Bermuda isn’t another world
Like most island communities, Bermuda takes a gradualist, exceedingly cautious approach to the flotsam and jetsam of new-fangled ideas and notions from the outside world which wash up on our shores from time to time.
Anything which even remotely threatens to upset the existing order or requires too radical a rethink of the way we have traditionally done things tends to immediately get put to one side.
Then we ponder it. And ponder it. And ponder it some more.
Those who happen upon a strange new artefact of modernity and too eagerly champion it invariably find themselves engaged in protracted ordeals by frustration. Don’t forget this is an Island which took 20 years and several commissions of inquiry to accept the idea that cable television was not some transient, flash-in-the-pan technology; and fully three decades passed before Bermuda grudgingly accepted traffic lights might better control rush-hour congestion in Hamilton than a lone constable semaphoring from the Birdcage.
Notwithstanding the fact Bermuda is a traditionalist society — one where change, when it happens at all, tends to occur in the most incremental manner — there is one international issue the Island will have to contend with sooner than it would like. Clearly the Island needs to come to terms with the legal ramifications of same-sex unions and put in place the appropriate policies and procedures. It’s not just a question of sanctioning such unions in Bermuda although such an eventuality is obviously a priority to some local gay rights activists and their supporters.
But whether or not the Island ever stirs itself from its customary ennui to take what would represent a genuinely dramatic step in our fits-and-starts social evolution, Bermuda must as a matter of some urgency deal with the implications of marriages in other jurisdictions involving both same-sex local couples as well as guest workers.
Same-sex unions solemnised in other countries already impact on civil and human rights in Bermuda as well as spousal benefits and insurance, inheritance and residency issues.
Bermuda cannot simply resort to its default position of putting off until the day after tomorrow what it doesn’t care to deal with today when it comes to such complex and pressing matters. Forty-three percent of Americans now live in states where same-sex marriage is allowed and that number is only likely to rise in the near future. Another ten countries, ranging from Britain to Brazil, fully recognise and perform same-sex marriages and more are likely to do so as the concept of gay unions slowly but inexorably gains acceptance in many parts of the world.
Social and religious conservatives are, of course, pushing to implant a steel rod in Bermuda’s spine to prevent any further slouching towards Gomorrah. Some of their recent words and actions appear to be impelled by a certain degree of desperation. While they believe with cast-iron certainty that the Bible is on their side, they recognise history does not appear to be similarly obliging. There is rising support for legally recognising same-sex marriage across racial and socioeconomic lines. And the generational divide on the issue, one which pits intractably opposed older Bermudians against their more tolerant offspring, is one the younger age group will inevitably win through a gradual process of attrition.
Bermuda’s politicians, of course, have been next to entirely useless on what are termed Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights for decades. Ever since Dr John Stubbs cobbled together an unlikely bipartisan alliance in the House of Assembly to decriminalise homosexual activity between consenting male adults in 1994 anything to do with the wider question of LGBT concerns has been routinely kicked down the road. Such is the fear in political circles of alienating even a single conservative vote.
As they now mull what is undoubtedly the alarming prospect of actually having to put procedures in place to regulate the legal and constitutional implications of same-sex marriage in Bermuda, our politicians might want to go back to first principles. A decade ago, when President Bush was huffing and puffing about a proposed constitutional amendment to ban such unions in the United States, The Economist magazine made the case for same-sex marriage and the indivisible nature of equality before the law in simple but compelling terms which have rarely been improved upon: “(It) begins with equality, pure and simple. Why should one set of loving, consenting adults be denied a right that other such adults have and which, if exercised, will do no damage to anyone else? Not just because they have always lacked that right in the past, for sure: until the late 1960s, in some American states it was illegal for black adults to marry white ones, but precious few would defend that ban now on grounds that it was ‘traditional’.
“Another argument is rooted in semantics: marriage is the union of a man and a woman, and so cannot be extended to same-sex couples. They may live together and love one another, but cannot, on this argument, be “married”. But that is to dodge the real question — why not? — and to obscure the real nature of marriage, which is a binding commitment, at once legal, social and personal, between two people to take on special obligations to one another. If homosexuals want to make such marital commitments to one another, and to society, then why should they be prevented from doing so while other adults, equivalent in all other ways, are allowed to do so?”
Bermuda’s political leaders should mark these prophetic words and act accordingly. They should also bear in mind the poet’s words that in the modern world there are no more islands anymore, Bermuda’s geographic and cultural isolation notwithstanding.
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