'Equal rights for all'

Make text smaller Make text larger

Hundreds of campaigners swarmed the grounds of the House of Assembly yesterday, as MPs faced a barrage of protest over the gay rights no vote controversy.

The decision to reject ? and barely debate ? Ren?e Webb's bid to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation led to more than 300 pro-democracy campaigners turning out in force on the lawns of Parliament yesterday afternoon.

  • Protestors and media gather around Premier Alex Scott (the beige suit everyone's facing) as he leaves the House of Assembly on Friday.

    Protestors and media gather around Premier Alex Scott (the beige suit everyone's facing) as he leaves the House of Assembly on Friday.


Hundreds of campaigners swarmed the grounds of the House of Assembly yesterday, as MPs faced a barrage of protest over the gay rights no vote controversy.

The decision to reject ? and barely debate ? Ren?e Webb's bid to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation led to more than 300 pro-democracy campaigners turning out in force on the lawns of Parliament yesterday afternoon.

In one of the biggest demonstrations in Bermuda in recent years, PLP and UBP politicians emerged from the debating chamber for lunch to be grilled by campaigners asking their stance on the thorny issue ? and why most stayed tight-lipped during last week's session.

Amid heated ? but peaceful ? exchanges between MPs and placard-waving protesters, Ms Webb triggered loud cheers when she appeared on the House balcony.

She later told that in theory she could re-table her defeated private members' bill after the one-year 'freeze' on it being brought back to Parliament expired next summer. Crucially, however, she said she would need MPs' support.

"I was expecting a large turnout and I'm ecstatic this was the case," she said.

Waves of supporters thanked her for her attempts to change the law. "It's wonderful that so many people have come out to stand up for fundamental human rights. Normally we have these types of protests for pay rises."

Tamicka Johnson, 29, from Pembroke, a member of the gay rights campaign group the Rainbow Alliance, echoed those views. She said: "It's time to end the silence."

She agreed campaigners should have lobbied more on the private member's bill before it came before the House, but blamed lack of time between the announcement and the debate.

"We also had more faith in our politicians to do the right thing," she said. "I hate to say it, but this rally is better late than never. At least now they know."

Former Cabinet Minister Ms Webb, now out of favour with many PLP colleagues, said she was pleased to see she was not a "lone voice" on an issue that appears to have split the country. And said the turnout sent a clear message to Government that "all people should be equal under law". Ms Webb said she was doubtful whether the hour-long protest would have made any difference if it had been staged last week. "MPs have decided and they wanted to continue discrimination. That's the issue," the backbencher stated.

She added that everyone in Bermuda deserved equal rights and freedoms, despite discrimination from "people who hide behind religion" ? a reference to the influence of church leaders who lobbied powerfully to have her bill rejected.

Last week's decision did a "disservice to democracy, she said, and showed the majority of MPs lacked courage.

"I'm speaking out for fundamental human rights, it's not a sexual behaviour issue. It's nobody's business what two consenting adults do."

Asked if yesterday's protest would make any difference, she replied: "I do not know. You have to ask the Premier."

Premier Alex Scott told reporters as he left the House and bustled through crowds that the Human Rights Act currently protected all Bermudians. But he indicated that if this Act's ability to protect gays and lesbians was tested in court, then Government might re-examine the issue. This legal option was echoed by Wayne Furbert as he spoke to protestors outside the House. "Next time, be more active," the Opposition Leader also told one campaigner. Amid chaotic scenes and competing with shouts from the crowd, Mr. Scott said it could have been more practical if the rally, which he described as "democracy in action", had been held last Friday. But a women in the crowd told him that they had no idea the bill was going to be thrown out a week ago.

The Premier stressed the private members' bill was decided by conscience vote, with "everyone allowed to vote as individuals" not on party lines. He also told reporters that the "church has rights like everyone else".

Observers pointed to the diverse mix of the crowd, although lawyer Larry Scott said religion meant some sections of the black community stayed away. He added: "As a black person I understand discriminations. I'm a little bit surprised there are not more of us but that's the imposition of the church's homophobia. They really intimidate us in a Biblical context.

"I know there's support for it (the bill) but the church plays a powerful role in this. It places fear in the hearts and minds of black Bermudians who I know stand for this issue."

Former UBP Senator Mr. Scott said if he had been in the House, he would have back Ms Webb. "I'm a libertarian from way back. My principals on this are pretty clear."

Politicians from both sides of the divide mingled with protesters and answered questions ? some more forceful than others.

Deputy Opposition Leader Michael Dunkley was lambasted by a middle-aged female protester who told him: "This sets a dangerous precedent." He told more people should have shown their support for the bill, which he said he believed was "more of a publicity stunt", before it was debated.

Sport Minister Dale Butler, who backed the bill but has received criticism for not speaking on it, said: "I was always told there was a tremendous amount of support in the community but I have never met or seen these people, never met the Rainbow Alliance. "It's heartening to see there's a large number of people here."

Mr Butler said he was genuinely upset when the motion collapsed while he was in the bathroom. A protester then stepped in and asked him if he needed to go to the bathroom before answering any more questions. "Don't make fun," the Minister retorted. "I have supported this issue from the start and everyone knows that. Often I was the only one. When I was told that the caucus didn't consider it I went and spoke to them. When I was told that the Central Committee didn't support it I went to them."

"I don't believe it is already covered in the human rights bill which is why I supported it. I am not the only person in there that could have spoken.

"I listened to Ms Webb, I didn't want to miss a minute of it. Then Nelson Bascome got up and I expected a UBP member to get up so I went out for three minutes. When I came back it was over. What was I supposed to do? What would you do?"

Asked if he would consider tabling similar amendments in future, he said it was not up to him and would have to be a PLP party decision.

As the they left the debating chamber, Health Minister Patrice Minors and Government backbencher Glenn Blakeney both stood firm and told campaigners why they opposed the bill. Opposition Whip, John Barritt, admitted the UBP made a mistake in opting not to speak. Earlier, he said the UBP had waited for a Government Minister to contribute before they entered the debate.

"The greatest teacher in life is sometimes mistakes," he said. "It backfired, we are getting caned for not speaking," he said. "I accept the criticism that we missed an opportunity to lead."

Lawyer Elizabeth Christopher, meanwhile, mounted what she called a "one-woman campaign" at the rally, handing out a leaflet entitled "why the silence hurts".

Ms Christopher ? who unsuccessfully stood for the PLP at the last election ? said: "The most shocking aspect of what happened last week was the silence. I'm getting confused when they say that we are already protected. There's no protection."

She added: "I'm very pleased and excited by the turnout that we have had. The best part of it is the diversity. It's not just gay folk, it's professionals and people from all walks of life."

Shadow Tourism MinisterDavid Dodwell said:"This is a sign of people speaking up, as they should. It would be great to see Bermudians speaking up about other key issues."

He stated that many of the MPs who chose not to speak were "between a rock and a hard place". The lone voice in the protest speaking out against the rally came from Dennis Bean, who carried a sign stating "To hell with your special interest. Effeminate. Lascivious. Licentious = Sodomite."

He said MPs made the right decision last week. "I think that everyone has equal rights," said Mr. Bean. "What we have here is people with so-called special rights. Should paedophiles and murderers have special rights? Special interest groups should not have rights." If discrimination existed, he added, those affected should go to the Police, not Parliament.

  • Take Our Poll

    Today's Obituaries