furbert, the recently appointed Junior Finance Minister, has had this bill in the works since not long after the court ruling in favour of SSM in early May.
However, such a bill is reflective of Bermudian society and indeed of Bermudian politics. A 2008 submission to a House of Commons by NGO Two Words and a Comma argued that Bermuda ‘suffers from a climate of homophobia as well as a climate of misinformation’, with the government being slow to consider LGBT rights. What is even more strange is that Furbert himself is a member of the Progressive Labour Party, traditionally on the left and, as the name suggests, has a strong history of progressive ideology from the abolition of capital punishment to civil rights, and even pushing for independence.
In fact, Dame Lois Browne-Evans, the first female opposition leader anywhere in the British Commonwealth and Bermuda’s first national hero, famously went against the tide herself in 1994 supporting LGBT rights. However, it cannot be forgotten the fact that Bermuda is inherently a conservative society. Capital punishment was not abolished until 1999, despite a referendum a decade before with nearly 4/5ths of the electorate in favour of its retention.
Indeed, the last execution anywhere in the British Empire occurred in Bermuda in 1977. Corporal punishment, still legal, is itself facing debate. When it comes to SSM, there is still strong public opposition. An opinion poll for The Royal Gazette found that 49% opposed SSM, 41% were in favour, with the other 10% undecided. A referendum not long after resulted in over two-thirds of the electorate opposing bot SSM and civil unions – though as the referendums turnout was below 50% it was ruled invalid. Despite this technicality, there remains public opposition to its legality.
The Sensitivity of Change
Though legally correct, the decision of the Supreme Court of Bermuda has opened up a Pandora’s box of not just social change, but also legal ramifications of banning SSM after its legalisation. Even though Bermuda is socially and culturally conservative, its position in the Atlantic plus its heavy reliance on tourism, primarily from the US, Canada and Europe means it has to juggle its values with that of the rest of the world. The CEO of the Bermuda Tourism Authority, Ken Dallas, wrote to every Bermudian Senator, arguing that the bill would ruin Bermuda’s reputation and, citing the multi-billion economic loss North Carolina suffered in the wake of its ‘bathroom Bill’, would likely cost the Bermudian economy dearly.
Being a British Overseas Territory, Bermuda also must accept that Britain may take a dim view. In many ways, Bermuda’s relationship is like former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s oft-quoted line, ‘like an ant sleeping with an elephant.’ Granted, Britain has very little power over Bermuda, with the Constitution Order of 1968 c47 only providing British disallowance on issues pertaining to government stock. There is, however, the possibility, as per c63 for the use of Orders in Council to ‘vary or revoke’, or provide provision for such possibility, any letters patent or law relating to the government of Bermuda. It is also possible for Britain to even suspend self-government, much like in the Turks and Caicos Islands, and rule from London. Any of these scenarios would no doubt be a smoking gun in encouraging Bermudian independence.
A referendum on that subject, held in 1995, was defeated three to one with the fear of unnecessary change carrying the day. But British meddling on the issue of SSM, particularly when SSM itself is not overwhelmingly popular, may prove to be that smoking gun. It may have been alright in Turks and Caicos where there was systematic corruption, but in Bermuda, where politics is remarkably clean, it might be seen to be an unwanted invasion of autonomy. Then there is the fear of what this may mean for LGBT rights outside of Bermuda.
Whilst it may seem farfetched for people in countries such as the United States to take a detailed observance of the political developments of a small country of Bermuda, the rise in influence of the alt-right and ultra-conservative Christian groups, some of whom, like failed US Senate candidate Roy Moore, want to go further than banning SSM, could mean that SSM may not be politically finite.
In America, there is fear that the landmark ruling which legalised SSM could be overturned by the very same court which legalised it. Despite the progressive stance that such change is finite, Bermuda could well be a precedent that such finality does not exist. With an emboldened right and a divided nation, SSM could be a casualty of political and ideological warfare.
Even though Bermuda is known for its conservatism, this decision is still a shock to many. Whether any future administration or British government are willing to reverse this decision is yet to be seen. However, the future is not the issue. The matter is the significance in the here and now. One issue is Bermuda actually going against a trend in western countries to recognise SSM as a basic right. The second is whether Bermuda can sustain to have such a law when it is anathema to both Britain and those other nations it is economically dependent on. Whilst this is something that can only be predicted, what can be said is that change in Bermuda will again take some time.
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