Gay Couples Who Could Finally Marry in Bermuda Feel Like Second-Class Citizens Again

Bermuda has just taken away same-sex couples' right to marry.

In a new law signed this week by Bermuda's Governor, John Rankin, the right for same-sex couples to marry has been replaced with the option of a domestic partnership, a status that will be open to both same- and different-sex couples.

Bermuda, a British overseas territory with about 65,000 inhabitants, is the first country in the world to reverse its laws on same-sex marriage, doing so with remarkable speed.

It was only May last year that Bermuda's Supreme Court ruled to allow same-sex couples to marry, and many gays, lesbians and their allies celebrated the court's decision. Cruise liner operators, who sail under the Bermuda flag on which marriage ceremonies are performed under Bermuda law, also welcomed the ruling. The decision was good for equality, tourism and business in general.

But fierce debate both in Bermuda's parliament and wider society, about whether marriage should be preserved as a union between a woman and a man, followed the court's ruling.

The Bermuda government introduced the Domestic Partnership Act 2017, which overrides the ruling on same-sex marriage, in an attempt to calm tensions and reconcile opposing views. The bill passed the House of Assembly and the Senate, and only needed the signature of the Bermuda governor to become formalized. This week saw that final step taken.

So where does this leave same-sex couples who married in Bermuda after the court's ruling but before the Act comes into effect? The Minister of Home Affairs, Walton Brown, has said that same-sex marriages lawfully contracted under Bermuda law will continue to be recognized. He added that any same-sex marriages taking place elsewhere before and during the transition period will also be legally recognized.

The decision to abolish the right to marry for same-sex couples is harsh, unprecedented, and runs counter to developments in other parts of the world.

The Netherlands was the first country in the world to introduce marriage equality at the beginning of the century, in 2001.

Since then, 25 countries have extended civil marriage to same-sex couples.

In 2017, legislation for same-sex marriage came into force in both Germany and Malta, two European Union member states. In Austria, the Constitutional Court ruled that the government and parliament have until January 1, 2019, to introduce legislation allowing same-sex couples to marry. If the government does not act by then, the law on civil marriage law will be automatically be read as if amended and from then on, same-sex marriages can take place.

In Asia, in a May ruling, Taiwan's Constitutional Court paved the way for marriage equality too, striking down the legal definition of marriage as "between a man and a woman." The court gave parliament two years to amend existing laws or pass new legislation to include same-sex marriage. If parliament fails to act, same-sex couples will automatically be able to marry. Thus, by 2019 or sooner, Taiwan will become the first Asian country with marriage equality.

Gay rights
Bermuda, a British overseas territory with about 65,000 inhabitants, is the first country in the world to reverse its laws on same-sex marriage. AUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images

In Chile, President Michelle Bachelet introduced a marriage equality bill in August, which Chile's Congress began debating in November. The debates will continue in 2018. If the bill is adopted, Chile will become the sixth country in Latin America with marriage equality.

The Australian government introduced legislation permitting same sex marriages in Parliament following the results of a national postal survey, in which 61.6 percent of respondents voted in favor of marriage equality. The Senate and the House of Representatives approved the bill, and the first marriages took place in December 2017.

The early days of 2018 have also been very positive for marriage equality in the Americas. On January 9. the Inter American Court of Human Rights affirmed, in a landmark advisory opinion, that the American Convention on Human Rights requires countries to allow same-sex couples access to civil marriage, and all of the rights and benefits that derive from it. This ruling creates an opening in the states who have ratified the Convention to follow the marriage equality example of Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Uruguay.

Bermuda's decision is a serious set-back for its gay and lesbian couples. Their government has sent them a message that they are somehow second-class citizens, simply because they love someone of the same sex.

However, while there is also a risk the decision will embolden conservative groups in other countries who do not respect non-discrimination, the tide of equality is inevitably rising. And this week's move by Bermuda's government will ultimately be shown to be on the wrong side of history.


Boris Dittrich is advocacy director of the LGBT division at Human Rights Watch. Follow him on Twitter.