WEDNESDAY, JULY 4: Bermuda’s religious right has paralysed a bid to extend human rights protection to gay people, it was claimed yesterday.
And fear of a church-going voter backlash at the polls could make it difficult for politicians to amend the law to protect people against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.
Performance artist and poet Tiffany Paynter, who is gay, said: “The religious right of Bermuda is apparently a big population of the voters.
“At the end of the day, you can allow your fears to lead you in the direction of the popular vote — it is what it is and politics is a popularity contest.
“If they feel as if the churches and people within congregations are a significant population of voters, then understandably, they will do what is convenient.”
Ms Paynter was speaking after Youth, Families and Sports Minister Glenn Blakeney gave notice of a House of Assembly debate on adding discrimination on age and sexual orientation as part of an Equality Act. No legislation has been tabled.
Ms Paynter added: “I’m not speaking against the PLP, I’m speaking about this because I am pro-human rights, not anti-PLP.”
But she said a debate without a change in the law was “a gesture towards open-mindedness with regard to gay rights and human rights”.
She added: “Our laws are so anachronistic that a change is long overdue – dragging their feet would be an understatement.
“It’s really just a political game. When it’s convenient, they want to raise it as an issue and that goes for both parties. There has been plenty of discussion.”
And — in a reference to the ‘Two Words and a Comma’ campaign which fought for equal protection from discrimination on sexual orientation grounds – she said: “Two words and a comma in the Human Rights Act would say to people who are queer and to those who are not queer that there is nothing to be ashamed of.
“It would say ‘you’re not less than human, you’re not less than equal’. I don’t think another conversation is newsworthy — another vote might be newsworthy, but this will only really be newsworthy when they change the law.
“What people are saying is they want their leaders to lead the country in the direction the minority wants — sometimes the majority is not in the moral right.
“We just have to accept the fact that there are bigots in the political arena, in the way we accept there are gay people in the political arena.”
Government MP Ashfield DeVent, who said he was in favour of amending the law to protect gay people, backed Ms Paynter.
He said: “It could be the fact that the churches do wield quite a bit of power in Bermuda, period. Political parties have also historically had to think long and hard about certain decisions with an eye on what religious spokesmen are going to do about it.
“I don’t know why changing the law is taking so long. I would be in favour of an amendment, some adjustment to the present legislation, but I can’t speak specifically because I haven’t seen any proposed legislation or know how it’s planned to amend it.”
He added that one way of dealing with the issue would be to add the question to a proposed referendum on gambling and let the voters decide.
Let the people decide
Mr DeVent said: “If the church vote is as strong as they believe, it will go their way, but let the people decide if that’s the case.”
News of the debate sparked a political row, with the PLP claiming that the Opposition OBA did not want a discussion in Parliament.
But Mr Blakeney’s shadow Minister, Senator Toni Daniels, said: “It’s been four years since I highlighted concern about the lack of will to implement this long-needed change. In my maiden speech in Senate, if you will, I said this very thing.
“It’s entirely disingenuous for the PLP to put forward this notion of a debate rather than put forward a bill. It’s unacceptable after all these years not to remedy this long-standing injustice.”
Ms Daniels said that PLP insiders had told her that the vast majority of the party caucus had not wanted the issue debated at all.
She added: “That, I guess, is their business. There are some in the PLP who have spoken about their own sensitivities over this from a religious perspective. I can only assume that’s what the reason is – rationally, there can be no other excuse.”
Kim Swan of the minority UBP added: “All persons are entitled to the same protection under the law.”
A bid by former Government Minister Renee Webb to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation in 2006 was defeated.
Ms Webb said last night she would have welcomed the tabling of legislation to amend the law – but said a debate was a positive move.
Ms Webb added: “I trust that members show courage and fortitude in speaking up for ending any and all forms of discrimination Bermuda.
“Equality must be embraced in law so that all persons are equal before it. It is not acceptable for any group or individual to be discriminated against because of someone’s emotional or religious belief that certain people are inferior because of their lifestyle, choice or genetic propensity.”
Ms Webb predicted that the issue would be unlikely to affect a General Election — particularly as neither party was likely to put a commitment to equal rights for gay people in their platforms.
She added: “Regarding the church vote, as in politics, so much hypocritical behaviour is engaged in, it’s a non-starter. Both speak to or preach about equality, with the homosexual being an exception.”
She added: “I trust that as a country we will be mature enough to accept the fact that neither religion or politics should dictate the behaviour of consenting adults in their bedroom. It is time for the country to join the rest of the modern world as a democracy promoting basic human rights for all people.”
The Bermuda Sun contacted the island’s three biggest denominations yesterday — the Anglicans, the Catholics and the African Methodist Espiscopal churches. None had responded by press time.
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