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‘A violation of my rights’

Gay Bermudians who marry abroad are mulling how to get their home country to recognise the unions — and give them the same rights as their heterosexual compatriots.

As the number of countries legalising same-sex marriages continues to grow, a group of locals here are discussing the best way to tackle Government's refusal to acknowledge the nuptials.

It is understood the Ministry of Home Affairs has received complaints about the Department of Immigration turning down applications for spousal letters — granting employment and residency rights — for non-Bermudian same-sex spouses.

And the next step could be a challenge in the courts, with gay Bermudians likely to argue that they and their partners are being discriminated against, when compared to the rights afforded to straight Bermudians who marry foreigners abroad and come back to the Island to live.

Restaurateur and chef Joe Gibbons, who is planning to tie the knot with his partner in Toronto in November, told The Royal Gazette: “There is quite a bit going on in this area, though some people are a bit loath to speak out.

“Recently, people were talking at a meeting. People do think there are a number of areas that the Government can be challenged on this. It gets a little complex.

“The issue of gay marriage and whether or not Bermuda will permit gay marriage — that's one issue.

“But when it comes to immigration, we are not talking about Bermuda recognising the procedure of gay marriage.

“We are saying: are [all] Bermudians afforded the same rights under the Immigration [and Protection] Act?

“The Immigration Act refers to the spouse of a Bermudian. My partner, who is Canadian, will be the spouse of a Bermudian.

“Why would he be denied the same rights as the Canadian spouse of a heterosexual Bermudian, who will be told ‘fine, you can live and work here'? The evidence of our marriage will be there.”

Mr Gibbons said several lawyers on the Island have indicated that they believe there may be grounds for a legal challenge of any refusal by Immigration to issue a spousal letter to a same-sex spouse.

“It's discrimination against my rights as a Bermudian,” he said, adding that he planned to apply for a spousal letter for his husband after the wedding because “it's my right as a Bermudian to have that”.

He added: “Clearly, as a Bermudian, to not be able to bring my spouse back, I consider as a violation of my civil rights.

“If I am forced to leave Bermuda, which is my home, that clearly is a violation of my civil rights.”

This newspaper has been told, anecdotally, that the Department of Immigration has given residency permission to same-sex spouses of both Bermudians and non-Bermudian work permit holders, allowing partners to live but not work here.

But Mr Gibbons said that wasn't satisfactory and there should be no “grey area” when it came to equal rights.

His comments were echoed by a gay woman, who asked not to be named, who described the current situation as a “farce” and a “mockery”.

“Anybody can go anywhere in the world and get married and come back and their spouse will get all kinds of rights here. But not if you're a gay Bermudian. It has to be discriminatory,” she said.

“I accept the fact that we say in this territory, you can't marry here. I get that. There are lots of things in Bermuda that you can't do.

“But when I get married in a recognised institution, you are telling me that you will not recognise that? Why not? We keep allowing religion to interfere with legislation.”

According to the international organisation Freedom to Marry, 17 countries have approved same-sex marriage, along with states in the US and Mexico.

It is also possible, as a British citizen, to get married to your same-sex partner in British consulates in 23 other countries.

Aside from immigration issues, heterosexual marriage gives couples rights in a number of areas, including finance, inheritance, property, child custody, medical insurance and hospital visits.

Bermudians Heidi and Nitra Smith-Tucker married in Boston last year but their union is not recognised here. Heidi said: “My attitude is: the community will get there eventually. But it really hurts and bothers her [Nitra]. Regarding medical rights, that's something that we are talking about now.”

Nitra said she hadn't experienced any hardship or noticed any lack of rights yet due to the marriage not being recognised.

But she added: “That's not to say that things don't happen. I would definitely want to push for equal rights across the board. Of course Bermuda should recognise same-sex marriages.”

Government failed to respond to this newspaper last week when asked if it recognised same-sex marriages conducted abroad.

Yesterday, it didn't respond by press time to questions about whether it is currently investigating any complaints on this issue or whether it grants residency permission to same-sex spouses.

Lawyers Venous Memari and Michael Mello, along with Opposition MP Walton Brown, say the Island definitely doesn't recognise gay marriages.

In November last year, Jameka Smith wrote on her Facebook page that a staff member at the Immigration Department refused to allow her and her wife to submit an application for a spousal letter, telling them it would be denied.

The Department said at the time it was investigating the complaint.

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Published July 10, 2014 at 9:00 am (Updated July 10, 2014 at 10:18 am)

‘A violation of my rights’

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