What are we afraid of, Bermuda?
In response to the recent discussions surrounding same-sex marriage, I thought it prudent to centre the argument within the problematic, historical and ethical contexts of marriage, minorities and equality.
Let’s also remember that, although our past may seem unsavoury and hurtful for us to remember and talk about today, it does not change that these oppressive events occurred and have shaped the ways in which our diverse societies organise and transact.
For instance, in the mid-19th century, African-American slaves were not free to marry like white couples were, as a marriage between an African-American couple could take place only after obtaining permission from the owners. Even then, it was up to certain states to determine whether the marriage contract would be recognised.
As recently as 1958, Mildred Jeter, an African-American woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, had been legally married in the District of Columbia. When they returned to their home state of Virginia, they were arrested because their interracial marriage violated Virginia’s miscegenation laws. They pleaded guilty and were sentenced to one year in prison.
While proponents of Preserve Marriage Bermuda maintain that a marriage should be between only a man and a woman, we must remember that our recent Western history tells us that only certain types of men and certain types of women were worthy of this opportunity. Of course, we can look back on these race-intolerant views as “archaic”, but, for many people in our community, 1958 still feels like yesterday.
While we can argue that the convention of marriage in and of itself may not be a human right, let’s consider what it would look like if we suddenly took marriage away from Bermudian heterosexual couples. How would a “domestic partnership” hold up in the increasingly international and matrixed world that we live in today? The short answer is that it wouldn’t.
Marriage has become, to all intents and purposes, the only civil certificate that recognises a family union and is considered to be legally valid across the diverse international legal systems of the world. A Bermuda-centric domestic partnership is not. So while I can agree that the domestic partnership meets a European “standard”, the relationship does not seem to be internationally recognised or transferable.
So what are we really doing by rolling back access to marriage for same-sex couples?
I would argue that we are causing same-sex couples harm both internationally and locally by creating a denomination of people deemed socially “other”.
The harm principle suggests that citizens should be free to act however they wish, unless their actions cause harm to someone else. However, social disapproval or a general distaste for a person’s actions is not enough to justify the retroactive intervention by a democratic government.
If we take a look at the referendum results on same-sex marriage, for instance, it is clear that many individuals in our community feel harmed in some way because of the prospect of SSM, as the Preserve Marriage group insists.
I would argue that the referendum served as nothing more than an exercise in which to display the percentage of our community that feels harmed by same-sex couples being allowed to marry.
However, what the referendum did not tell us is what harm these voters are enduring, or even if they are actually being harmed at all ... only that a strong majority would rather marriage between humans of the same gender not be publicly recognised as equal to marriages of heterosexual couples.
The ethical question here that exists for us as community is, can we trust our citizens to accurately know when they are being harmed?
If we look at our historical track record of relying upon public consensus to initiate civil and human rights progress, we have not ultimately proven that we can rely on ourselves to do the “right” thing.
If we remember, the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s is what propelled Ronald Reagan to power in politics, as he built his campaign for Governor of California, and ultimately his run for president, on the notion that the administration of UC Berkeley were too “soft” in granting students their civil liberties. Let’s face it, fear of change has and continues to be a strong motivator for political gain.
While the legislation has passed and the Governor has offered his consent, we should be mindful of what truly has occurred. We, as a community, stood up for and celebrated the oppression of a group of people on our island. Given our history of oppression and the demographics of the island, I find this somewhat alarming.
What makes a society great is the ability to be as inclusive as possible. Having a football team full of goalkeepers might make it efficient at stopping shots, but pretty dreadful at almost everything else.
Bermuda, we need to look at ourselves very honestly in the mirror and ask: what are we really afraid of?