Bermuda voters will head to the polls on Thursday, June 23, to vote in a non-binding referendum on both legalizing same-sex marriage and legalizing same-sex civil unions. LGBT advocates are watching the results of the referendum with close interest.
The referendum will ask voters two separate questions, one on same-sex marriage and another on same-sex civil unions. A “yes” or “favour” vote is recommended by those who agree with the proposed marriage reforms. The Royal Gazette reports that is has called all 36 of the nation’s members of Parliament (MPs) to ask them how they will vote in the referendum, and received responses from 15 of them. Of those, 11 say they will vote for civil unions, while only seven will vote for marriage equality, with a possible eighth MP saying she is undecided.
Premier Michael Dunkley said he intends to vote for the civil unions question, but has not said how he will vote on same-sex marriage. He has previously said publicly that he believes marriage is between a man and a woman.
“I respect people’s opinions but I support human rights and I think it’s very important that people come out and vote yes because I don’t think in the year 2016 we can discriminate against anybody’s rights,” Pink News quotes Dunkley as saying. “Whether I support or dislike somebody’s lifestyle, that’s not up for me to judge. But for me, as an individual, it’s to make sure I respect and understand people’s rights and I intend to vote yes for civil unions on June 23.”
Some see the civil unions measure as a half-step or compromise, wanting to provide equal treatment for same-sex couples, even as many struggle with their feelings on same-sex marriage. In a nation where more than half of the population identifies as either mainline Protestant or evangelical Christian, that is a stumbling block. And opponents of same-sex marriage aren’t fooled by half-measures: they believe that approving civil unions will open the door to the eventual legalization of marriage equality. That’s why, ahead of the group, right-wing evangelicals from the United States have focused their efforts on defeating both questions in the referendum.
The Human Rights Campaign has reported that those evangelicals include people like Brad Harrub, who has claimed that marriage equality could lead to the spread of pedophilia, bestiality and polygamy. Some of those arguments have taken hold among opponents of the referendum. In one Royal Gazette article, Allan and Mildred Hunt, a couple who run Heart to Heart Marriage Mentoring Ministries, specifically cited some of the ongoing fights in the United States where business owners have sought a religious exemption to avoid providing goods or services to LGBT people following the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision last year. They also told the paper they were alarmed by a ruling by Canada’s Supreme Court, in which justices ruled that a man appealing a bestiality conviction found that sex acts upon animals are only illegal if penetration was involved.
The Human Rights Campaign, which will be monitoring the results of the referendum closely, writes on its blog: “Bermuda has made several attempts in the last few decades to advance LGBTQ rights.” But the organization also notes that although sodomy was decriminalized in 1994, the age of consent for same-sex couples remains higher than the age for opposite-sex couples. Likewise, in June 2013, Bermuda banned discrimination based on sexual orientation, but did not pass any protections based on gender identity, meaning the nation still lags on most equality metrics.