The same-sex marriage struggle: in the beginning

  • Legal challenge: Winston Godwin and Greg DeRoche (Callie Nicole Photography)

    Legal challenge: Winston Godwin and Greg DeRoche (Callie Nicole Photography)

There is absolutely no doubt that Bermuda is one of the best places in the world to live. It is stunningly beautiful. Bermudians indeed are lovely people.

It saddens me that in the 21st century there are some who would use politics and religion, justified by writings from a 3,000-year-old Bible, to discriminate against a segment of society.

That the Progressive Labour Party government has chosen to not accept Supreme Court judge Charles-Etta Simmons’s historic ruling of May 5, 2017 will go down in history as one of the biggest political failures and trampling of human rights in Bermuda’s history.

This whole sordid spectacle of political cowardice, bigotry and homophobia has played out over a number of years, going back to the days of John Stubbs. Dr Stubbs was indeed the first champion for gay rights in Bermuda.

Politics and religion were used back then to try to stop the Stubbs Bill. Sir John Swan voted against the Bill, but many years later he confessed that he had made a mistake.

PLP MP Renée Webb fought tooth and nail for gay rights in Bermuda, and she knows all too well the shameful manipulations and political shenanigans that went on, using fear, race and the Bible to divide people on the subject of same-sex marriage.

In 2015, when I read about the lesbian couple being denied the right to marry on a Bermudian-registered cruise ship, I became incensed. I posted my thoughts on social media. A friend contacted me to say, “Tony, don’t vent on social media; start a petition.”

It was 2am in early April 2015 that I thought, “Good idea.” I found a petition in Australia that I used as a template for Bermuda. Within 24 hours, I had posted a petition that got this whole process rolling.

Within a week, the petition had drawn the attention of the Bermuda media, and it spawned the creation of opposing forces — Preserve Marriage, led by a homophobic minister.

I wanted to present my petition to the Premier of Bermuda. I knew he had publicly stated — probably for votes — that he believed marriage was between a man and a woman. Indeed, the premier whom Michael Dunkley replaced, and some say overthrew — Craig Cannonier — had also publicly stated before the run-up to the 2012 General Election that he would not allow same-sex marriage on his watch.

I tried in vain to get the Premier to accept the petition from me at the Cabinet Office, but he fobbed me off three times. It was clear he was either squirming over facing the issue, or hoped that perhaps I would fold my tent and disappear.

I realised that this fight for equality would be an uphill battle in Bermuda as both political parties were afraid of losing church votes. The power of the Church has made politicians in Bermuda prostitute themselves for votes at the expense of justice and human rights. The idea that both political parties in Bermuda have kowtowed to religion while denying a minority its rights not only reflects badly on that religion, but, indeed, on the lack of political will to separate Church and state and to do what is right for all humanity.

Dunkley pushed me off on home affairs minister Patricia Gordon-Pamplin as the person I was to present the petition to.

I was further taken aback when talking with another One Bermuda Alliance minister in 2015. I was having a casual conversation at Elbow Beach with Michael Fahy about the petition. Once again I ran into the brick wall of “can’t touch this” when Fahy said to me: “Tony, same-sex marriage is not on the OBA agenda during its first term. We need to win the next election and same-sex marriage could cost us the election if we push it now.”

I was furious. Here it was that a sitting premier would not accept the petition and his party did not want to deal with same-sex marriage.

Well, I must be part-female, as hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. I felt scorned by the OBA. I felt, how dare this government not do what is right for humanity.

The OBA fumbled the ball. It bounced it around with town hall meetings and the like, held a failed, non-binding referendum in which the Premier abstained.

I decided I would find a way to make same-sex marriage legal in Bermuda.

Indeed, long before Justice Simmons said “the politicians failed, the referendum failed, so I will protect the rights of the minority”, I knew in talking with very close friends and advisers that there was a path to same-sex marriage via the courts.

I reached out to Mark Pettingill, who agreed to take on the challenge. He asked me to find a gay couple who wanted to marry so we could start the ball rolling.

It wasn’t long before we had a couple. While we applied and were denied a marriage licence for them, we had to change course.

It turned out that they had already been married elsewhere, and so we decided, after taking advice, that we best start over with an unmarried couple. The naysayers and opposing lawyers would do everything in their power to thwart us, so we thought it best not to have any extra legal hurdles to get over. We all thought that never being married before was the best route.

It wasn’t long before we found Winston Godwin and his partner, Greg DeRoche. Pettingill and his team at Chancery Legal, including the late Shawn Crockwell and Grant Spurling, fought a brilliant legal challenge in the Supreme Court of Bermuda. They were joined in the case by the Bermuda Human Rights Commission with its lawyer, Rod Attride-Stirling.

On May 5, 2017, Justice Simmons ruled. Same-sex marriage became legal in Bermuda.

Just days later, the OBA government, after taking legal advice, said it would accept the ruling and not challenge it further in the courts.

So many were supportive of same-sex marriage, including Liana Hall who wrote: “What side of history do you want to be on?”

Indeed, Walton Brown Jr supported same-sex marriage.

In July 2018, the PLP won the General Election. It used same-sex marriage as a tool to help to win. It promised, if elected, that it would reverse same-sex marriage.

Of course, it had to “not look like total pariahs” so it created domestic partnerships. The PLP fundamentally went about changing marriage itself, as it promised anyone straight or gay that they could have domestic partnerships.

Brown, who had championed same-sex marriage, was now becoming “hypocrite-in-chief”, as he was challenged by his government to deliver the reversal of same-sex marriage. He came up with domestic partnerships, promising gays all the rights and more, save marriage. He said his deal was better than Wayne Furbert’s and Bermuda better take it or else gays and lesbians would be left with nothing.

That is repugnant. Indeed, as Pettingill and British MP Chris Bryant have stated, the Governor should refuse assent to this legislation because it is repugnant to the Bermuda Constitution.

There are some who say the battle for same-sex marriage has become the cause célèbre for the PLP agenda for independence.

The question of whether or not it is time for Bermuda to entertain independence should not be at the expense of human rights for the LGBT community.

If Governor John Rankin decides to give assent — reluctantly, no doubt — then the courts will be used again to right this injustice.

The OBA cost the taxpayers $500,000 for a failed referendum.

The next hurdle, should it be required, will cost the Bermuda taxpayer millions ... are you ready for that, Bermuda?

In closing, all political parties have failed miserably in doing the right thing for equality and human rights.

In the end, we will prevail. I would urge the Premier, David Burt, and the PLP to think about Bryant’s plea to withdraw this legislation. It is the right thing to do.

Let’s not damage Bermuda’s reputation any further.

Tony Brannon, the former owner of the 40 Thieves Club and Disco 40, and the co-founder of The Big Chill, is an avid activist for human rights

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Published Jan 31, 2018 at 8:00 am (Updated Jan 31, 2018 at 8:00 am)

The same-sex marriage struggle: in the beginning

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