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My human rights journey

Nelson Mandela: no one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion

Early last month, I was thanked by two different women for being the advocate for the rights of women and children.

In the first scenario, a Bermudian woman had children born abroad with a foreigner. Bermuda law at the time did not allow her children the right to apply for Bermuda status. This was allowed only if the father was Bermudian. She reminded me that my advocacy was directly responsible for her children becoming Bermudian. As a Member of Parliament, I had publicly urged that the law be changed.

The law that discriminated against Bermudian women and their children was eventually changed because of my intervention. I lobbied minister Quinton Edness in my capacity as Shadow Minister of Human Rights, for a change in policy, which eventually happened unopposed on the floor of the House.

Not too long after that, a single parent with an adopted child stopped to tell me how wonderful her son was doing and thanked me for lobbying to get the law changed so that she, a single woman, could adopt. I was eventually able to adopt my own daughter as a single parent.

Once again, I had lobbied and had the law changed. These are just two examples, dating back to the early 1990s when I was in the Opposition benches, when I advocated for equality in Bermuda. I advocated and lobbied for change and equality then, and still do today.

My passion for human rights has existed for as long as I can remember. I was brought up on a segregated island, which made me astutely aware of differences, and inequality. I set out to change discrimination in all its forms in Bermuda, and wherever I can.

Upon graduating from Queen’s University in Canada with a Bachelor’s of Arts in political studies, I went to Paris to study for my master’s in international relations. Then I proceeded to study international humanitarian law (human rights law) at the Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

I had had the fortune of being chosen to do an internship at the Human Rights Department at the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation in Paris. While there, I was given a scholarship to study at the institute in Strasbourg. The Hamilton Rotary Club locally assisted in covering some of the cost.

I interacted at Unesco and the institute with folks from around the world. I heard their struggles with various forms of inequality in their country of origin. We were on fire for change. We were of the strong belief that all persons should be equal before the law of the land. Human rights are for all people; not just some.

In 1980 upon graduation, I was invited by the minister responsible for human affairs, Quinton Edness, to join Dan Hill from Canada to draft Bermuda’s first Human Rights Act. For the time, the Act was progressive, and forward-thinking. We were the first country in the world to include “born out of wedlock” as a clause in the Act. Since I myself was born out of wedlock, I was glad to be embraced as an equal by the law.

Shame was instilled in you for being born out of wedlock. It was, and still is, so prevalent in Bermuda that we had to ensure that one was no longer a criminal owing to the choices or mistakes of our parents. Nonetheless, my colleagues at Unesco were very impressed at the inclusion of the clause in our Human Rights Act, and noted that we were the first country in the world to do so.

The journey for equal rights based on sexual orientation has been a long one.

In 1994, United Bermuda Party Member of Parliament John Stubbs, brought a Private Member’s Bill to Parliament to end the sodomy laws in Bermuda. At the time, men caught in the act of sodomy were sentenced to prison for ten years.

A group met weekly at Dr Stubbs’s house with a view to getting his Bill passed in Parliament. I was the chief lobbyist charged with convincing Progressive Labour Party members to vote in favour of the Bill, while Grace Pitcher Bell was the main lobbyist for UBP members, along with Dr Stubbs. We spoke to all members individually, and as a group. I spoke to the PLP caucus, thanks to then leader, Frederick L. Wade, and Lois Browne-Evans.

As with anything regarding sexual orientation in Bermuda, members on each side were split on the vote. Despite this, we were able to get enough members of the PLP to vote for the Bill, thus ending the sodomy laws. Both parties had a conscience vote, which meant members could vote as they wanted rather than be under the party whip, obligated to vote along party lines.

Interestingly, the PLP leadership under Wade, and his deputy Lois Browne-Evans voted to end the sodomy laws. The UBP leadership, under John Swan, voted to retain the sodomy laws. Nonetheless, with the seven PLP members including myself voting with the UBP members, we were able to get the Stubbs Bill passed into law. Thus, sodomy was no longer a crime in Bermuda.

In 2006, I brought a Private Members’ Bill to Parliament to get the Human Rights Act amended to include sexual orientation. It failed miserably as members of both the PLP and the UBP decided against it, choosing not to speak on the matter. Only one member, the late Nelson Bascome, spoke on the Bill. The other members came up with various reasons not to speak on the Bill. It was also a conscience vote rather than members being under the whip. This effectively meant members could speak and vote how they chose — for or against the Bill.

Aside from Nelson, members did not speak or vote on the Bill. Much to my surprise, and dismay, the Deputy Speaker shut the discussion down, with the gavel resounding throughout the chambers.

The action by members led to one of the largest marches on Parliament that the House had seen. The public were incensed that members treated the Bill on equal rights with such contempt.

This defeat led me to co-establish the human rights advocacy group Two Words and a Comma. This was done along with reporter Ayo Johnson, who came up with the idea. The name derives from the required addition of “sexual orientation,” to amend the Act — two words and a comma.

The group was responsible for Bermuda’s first public human rights campaign. The public, as well as members of both legislatures — the House and the Senate — were educated on human rights and sexual orientation. It was a resounding success, with many members of the public, and the LGBT community and family members, participating in the campaign. It was not until almost ten years later that sexual orientation was finally included in the Human Rights Act, thus becoming law.

In 2015, the One Bermuda Alliance government amended the law to include sexual orientation. This meant that no one could be discriminated against on the grounds of sexual orientation. Although, in the case of a landlord, discrimination was allowed.

The hoopla regarding same-sex marriage has been unfortunate. I have always been clear on my position regarding human rights. Consenting adults should have the right to decide who they choose to love and/or marry. Once again, I lobbied members of the Legislature with the pros and cons of banning the existing same sex-marriage law. The hope was that the same-sex law would remain the same regardless of the pending Domestic Partnership Act. Both give people hope. The two, same-sex marriage and domestic partnerships, could exist simultaneously. Amendments would be needed, but it is workable.

While the Domestic Partnership Act is a grand improvement on what was previously in existence for same-sex couples, and indeed heterosexual, unmarried couples, it is not the ultimate right for same-sex couples — the right to marry who they choose. I accept that there are differences. I also accept that differences should lead to equality before the law. Human rights discrimination was always accepted as the right thing to do by those doing the discriminating. Until the law said it could not be done without consequences.

Just like I was told in 1980 that “the time is not right for sexual orientation to be included” in the original Human Rights Act, I trust we will not have to wait another 30 years for same-sex marriage to become law. In the meantime, I will continue my fight for human rights, justice, equality and dignity whenever and wherever I find it.

On the United States Supreme Court ruling of June 26, 2015 to protect the rights of same-sex couples to marry, Barack Obama tweeted: “Today is a big step in our march towards equality. Gay and lesbian couples now have the right to marry, just like anyone else. #LoveWins.”

While Bermuda has made strides to protect those within its shores through human rights law, any protection involving one’s sexuality has been controversial. Whether changing the sodomy law, adding sexual orientation to the Human Rights Act or allowing same-sex marriage, there have been protests in the name of personal or religious beliefs. One questions why potential sexual activity within the context of love, or not, gets people’s attention like no other subject.

All debates involving the struggle for equal rights and sexual orientation have filled the public gallery of Parliament like no other debate. Religious leaders and believers come out in full force. They have marched around the House of Assembly, handed out pamphlets, prayed for us, verbally attacked and judged us. Why is so much disdain brought to the fore in the name of same-sex behaviour rather than in the name of equality and love?

Bermuda has long fought for the rights of human freedom, justice and dignity from the time of slavery up until now. It has been a struggle for the freedom of the human spirit. The need for an equal and just society where all persons are equal before the law, without fear or favour, is ongoing. The journey has been fraught with challenges and pain. We are on the path nonetheless, and for that, we should celebrate.

“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they are taught to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” — Nelson Mandela

Renée Webb is a former Cabinet minister in the Progressive Labour Party government. She can be reached at reneewebb15@gmail.com