On Thursday February 8th, Bermuda became the first jurisdiction in the world to first legalize same-sex marriage, only to subsequently repeal the legalization. The Supreme Court of the British island territory ruled same-sex marriage legal less than a year ago in May of 2017. The bill was signed into law by Bermuda’s governor, John Rankin, a British diplomat appointed by the British monarch to oversee affairs in the territory. The law is titled the Domestic Partnership Act, and repeals the legalization of same-sex marriage, while allowing for same-sex couples to engage in domestic partnerships. The half-dozen same-sex marriages that have occurred since the original ruling will still be considered valid and legal in Bermuda.
Bermuda is renowned for being socially conservative, so to many this decision is no surprise. The Progressive Labour Party was founded on the ideal of social conservatism, and was the group that first proposed the repeal. When the repeal passed through Bermuda’s Senate and House of Assembly in December, it was passed through both by wide margins. Furthermore, a referendum on the issue showed that the majority of Bermudians supported the repeal. Walton Brown, Bermuda’s Minister of Home Affairs, is quoted as saying, “The act is intended to strike a fair balance between two currently irreconcilable groups in Bermuda, by restating that marriage must be between a male and a female while at the same time recognizing and protecting the rights of same-sex couples.”
The protection of the rights of same-sex couples refers to the ability to enter into a domestic partnership. However, many LGBT civil rights activists argue that domestic partnerships amount to second class citizenship, as they deny LGBT individuals the basic right to marry. However, Brown claims that couples in domestic partnerships would have, “equivalent,” rights to married heterosexual couples, including the right to make medical decisions for a partner. Activists argue that there is no true equivalency until same-sex couples are given the same marriage rights as heterosexual couples, and without threat of them being rescinded.
Although a British territory, Bermuda is almost entirely self-ruling. They have their own constitution and government, including a court system, and they retain the right to pass local laws. Great Britain only involves itself in Bermuda’s affairs on issues related to defense and foreign affairs. As such, the ruling on same-sex marriage falls entirely in the government of Bermuda’s jurisdiction. Britain’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Boris Johnson, ruled that Britain had no right to interfere, as the Foreign Office is only meant to act in “exceptional circumstances.” Human rights groups lobbied Johnson to deviate from letting Bermuda self-govern, saying an attack on civil rights is an exceptional circumstance worthy of interference. However, Johnson surely felt as if this was a local matter rather than one of foreign affairs.
Numerous other British government officials have accused Johnson of making the nation complicit in an attack on civil rights. Labour MP Chris Bryant claimed that as a result, nations with poor records on LGBT rights would now “laugh” at criticism from the British government, according to The Independent.
However, considering the fact that the Foreign Office has not interfered in Bermuda’s legislative process since the introduction of its 1968 constitution, to do so now would set a negative precedent and potentially caused conflict between Bermuda and Britain. When it comes down to it, as appalling as many find the repeal of same-sex marriage, Bermuda is a self-ruling territory with the final say on local legislative matters. As a result, it is up to Bermuda to repeal to repeal of same-sex marriage and provide equal rights to its LGBT citizens.
The biggest concern by many individuals within Bermuda is the potential impact on the tourism industry, which is one of Bermuda’s largest contributors to the economy. Each year, tourists bring in hundreds of millions of dollars to Bermuda’s economy. Recently, the Bermuda Tourism Authority released a report saying 2017, “brought the highest number of visitors to the island in recorded history,” and that, “the 692,947 total arrivals is the best statistical performance dating back to 1965.” Many fear there will be a large drop in the high tourism numbers in the coming months. It’s unprecedented for a jurisdiction to repeal same-sex marriage after it has been legalized, and many individuals around the world view this is a direct attack on LGBT rights, and civil rights in general. As a result, it is likely that tourists from more socially liberal nations will be less likely the visit the territory in the coming years, with the potential for great harm to the economy.
Furthermore, due to Bermuda’s connection with the U.K., some have expressed concerns about potential impacts on the U.K.’s economy as well. While Bermuda is self-ruling, many feel as if the U.K. should have exerted their power of interference on this matter. As a result of the decision, there is the potential for a negative impact on tourism in the U.K. and the economy.
The issue is further complicated by the fact that Bermuda’s constitution guarantees freedom from persecution. While members of the government do not seem to regard the repeal of same-sex marriage as persecution because domestic partnerships are still allowed, LGBT individuals in Bermuda and around the world feel differently, especially as LGBT rights have been increasingly accepted as human rights around the world. The decision to repeal the legalization of same-sex marriage sets a dangerous precedent around the world that LGBT rights are not human rights, and therefore not to be guaranteed. That is simply not the case. While Bermuda is entitled to rule itself, the jurisdiction will likely feel the consequences of its decision in the coming years. The LGBT community hopes that with the potential decrease in tourism and pressure from nations around the world, the government will have no choice but to revoke their decision, respect human rights, and keep the economy steady.