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Double celebration of our rights

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This weekend, human and civil rights will take centre stage as two celebrations take place — the Bermuda Pride event on Saturday and Labour Day on Monday.

The events are likely to draw different crowds. The Pride event, which celebrates diversity in sexual orientation, has garnered a high level of support from community organisations and businesses, while Labour Day is the day when the island's trade unions, representing thousands of people, celebrate their contributions to Bermuda's success.

It is also certain that the Pride event, while diverse and founded on the liberal principles of tolerance and understanding, will draw a whiter and wealthier crowd to Victoria Park tomorrow than Labour Day will just a few blocks away on Monday.

Indeed, while both movements draw on progressive, liberal principles, Bermuda's history and culture dictate that these two groups will remain apart.

That this is so has much to do with Bermuda's history and social development, and how the island deals with it will show how much it has matured, and how much more maturing it still has to do.

Bermuda's history suggests that over time, the force of these principles will see those divisions narrow, provided there is an honest and open dialogue.

That dialogue must start with first principles. Bermuda's trade union movement is based on the principle of freedom of association; indeed, the founding organisation of the labour movement was the Bermuda Workers Association, which was formed in the 1940s. At a time when unions were barely recognised and in no way tolerated, the fact that workers associated together was a vital step towards the principle that employees had rights and could also withdraw their labour in the face of discrimination or unfairness.

That principle, now entrenched in law, barely existed in the Bermuda of 70 years ago. Nor did the idea of equality and non-discrimination on the basis of race. And yet segregation was brought down by a small group of anonymous young black professionals who formed the Progressive Group and organised the Theatre Boycott, and then by more mainly young people who forced political change through the Committee for Universal Adult Suffrage. Once the seemingly impregnable fortress of segregation was assaulted, it fell remarkably quickly.

These movements were supported by the labour movement, and in 1963, Bermuda's first political party, the Progressive Labour Party, was formed as the labour movement's political arm.

The labour movement, founded on those principles of freedom of association, thought and speech, can take a great deal of credit for the entrenchment of civil and human rights in Bermuda's 1968 Constitution and for further restrictions on discrimination through the 1980 Human Rights Act.

Those two legal documents are the foundations of Bermuda's model of liberal democracy. The first is that all residents of Bermuda have certain inalienable rights — of thought, speech and association. Along with the constitutional principle of universal adult suffrage, these rights must be protected at all costs, especially when these thoughts and associations are in the minority.

The second is that all residents of Bermuda (leaving aside the prickly questions of status and immigration for now) are equal, entitled to those same rights and are protected from discrimination on the basis, essentially, of identity — whether that is identity based on differences like race, gender, age, religion, nationality or, since 2013, sexual orientation. All are entitled to the same protection in housing, employment and all other areas of life.

Just as Bermuda was slow to embrace the labour movement and racial equality, so it was slow to embrace the idea that homosexuality was neither unnatural nor a sin. Until the 1990s and the Stubbs Bill, sodomy was still a crime, and it took another 20 years for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation to be banned under the Human Rights Act.

The debate is not settled and results in conflicts between fundamental rights. If you accept the idea of racial equality and the idea that all humans are the same under their skin, then it stands to reason that there are in Bermuda as many gay people in the black community as there are in the white community.

And yet, in 2019, there is still strong opposition to the idea that sexual orientation should be grounds for denying people equal treatment, for example that partners in life of the same sex, should be denied the rights that come with a civil marriage between a man and a woman.

While there are opponents of same-sex marriage from both races, all recent surveys show that a higher proportion of the black population is opposed to it compared with whites.

For many, this may seem perplexing, since black Bermudians might reasonably be expected to have empathy for other victims of discrimination given their own long history of being oppressed on the basis of race. But it is equally perplexing that a white person who fearlessly puts up a Pride banner may be reluctant to acknowledge that racism can be systemic or structural, even when most statistical evidence shows inequities based on race.

This enigma has spread into the political world as well. The Government, whose progressivity lies in its very name, refused to recognise same-sex marriages and has been determined to appeal court decisions in favour of same-sex marriage all the way to the Privy Council. The old United Bermuda Party ducked out of the debate when former MP Renee Webb first tried to include sexual orientation in the Human Rights Act.

In the case of gay rights, this has usually been explained by the fact that these days a higher proportion of black Bermudians are more deeply committed to their faith and churches than white Bermudians, and that predominantly black churches carry outsized influence in politics.

Black churches have always been much more than places of worship in the black community. Going back to when Cobbs Hill Methodist Church was built by slaves by moonlight, churches bind communities and provide inner strength and support in the face of historic and systemic unfairness and discrimination.

The danger for many black churches is that if those basic values are eroded, then the fabric of the community can come apart, like pulling a loose thread from a seam. And for many, the idea that homosexuality is unnatural and a sin is deeply and sincerely held as an article of faith.

There is a tendency among supporters of same-sex marriage to accuse opponents of bigotry, ignorance and homophobia. That may be so in some cases, and some of the comments on social media are deeply offensive, but stereotypes are always wrong. Asking people to reject centuries of teaching is not easy and religious beliefs need to be respected, not derided.

Bermuda has always been slower than other countries to accept liberal democratic principles, including universal adult suffrage, racial equality and differences in sexual orientation. But the idea of tolerance, the need for people to get along on this small rock in the Atlantic and the fact most Bermudians will eventually see that someone they know or are related to is being mistreated because of their sexual orientation will bring them around.

Time can heal this wound, but only if all sides are willing to listen.

In unity: Labour Day is a celebration of decades of struggle for an oppressed people (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
Rainbow crossing: the Pride parade on Saturday is the culmination of a long fight for people who have been discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation (Photograph by Owain Johnston-Barnes)

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Published August 30, 2019 at 9:00 am (Updated August 30, 2019 at 10:03 am)

Double celebration of our rights

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