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LGBT Bermudians in Canada and US campaign for marriage equality back home

Unable to vote at home, queer Bermudians abroad are working to secure “Yes” vote for equal marriage

Voting Yes.

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The tiny British territory of Bermuda is holding a referendum June 23, 2016, asking its citizens if they approve of same-sex marriage and civil unions, but many LGBT Bermudians are effectively disenfranchised, because they’ve had to leave to find acceptance and community. Bermuda doesn’t allow mail-in ballots.

So, some LGBT Bermudians in Canada and the United States are working to convince friends and family back home to vote “yes” to both same-sex marriage and civil unions.

“There is only so much I can do by being away, so most of the referendum talk [and] awareness had been through social media,” says Winston Ricardo, who has lived in Toronto for 14 years. “I just brought to light how we have to be better and spread love to not allow society to perpetuate this hate towards the LGBTQ community.”

Ricardo was able to vote because he had already planned to be in Bermuda during the advance voting days last week.

“It would mean a lot to be able to live happily and comfortably on Bermuda with my partner. Unfortunately it’s just not the case at the moment,” he says. “I would love to be able to come back and work towards improving my little island nation. As it stands, it’s not something I can do and expect my partner to be okay with it . . . we wouldn’t be afforded the same rights and benefits of heterosexual couples.”

There’s no count of how many Bermudians live in Canada or the US, and how many of them are LGBT. A Bermuda government census recorded more than 600 Bermudians moved to Canada, the US, and the UK between 2000–2010. Hundreds more are known to be in those countries as post-secondary students.

The small LGBT community in Bermuda has made big strides on the island in recent years, which has in turn prompted a backlash from the deeply religious Protestant communities. Last year, their Supreme Court ruled that gay couples have the right to adopt children and also that same-sex partnerships must be recognized for immigration purposes.

Recognizing that the immigration ruling would open the door for further change, the government introduced a civil unions bill this February to head it off. But in the face of opposition from an organized religious group and members of the government’s own party, it backed down and hastily called a referendum on civil unions and same-sex marriage. The government admits it is non-binding, and a negative result won’t quash the state’s obligation to provide some relationship recognition to its LGBT citizens. But a positive vote may help propel the issue past political opposition.

Zakiya Johnson comes from Somerset, Bermuda, but moved to New York in 2015 so she could be with her partner of ten years. She’s been helping coordinators of the YES YES campaign build support in the island’s black community.

Although polls conducted for the island’s Royal Gazette newspaper regularly show a strong racial divide on the issue of LGBT marriage — with the white minority strongly in favour and the black majority strongly opposed — Johnson bristles at any suggestion that either community is particularly homophobic. 

“I don’t think it’s fair to divide it so squarely down racial lines, but I think there appears to be a reluctance to affirm publicly along racial lines,” she says. “I have family members that love me well. They’re not pretending my wife is someone else. I have older family members who flew to Canada for my wedding. I think those are noteworthy. Do I think those same people would go out wearing a rainbow flag? No.”

The Yes side needs all the help it can get. The “Preserve Marriage” No campaign has been active for at least a year, was able to draw on hundreds of volunteers from the church communities, and is believed to have been able to draw on significant donations from wealthy citizens. Preserve Marriage stickers and posters are reportedly prevalent on the island. By contrast, the Yes Yes campaign is mostly made up of a handful of volunteers drawn together after the hastily planned referendum was announced in March.

The Preserve Marriage campaign did not return several emails and calls for this story.

“Honestly, the amount of money and resources on the ‘No, No’ side of the campaign is incomparable to those on the ‘Yes, Yes’ side, so person-to-person discussions on the grassroots level have had to be our main strategy,” says Kai O’Doherty, who has been working from Montreal with the Rainbow Alliance of Bermuda, a collective that issues press releases and social media engagement around LGBT rights.

O’Doherty (who uses the pronoun they) says that the referendum has been damaging to the LGBTQ community.

“The referendum allows homophobes to spew hatred towards my community under the guise of ‘campaigning,’” they say. “For LGBTQ youth in Bermuda, this referendum has provided another avenue to be told that we are not welcome – a painful message for any young person to hear.”

O’Doherty came to Montreal to study at McGill but has stayed an extra year. They say they don’t know if they’re going to return to Bermuda.

“Being transgender in such a small, ill-informed community is incredibly hard and I don’t anticipate returning before having a chance to further strengthen myself against the ignorance.”