Debating homosexuality


The announcement that MPs will debate banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is welcome, since any discussion of this issue is by definition a good thing.

MPs will also debate a ban on age discrimination, which is also important, but somewhat less contentious.

Still, this debate, which will not be binding, falls short of Parliament taking a decision, although it has been an issue for almost two decades.

Nor does it make sense that Government is proposing to make these changes through a new Equality Act when amendments to the Human Rights Act would suffice.

Government has not made it clear why it wants a separate bill; in the UK’s case, it made sense to pull together disparate laws. But in Bermuda, the Human Rights Act provides the foundation for all anti-discrimination laws so there is no need to set up an Equality Act.

Instead, as human rights campaigners have stated, this gives the appearance of being a diversion from the real issue.

What this proposed motion does do is give MPs an out before the upcoming general election.

They can speak, or not, on the motion. They can give their views, or choose not to. What they don’t have to do is vote and show exactly where they stand.

Why shouldn’t they vote? Sexual orientation is seen as a vote loser, especially in constituencies with strong fundamentalist church membership.

In one of those strange reversals from the norm that makes Bermuda politics unique, this is especially true for the supposedly liberal Progressive Labour Party. It depends much more on the black fundamentalist church for votes than the One Bermuda Alliance does, and many churches are strongly anti-homosexual, seeing it as a breach of Biblical teaching.

In fact, it is likely that any vote on this issue in the House of Assembly will be a conscience vote because this is an issue where views vary widely within the political parties.

Even so, PLP MPs are perceived to have more to lose if they vote in favour of the anti-discrimination legislation.

Still, one would hope that any debate follows the example set in the passage of the Stubbs bill — which decriminalised homosexuality in 1994 — rather than the disastrous debate on this very issue in 2006, when the so-called Webb bill crashed to defeat. then, MPs from both sides of the House simply remained silent and then voted the bill down on a voice vote, meaning their individual votes were not recorded.

By contrast, the Stubbs bill was passed by a bipartisan group of MPs who were prepared, together, to risk their careers to right a great injustice and to correct an archaic law.

And in fact, few MPs lost their seats as a result of their votes. To be sure, an election was not called for another four years, and memories fade. That was smart politics, and a vote of this kind is better held at the beginning of a parliament than in its dying days, as is the case now.

But that does not mean that a binding vote should not be held in 2012. MPs are elected, at least in part, because they have the courage of their convictions and not solely for their expertise in weighing up the costs and benefits of particular votes.

Past polls have shown support for a ban on discrimination. A majority of Americans now support gay marriage for the first time ever. While that idea remains a step too far for many in Bermuda, it seems likely that acceptance of homosexuality in Bermuda is advancing as well.

It is quite possible that the political costs are not as high as MPs may fear.

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Published Jul 4, 2012 at 8:11 am (Updated Jul 4, 2012 at 8:11 am)

Debating homosexuality

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