Earlier this month, Bermuda made history, and not in a good way. The territory claimed the dubious honor of becoming the first place to legalize and then overturn marriage equality. Bermuda Governor John Rankin, approved the Domestic Partnership Act 2017, a bill that essentially took away marriage equality and replaced it with civil partnerships.
Bermuda’s government is justifying this breach of equality as a “win-win,” a way to appease social and religious conservatives and LGBTIQ people. And it was a compromise, of sorts: the majority of the public rejected any recognition of same-sex partnerships. In a nonbinding referendum in 2016, a year before the Bermuda Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, 69 percent of Bermudians voted against marriage equality. In that same referendum, 63 percent of voters rejected civil partnerships. The Domestic Partnership Act preserves civil partnerships, but this “win-win” has left LGBTIQ Bermudians feeling like second-class citizens.
While the reversal in Bermuda is the first of its kind, we cannot assume that what happened here is an isolated case. To the contrary, Bermuda’s backtracking sheds a light on where marriage equality stands globally, and where it is headed. Simply put, LGBTIQ people and our allies should be prepared for the long haul if we want to spread and protect marriage rights.
It is easy to forget, but the first country to legalize same-sex marriage — the Netherlands — did so only 17 years ago. Today, only 26 countries in the world allow same-sex marriages. Even in socially progressive countries like Switzerland, marriages are reserved for heterosexual couples, while same-sex couples only have the right to a civil union (polls show that a Swiss majority supports marriage equality, so most likely the law will follow suit in the not-too-distant future). And in the United States, it wasn’t until 2011 that the share of adults who favored marriage equality outweighed those who opposed it, and merely by a margin of 1 percent — 46 percent in favor to 45 percent against. Only after this shift did marriage equality become a reality in more than a few states, before the Supreme Court made it legal nationwide in 2015.
In Bermuda, the ruling Progressive Labor party proposed the Domestic Partnership Act less than a year after same-sex marriage became legal in the British territory; the bill passed Bermuda’s House of Assembly and the senate in December 2017. The Act needed only to be assented by Rankin to come into effect.
In other nations, anti-marriage campaigners have challenged court rulings that legalize same-sex marriage. In May 2017, Taiwan’s constitutional court, the Judicial Yuan, ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry. The court gave the parliament two years to amend the civil code to reflect its decision, in the absence of which same-sex couples will be able to marry using the institutions that are already in place. The ruling was met with exuberant celebration, but also with visible homophobic backlash. On Feb. 15, 2018, the faith-based Alliance of Taiwan Religious Groups for the Protection of the Family launched its second appeal against the Judicial Yuan’s decision and filed a petition to Taiwan’s Central Election Commission to hold a referendum on same-sex marriage.
In Latin and Central America, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled last month that all countries in its jurisdiction must enact marriage equality; backlash to this decision is already unfolding. Costa Rica, for example, saw relatively obscure presidential candidate Fabricio Alvarado propelled to the front of the polls after pledging to disobey the ruling and threatening to leave the Court’s jurisdiction.
Marriage is not the be-all and end-all; in fact, in most parts of the world, marriage rights are not the priority for LGBTIQ people. The community continues to face egregious and systematic human rights violations including extrajudicial killings; physical and verbal abuse; forced marriages; and discrimination in almost all aspects of life, including in housing, health care and education. Over 70 countries in the world still criminalize homosexuality, with punishments that can amount to 10 or more years in prison. Some countries even have the death penalty on the books.
In countries without straightforward sodomy laws — measures that render certain sexual acts illegal — other punitive laws are used to criminalize LGBTIQ people, including debauchery laws, public morality laws, laws against cross-dressing and other religion-based laws.
While marriage equality advocates have made significant gains in less than two decades, global surveys indicate that in much of the world, homophobia and transphobia are pervasive. In some places, like Indonesia, Egypt and Chechnya, these attitudes and subsequent crackdowns on LGBTIQ people are intensifying. In 2017 alone, hundreds of LGBTIQ individuals worldwide were harassed, arrested, detained and tortured.
Until these these basic safety issues are resolved and greater protections are put in place to secure the security of LGBTIQ people, equal marriage will continue to be a distant dream for much of the world.
Marriage equality should be neither the only bar by which to measure the rights of LGBTIQ people, nor for gauging how homophobic and transphobic a nation’s policies and cultures are. Bermuda is a clear example of that; in many ways, life for LGBTIQ people is better there than in much of the world. The island has enacted laws prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, and secures adoption and immigration rights for same-sex partners. Clearly, these priorities outweighed marriage equality. While the reversal on marriage rights is cause for concern, we can also stand to learn from the country’s many accomplishments.
Despite the many obstacles in achieving marriage equality, with time and advocacy, it will become more common. LGBTIQ people, their allies and organizations everywhere around the world will continue investing in and fighting for change. LGBTIQ people have overcome even the most shocking circumstances to change hearts and minds, and enact legislation that is more aligned with human rights principles. The trajectory of such change may not be linear, and while opponents to LGBTIQ rights argue the alternative, it will ultimately bend toward justice.
Rashima Kwatra is Communications Officer at OutRight Action International, an international LGBTIQ human rights advocacy organization.