Putting gay rights back on agenda

Today’s planned rally on the steps of City Hall marks an important symbolic step forward for the rights of gay people in Bermuda. Ms Krystl Assan’s recent experience at a local guest house has pushed her to organise this effort to rightly demand that people be treated equally under the law irrespective of their sexual orientation. Those who embrace human rights for all have to know that such rights are not meant to be applied selectively: The struggle for gay rights should be a struggle we all embrace.

We have not yet seen the courage to specifically set out “sexual orientation” as a protected category under the Human Rights Act. In the absence of this, there is no protection for gay, lesbian and transgender people against discrimination in the workplace, housing or in the delivery of services. There is an argument out there which posits that the Bermuda Constitution provides such protection without specifically mentioning sexual orientation and that there should be a test legal case to assert it. This is not good enough. If the Human Rights Act is to have meaning and applicability for all then change must begin here. Bermuda in the 21st century must first take this minimal step if we are to continue down the road to justice for all.

Like all struggles for reform, the quest for gay rights requires a critical mass of activists who can both humanise the struggle and mobilise support. It will not come through the passivity of online strategies or quiet conversations with politicians who nod with approval and then fail to act. I made this point four years ago when I met with a local gay rights group only to be met with the response that “politicians should do what’s right”. While I agree with this sentiment, the reality of politics in Bermuda on this issue is that politicians will only act when faced with sustained public pressure. The only elected Member of Parliament who acted decisively on this issue was Ms Rene Webb, who introduced legislative reform as a private member’s bill. But even this effort raised questions since Ms Webb never lobbied and never strategised to get support.

Ms Assan’s work will certainly help put the issue back on the agenda but this is insufficient. Those public figures who demand rights for gays loudly behind closed doors would do well to eat a slice of courage cake and step up and out into the public domain to help win greater public support. For some reason too many of us still view the issue of gay rights as a taboo topic. With at least ten percent of the population gay or lesbian, the discussion about sexual orientation should be part of our mainstream discussion; as mainstream as are our discussions about education, violence and the economy.

Local surveys on gay rights always show strong public support for treating people equally irrespective of sexual orientation. Resistance typically comes from a minority of pseudo-religious zealots providing a selective reading of the Bible to justify their bigotry. Even the casual reader of the Bible will know that not only did Jesus embrace everyone, he also treated them all equally. More importantly, modern societies make retrograde decisions when they make policy and laws based on interpretations of holy texts.

Bermuda has a long history of discrimination rooted in slavery, the restricted vote and racial segregation. Those who championed resistance to these injustices, those who have benefited from their elimination, should be sensitive to any discrimination set upon any other group. And we need to say collectively that now is the time for change.

Walton Brown is a social and political commentator. Follow his blog on www.respicefinem1.blogspot.com. He can be contacted at walton[AT]researchmix.com

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Published May 25, 2011 at 8:00 am (Updated May 25, 2011 at 8:53 am)

Putting gay rights back on agenda

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