Bermuda’s government fights against same-sex marriage in Court of Appeal

Bermuda’s government fights against same-sex marriage in Court of Appeal

Somewhere around the age of 10, Linda Mienzer became aware of her attraction to her own sex. For more than two decades, she kept it inside, fearful of what she saw as an environment of homophobia in her family and in her home country, Bermuda.

“Internally, it was destroying me and so I decided to come out,” she said. “When I was younger and struggling with my truth I couldn’t look up and see anyone vocally out there that looked like me or felt like me. I believe that I needed to be that for others.”

Mienzer, now 31 years old, is a police officer by profession and community activist by passion. She’s also one of just a handful of people who have married a partner of the same sex in Bermuda.

Their numbers may never increase, because Bermuda is the only country in the world to have first introduced, and then revoked the right for same-sex marriages.

Divisive issue

It’s been a back-and-forth issue since 2016 for the North Atlantic island of approximately 65,000 people.

In June of that year, then-Premier Michael Dunkley, who supports same-sex marriage, called a non-binding referendum on the issue.

The vote was deemed invalid because less than 50% of the electorate showed up, but of the 20,800 people who did, nearly 70% voted against same-sex marriage.

Dunkley said his intention for the referendum was to open up the conversation.

“I thought it was appropriate to allow people to get involved in the subject,” he told CNN.

“I tried to break down the barriers of people saying, ‘It’s in the closet, leave it there.’ That’s why we had public meetings and that’s why we went forward with the referendum to try and get people to talk about it,” he said.

Landmark case

In the July of that year, with same-sex marriage still illegal, Winston Godwin, 28, and Greg DeRoche, 31, applied to marry on the island, hoping to take their case to the country’s Supreme Court.

“When I first moved back [from Canada] in 2016, I was so confused as to why people felt they need to have so much of a say in who I wanted to marry,” Godwin said. “I’m not trying to marry you. I’m not trying to turn the world on its head. I’m literally just trying to marry one person.”

The Supreme Court heard their case and in May 2017 it legalized same-sex marriage.

Law change

But the socially conservative Progressive Labour Party was elected in July 2017 and pushed through a law eliminating same-sex unions and replacing them with domestic partnerships in November of that year.

As a British Overseas Territory, Bermuda creates its own laws, but all must be endorsed by the appointed British governor. The law change was debated in the UK Parliament and eventually ratified, taking effect in June 2018.

Premier David Burt, leader of the Progressive Labour Party, defended the government’s position. “No matter what people want to say about what the referendum meant, the votes recognized that a vast majority of Bermudians were actually opposed to [same-sex marriage],” he said.

“But the government balanced the need for same-sex couples to have legal rights and legal benefits against the construct of the thought of the public,” he added. “It’s still my belief that we arrived at the most applicable solution.”

But the Supreme Court overturned the ban five months later, ruling it unconstitutional. The government is appealing the Supreme Court’s decision this week. If the Court of Appeals rules that the ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, the last resort for the Bermudian government would be to appeal to the UK’s Privy Council.

Minister of Home Affairs Walton Brown Jr. said it could be two years before a final decision comes down. In the meantime, same-sex couples on the island can’t marry but can form domestic partnerships.

“[Same-sex marriage] visited Bermuda far too quickly,” he said. “The change came far too quickly for us to be able to absorb the change and all that it entails and so we have to move into that space where we are embracing of it … At some point, I’m hoping that we will, and I think that’s where we need to be.”

The government has said that Bermuda is still far more progressive than most of the world. At the moment, 26 countries around the world have legalized same-sex marriage.

In the Caribbean, it is legal only in territories within the jurisdiction of the US — Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands — or in the Dutch territories of Saba, Bonaire and St. Eustatius.

Making waves

The news of Bermuda revoking same-sex marriage made headlines around the world.

“Bermuda just banned marriage equality. I guess I’m canceling my trip. Anybody else?” wrote comedian and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres on Twitter at the time. The hashtag #boycottBermuda began trending on social media, encouraging people not to travel to the island until same-sex marriage is reintroduced.

Hannah Collins identifies as a queer Bermudian and said she was disappointed in but not surprised by the government’s decision to appeal the court ruling.

“This is getting exhausting and this whole hot-potato thing is frustrating, but at the same time, I’m optimistic,” she said. “I think people are starting to feel more hopeful. I’m seeing more people not afraid of being themselves. I’m seeing so many people wanting to come out and support the LGBT community.”

Collins believes the negative press and the call to boycott Bermuda were misguided and represent a missed opportunity to educate people on the issue.

“It’s hurtful when people equate the government making up these choices with the whole of Bermuda,” she said. “When the boycott Bermuda thing came up we were just like wait, hold on a minute. There are so many LGBT Bermudians who work in hospitality who directly benefit from that industry, to boycott Bermuda would be to hurt them.”

Human-rights activist David Northcott said the current government’s reasoning that the country isn’t ready just wasn’t good enough.

“Was Bermuda ready when slavery was abolished? No. Was Bermuda ready when women were given the right to vote? No. Was Bermuda ready for equal marriage? No, but you don’t take it away.”

Like Linda Mienzer, Northcutt was one of the few in Bermuda to marry someone of the same sex during the short window of legality.

“I got married under duress because my partner is non-Bermudian and my partner and I weren’t planning on getting married but we had no choice because we had a six-month window where it was now or never,” he said.

But Mienzer does see some positives in the situation.

“This issue has inadvertently opened up space for us to have a voice and I think that’s progress,” she said. “Bermuda is in a progressive space and I think we just have to decide what side of history we want to be on.”

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