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The Fight for Equal Marriage in Bermuda Is Coming Down to the Wire

A movement to recognize same-sex marriage on the tiny island nation is struggling against a well-organized and well-funded opposition — but there's still hope that the country may vote yes.
Adrian Hartnett-Beasley and his husband Shane were married last year in New York City, but Bermuda will not recognize their marriage. (Becky Spencer Photography)

"As a gay woman it has always been my desire to get married, and I refuse to leave my country in order to get married," Linda Mienzer said over the phone from her home in Devonshire, Bermuda. She's one of just a few openly, publicly gay activists in the small British territory.

Mienzer, along with the rest of Bermuda's LGBTQ community, has found herself at the center of the island's hottest political debate: same-sex marriage.

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Bermuda is the last territory in North America north of the Rio Grande without full equal marriage for same-sex couples, but a referendum to be held on June 23 could change that. Residents are being asked two questions: Are you in favor of same-sex marriage in Bermuda? Are you in favor of same-sex civil unions in Bermuda?

But though some are hopeful that Bermudians will approve at least one of those questions — with some optimistically pushing to get voters to pick 'yes, yes' — many in the LGBTQ community complain the referendum process is deeply flawed. If polls are any indication, the island is also deeply divided on the issue.

An ad, published in the Royal Gazette, featuring the town crier for Hamilton, Bermuda

Bermuda is a British territory, a series of volcanic islands 578 miles east of North Carolina and home to about 64,000 people.

But despite its close ties to the United Kingdom, the LGBTQ community in Bermuda lacks many of the key supports found in London and elsewhere: bars and clubs, Pride parades, safe spaces. Thanks to a strongly religious culture, homosexuality remains taboo. And while there has been some progress, many LGBTQ Bermudians end up emigrating, especially to the UK (where they enjoy citizenship), Canada, or the United States — all equal marriage jurisdictions.

"Because there's so little rights and so little community activity, and so little opportunity and protection of family life, that LGBT people who are college age go away for college and don't come back," said Adrian Hartnett-Beasley, one of the coordinators of the Yes Yes Campaign.

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"We're fed up. We're really fucking fed up."

The same-sex relationships referendum comes after a string of recent legislative and legal victories by the LGBTQ community. In 2013, Bermuda's Parliament passed a law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation (though not on gender identity, which would protect the island's trans community). Then, in 2015, came Supreme Court rulings: the first, recognizing that gay couples have the right to adopt children. The second afforded official recognition for same-sex partnerships — but only for immigration purposes.

Related: Mexico's President Wants to Legalize Same-Sex Marriage

The rulings, limited as they were, opened the door for further change. The government asked the court for a stay of the immigration ruling while new legislation could be drafted, but the court's February deadline came and went without any new legislation coming into force.

Adrian, who is a native Bermudan, and his husband Shane, who is not, were among the complainants in the immigration case. They say that the lack of legal recognition of their relationship made it difficult for Shane to settle permanently in Bermuda and obtain a work permit.

Lack of recognition also has other particular consequences in Bermuda. Non-citizens are not allowed to purchase property, which makes it difficult for Adrian and Shane to plan a future together.

"We're fed up. We're really fucking fed up," Hartnett-Beasley said. "We're stuck. We want to build a life here. We're actively choosing to live in Bermuda. As a Bermudian, I should have the same rights as all my peers to the same sort of family life."

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But while the legal victories were piling up, anti-gay activists and religious leaders were organizing opposition to any change. When the Attorney-General tabled civil union legislation in February, opponents demanded a referendum. After initially dismissing their calls, the government did an about-face, and on March 4, announced plans for a vote.

"[The referendum plan] was passed with little to no consultation with the LGBT community in Bermuda, even though it only affects LGBT Bermudians and their partners," Hartnett-Beasley said.

The hastily called referendum has been particularly challenging for those campaigning for marriage equality. While the "No" side has been active for at least a year, queer activists were unprepared for the surprise referendum and only have a handful of volunteers.

"The problem is a lot of the community is in the closet, or they're not comfortable being public," Hartnett-Beasley said. "I have one friend who's engaged to a man and his family all knows, but who is not comfortable being on a poster."

Moreover, the people who perhaps have the most at stake in the election — LGBTQ Bermudians who've been forced to leave to make a life for themselves — are effectively disenfranchised. Bermuda does not allow mail-in voting.

If that weren't enough, the original plan called for half of the 12 polling stations to be located inside churches that have been campaigning for the "Preserve Marriage" side. All of these issues prompted the Centre for Justice, a Bermudian non-profit that advocates on human rights and governance issues, to file for a judicial review of the referendum in May. It alleged that the referendum breached fundamental rights and that it is being conducted unfairly.

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According to the Royal Gazette, in court June 9, Bermuda Supreme Court Chief Justice Dr. Ian Kawaley called the referendum plan "absolutely absurd" and told the government, "I don't see how you can seriously seek to defend it." He ultimately ruled that the referendum can go ahead, but forced the government to relocate the polling stations to neutral grounds.

Multiple calls and emails to the Parliamentary Registry, which oversees elections and referenda, were not returned. Calls and emails to the Attorney-General Trevor Moniz, and the Premier Michael Dunkley, also went unanswered.

Attempts were made to contact the Preserve Marriage campaign, but multiple emails were unreturned, and the phone number listed on its web site appears to be out of service.

A poll commissioned last year – before the Supreme Court's immigration ruling – by the Royal Gazette newspaper found a narrow 48% - 44% split in favor of marriage equality among Bermudians. LGBTQ activists fear that the outcome could be more lopsided than that.

Since then, Preserve Marriage has been very active, distributing signs, stickers, and campaign literature across the island.

By contrast, the Yes Yes campaign is a motley collection of individuals under-resourced to run a campaign across the whole island. Some are running faceless social media campaigns encouraging people to vote Yes via memes and messages distributed on Twitter and Facebook. Two weeks before the poll, no campaign literature, signs, or stickers have even been printed.

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"The group on the other side, they've been politically campaigning for about eight months. We wouldn't be able to compete. Financially we're going to be outgunned. Preserve Marriage, right from its outset, had 400 volunteers. We have a board of seven," Hartnett-Beasley said.

Activists are largely relying on word-of-mouth.

"Most of the people that I have spoken to, they don't care one way or another. They recognize that Bermuda has a lot of issues before it that are far more important than this," Mienzer said. "A lot of people are hung up on that one word, marriage. For them, when they're biblically driven, marriage is a man and a woman. They say to me, 'listen, I don't have a problem with civil union, but I have a problem with using the word marriage,' and I'm saying to you, well, I have a problem with being required to be everything of a citizen in this country, but being denied one civil liberty."

Of minor solace to the Yes campaigners is the fact that the referendum may not be the end of the discussion. The government considers the referendum non-binding, and in any event, the government would still be bound by last year's court decisions. If the government continues to drag its feet on equal marriage or civil unions, some are prepared to take their case to higher courts: the Privy Council in London, or the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

"There are people here who are happy to fund a case like this, and would fund it all the way if it needed to go all the way," Hartnett-Beasley said.

Follow Rob Salerno on Twitter: @RobSalerno