Leaving Bermuda in search of happiness
A Bermudian shopkeeper left the island yesterday to enable him and his husband to have the “security of a long-term future” in a country that recognises their marriage.
Christopher Edwards, 47, finished packing up Otto Wurz, the toy shop on Front Street which his grandmother bought in 1955, last week in advance of his move to Dallas, Texas.
His departure signalled the end of a family business spanning decades and would be, he said, bittersweet: excitement at the prospect of a new life with his loved one in the United States and sadness at closing the shop and leaving behind his home country, his mother, two siblings, a niece and two nephews.
“We all grew up in this business and we have all been involved in this business,” he told The Royal Gazette. “That was a really tough thing to decide.
“[But] we couldn't have the security of a long-term future in Bermuda. For both of us, it was not an easy decision.”
Mr Edwards and his American husband Shelby, 54, were among the couples who challenged the Bermuda Government and won the landmark Bermuda Bred Company ruling at the end of last year.
But the Chief Justice's decision to give long-term same-sex partners equal rights to reside and seek work as spouses of Bermudians was too little, too late for the pair. Mr Edwards, knowing his husband would still have no property inheritance or next of kin rights, had already applied for his green card for the US.
He told The Royal Gazette that last month's referendum, when a desultory 46.8 per cent of the electorate turned out to have their say on same-sex marriage and civil unions, simply consolidated their decision.
That's not to say he wasn't disappointed that 69 per cent of those who cast a ballot were against same-sex marriage and 63 per cent were against civil unions — or that more than 53 per cent of registered voters didn't vote.
“Everywhere else in the [western] world recognises us as a married couple but old big boots Bermuda, no, we can't handle that,” said Mr Edwards.
“I now, to have a life with my husband, have to leave. One of the reasons — not all of the reasons — is because 54 per cent of the people didn't think it was important enough to show up to vote. It's not so much about my siblings and my niece and my nephews.
“They're young. When they get to my age, this won't be an issue because mean old people will die. But with my mother, I now don't get the privilege of being here every day. For us, this is what the shop was. We were together every day.”
He criticised Bermuda for allowing a minority to be treated as less than the majority, recalling when former Hamilton Deputy Mayor Donal Smith likened gay people to dogs and “freaks” in a 2013 Seventh-day Adventist television programme.
“Nobody has ever demanded an apology,” he said. “The Seventh-day Adventist Church has never been pulled aside for that or for the lecturers that they bring in that preach inequality.
“They want to make children feel bad about themselves — that's wrong. With all the problems in the world, who they choose to love is what you focus on? Kids are killing themselves.”
He added: “For an island that is so caught up and basically has stagnated because we're tripping over ourselves for equality and political correctness — that a majority population are comfortable putting a minority at the back of the bus, giving us separate water fountains and making us unequal Bermudians — how is that different?
“How can black people, how can women, preach it's okay to treat people unequally?
“How can you do that when you've come from a history of that?
“You're saying it's wrong for you to be at the back of the bus but it's okay for me?”
Mr Edwards met his husband 14 years ago when he was working in Dallas as a tourism representative for the Bermuda Government.
He describes their relationship as a “traditional love story” that now has all the typical arguments of a married couple alongside the certainty that “this is the one”.
After he returned to the island in 2004, the couple had a long-distance relationship for four years but the travelling became too much.
In 2008, they decided to set up a dog grooming business here and applied for a work permit for Shelby, an expert in the field.
He got one for two years but a second application was rejected and then allowed on appeal, for a year. Shelby's next work permit was granted for three years but was stamped “no-renewal” as he had reached the end of the six-year term limit then in place for guest workers.
The uncertainty of his employment and the discovery that he could not buy or inherit property, nor even hold a life interest in any real estate, convinced the couple that they needed to settle down elsewhere.
They married in Massachusetts in May 2014 and once the US Supreme Court legalised same-sex marriage throughout the United States in June last year, a green card for Mr Edwards made the most sense. It was approved in December and he has already started work as a communications director for a multi-divisional firm.
He and his husband, who have closed their dog grooming business here, are hoping to buy a home together next year in Dallas.
Mr Edwards is looking forward to life in the city, which has a vibrant LGBTQ community, and to being in a place where being a married gay couple is now a non-issue.
But he said of leaving Bermuda: “This will always be my home and there's nobody that can tell me different. Nobody will ever take this away from me; this will always be where I'm from. My family will go on here; we will thrive.”
Gesturing out of the window of Otto Wurz, to the view of Hamilton Harbour, he added: “I'm sad. There is nowhere more beautiful.
“I'm not supposed to have that and be happy at the same time.”
Chief Justice Ian Kawaley ruled in November last year that same-sex partners of Bermudians should have the same rights to reside and seek employment as spouses of Bermudians.
The landmark ruling came as a result of a legal action brought by the Bermuda Bred Company against both the Minister of Home Affairs and the Attorney-General.
The ruling came into effect on February 29. A Ministry of Home Affairs spokeswoman told The Royal Gazette last week: “The Ministry of Home Affairs can confirm that six same-sex partners have been issued interim entry/re-entry letters for same-sex partners of a Bermudian in a permanent relationship.
“They were issued the letters in April with the caveat that the Ministry of Home Affairs is currently formulating policy documents that will support a more formal application process.
“That policy document is near completion and will be published shortly on the Government website, together with the requisite forms and fee.
“When this occurs the six applicants that were issued the letters will be contacted and invited to submit their applications for the non-interim entry/re-entry letter, in accordance with the policy.”