If there was ever any doubt that hard-won LGBT rights can be rolled back, Bermuda offered proof this week by becoming the first country in the world to repeal same-sex marriage after previously legalizing it.
In the aftermath of Governor John Rankin’s signing of the official repeal legislation, which will swap out same-sex marriages for domestic partnerships, LGBT Bermudans say they are not going to accept this historic regression of their rights.
“This legislation creates a ‘watered down’ version of rights, leading to a separate-but-equal status under the law,” the Rainbow Alliance of Bermuda wrote in a Facebook post reacting to Rankin’s royal assent to the legislation. “Ultimately, no separate-but-equal measure allows for equality or justice.”
The British overseas territory only legalized same-sex marriage in May 2017 via a Supreme Court ruling—and marriage equality has been under attack on the island, a popular tourist destination with a population of about 60,000 people, ever since.
“Today, history has been made and love has won,” the Rainbow Alliance of Bermuda, which did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment, wrote back when the Supreme Court decision came down in favor of a gay couple who challenged the government for the right to marry.
But anti-LGBT sentiment on the socially conservative island demonstrated over the next year that history can indeed be un-made, with legislators working to reverse the Supreme Court ruling with a bill.
In December 2017, as The Daily Beast previously reported, the House of Assembly voted in favor of a bill to replace same-sex marriage with domestic partnerships by a wide 24-10 margin. The Senate approved it shortly thereafter, sending it to the desk of Governor Rankin, who signed it this Wednesday.
“After careful consideration in line with my responsibilities under the Constitution, I have today given assent to the Domestic Partnership Act 2017,” Gov. Rankin said in a statement to the press.
The new law allows same-sex marriages that occurred between May 2017 and this Wednesday to remain legal, but, going forward, same-sex couples will only have the option to enter into domestic partnerships, which the Bermuda government says on its official website will now include inheritance rights, pension rights, property rights, and medical decision-making rights.
Human rights groups, however, see the inclusion of these domestic partnership rights in the repeal legislation as a deceptive bait-and-switch.
As Human Rights Campaign national press secretary Stephen Peters put it, “Under the guise of passing domestic partnership benefits, the new law strips loving same-sex Bermuda couples of the right to marry.”
The repeal legislation could affect not just same-sex couples on Bermuda, but the entire economy of the island as well.
The Bermuda tourism industry has weakened over the past decade, with more recent signs of life, as the Royal Gazette has reported. According to the Gazette, a record 693,000 people visited the island last year, whether by plane or on a cruise ship, and the majority of them are from North America.
Kevin Dallas, CEO of the Bermuda Tourism Authority, told The Daily Beast in a statement that, after the repeal of same-sex marriage remain “committed to inclusiveness and to treating all visitors with respect.”
“We believe in the transformative power of travel, the exchange of ideas and the understanding it inspires,” Dallas wrote. “We encourage all travelers to Bermuda, including LGBT visitors, to continue participating in this important exchange with us.”
John Tanzella, CEO of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association—which the Bermuda Tourism Authority joined in 2017–added in a statement: “We believe in working with destinations to provide education and create ongoing dialogue that can lead to change in policies and sentiments, versus calling for boycotts that isolate local LGBTQ communities and close the door on conversation.”
Whether LGBT travelers will want to visit the first territory in the world to roll back marriage equality, however, remains to be seen.
“We hope to still welcome LGBTQ visitors to our beautiful island, but understand that many will refuse to travel in a place where they are seen as second-class citizens,” the Rainbow Alliance of Bermuda wrote in December.
That same month, as the Human Rights Campaign noted, the Bermuda Tourism Authority told legislators in a letter that they are “convinced [the bill] will result in lost tourism business,” pointing out that “the younger visitors powering Bermuda’s growth” are especially likely to be passionate about LGBT equality.
As “cautionary tale[s],” the Bermuda Tourism Agency cited the economic backlash North Carolina faced in 2016 for passing the anti-transgender bathroom bill HB 2, as well as the similar backlash Indiana faced in 2015 for the “religious freedom” bill signed into law by then-governor Mike Pence.
The repeal also poses questions for the government of the United Kingdom, which has already announced it will not block the law passed by its overseas territory.
As the BBC reported, Prime Minister Theresa May has said she is “seriously disappointed by the law” but stressed that “our relationship with the overseas territories is based on partnership and respect for their right to democratic self-government.”
Particularly intense scrutiny is being placed on Foreign Affairs Secretary Boris Johnson, who could have blocked the legislation but opted not to.
As the Independent reported, members of British Parliament said that Johnson’s decision to allow the law was “a source of great shame,” that it “makes us complicit in something which this House has repeatedly voted against,” and that it would undermine the UK government’s moral authority on LGBT rights.
Foreign Office minister Harriet Baldwin said that Johnson “decided that in these circumstances it would not be appropriate to use this power to block legislation, which can only be used where there is a legal or constitutional basis for doing so, and even only in exceptional circumstances.”
But although the ramifications of the Bermuda same-sex marriage repeal will be felt around the globe, it is LGBT Bermudans themselves who will suffer the most immediate and dire consequences.
“We have heard many people say they are ashamed or embarrassed to be Bermudian,” the Rainbow Bermuda Alliance wrote as the bill was headed to Governor Rankin’s desk. “As a group of proud Bermudians, we want to affirm that we will never be ashamed of where we are from, only of the regrettable decisions of our elected officials.”