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Gay Caribbean–A Range of Experiences

Gay Bermuda is an easy find on the internet with  many comments and venues offered on the BBs and travel chat rooms, especially from LGBT folks who have explored the Caribbean aboard cruise ships. There are about two dozen destinations in the Caribbean that are variously praised for different reasons. The main ones are the climate, the beaches, clear azure waters for diving, a sprinkling of LGBT venues on certain islands–and the comforts of the ships or hotels.

Bermuda is also attractive because of its location, only 770 miles (1238 km) from New York. Although not actually in the Caribbean (a thousand miles away, with little trade or economic connections to it), it is usually considered as one of the vacation islands since it has a foreign feel similar to the Virgin Islands and the other four UK Carib territories. Bermuda is culturally British. Bermuda became an associate member of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) in 2003.



Geography & History

It is the oldest and the most populous (around 65,000) UK overseas territory (the third most densely populated place on earth; it has less than 21 sq mi of land surface).  Its first and current capital, St George’s town (population about 2000) was established in 1612 and is the oldest continuously-inhabited English town in the Americas. Unlike most other Caribbean-area places with a native population dating back to the mists of time, Bermuda had no resident permanent population at all until 1609 when English settlers came by accident,
Hamilton is the capital and largest town and the territory’s financial center and a major port for tourist ships. It’s also one of the smallest capital cities by population with fewer than 14,000 people.

A July 2009 estimate put Bermuda’s population at 67,837. The ethnic makeup of Bermuda is 54.8% black (descended from slaves), 34.1% white, and 6.4% multiracial. A significant segment of the white population is of Portuguese ancestry (10%), the result of immigration from Portuguese islands (especially the Azores) during the past 160 years

Although usually referred to as a single location, Bermuda actually consists of 181 islands, with a total area of 53.3 sq km (20.6 sq mi). The largest island is Main Island, usually called Bermuda. When first discovered, Bermuda was uninhabited and mostly dominated by forests of Bermuda cedar, with mangrove marshes along its shores.

Why People Visit But Don’t Stay

Bermuda is a very high cost destination. The Bermuda Government makes no secret of the fact that it does not want low-income tourists, expects them to be earning good incomes and charges them accordingly. They are mostly 35 years old or more, 60 percent with college degrees and annual income of at least US$ 75,000 per person. A high 35% to 40% are repeat visitors earning much more each and staying an average of 6.2 nights, the majority in April through October.

Bermuda’s economy is primarily made up of Government employment, off-shore commerce and tourism. Off-shore finance and tourism are its two largest sectors. I supposedly has the highest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the World (more than US$ 99,500 per capita), according to the World Bank, but also one of the highest costs of living.

Most of its money comes from being an International Business center or ‘offshore jurisdiction’. It is considered a tax haven for corporate entities (not for their employees) of many foreign companies primarily insurance, reinsurance, investment funds and special purpose vehicles (SPV). Bermuda levies no taxes on their world business activities. It has no capital gains tax, but the other direct and indirect taxes it levies on managements, their staff, business visitors and tourists are many and  can be so very heavy that overall Bermuda’s cost of living is one of the highest in the world–nearly three times more than in the UK and nearly four times more than in the USA. All these taxes plus a direct income tax, in the form of a Payroll tax, payable by employers and employees. It is based on what is earned from employment. From April 1, 2011 it is 14%
Yet, it offers the least generous benefits and services to its senior citizens and to the disabled of any of the countries with a high GDP.

Tourism and Gay Tourism

Tourism is Bermuda’s second largest industry, with the island attracting over one-half million visitors annually, of whom more than 80% are from the United States. Other significant sources of visitors are from Canada and the United Kingdom, all arriving either by cruise ship or by air.

Part of the tourist crowd are LGBT people, of course. Like anyone else, they come for the sun, sand, foreign flavor and night life. Here are a few comments from these gay visitors:
“I visit Bermuda all the time and just love it!! It doesn’t have any gay establishments, buts there’s lots of local gays there. Public displays of affection aren’t recommended. However, the beauty of the island will amaze you!!”



“Bermuda is a great place to visit, but no gay places or gay friendly places to go. You will be safe there, as long as you don’t show open affection in public.”

“I have been maybe 50 times to Bermuda and the island is mega-friendly and has as well a gay scene. Maybe not as open as in the big US cities, but it exists!”

“I’ve been to Bermuda many times and yes there is a gay scene…although its not a huge one…heck there aren’t that many people that live there. And I have never had any trouble in Bermuda…and you won’t. ITs a wonderfully beautiful island and its incredibly clean and safe.”

“I went to Bermuda, it was one of the most beautiful islands I’ve ever been to and everyone was perfectly friendly, I even saw other gay people there that were having a good time and didn’t appear to be feeling persecuted. If you’re looking for P-town or Fire Island redux – this isn’t it. It is low-key and relaxed. But there is no problem with gay people in Bermuda except perhaps for a small minority of religous nuts. Isn’t that the case everywhere though?”

Looking More Carefully at Gay Bermuda

All is not sweetness and light of course here–as everywhere in the Caribbean. It is a conservative area of the world having been settled by Catholic and Protestant settlers and Africa slaves, followed by the Christian missionaries over the centuries.

In contrast to the cheery and playful comments above, other travelers to Bermuda have offered these more cautious observations.

Homosexuality is legal in Bermuda, but the country has long held a reputation for being anti-gay; Discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation is legal… Bermuda has actually been the host of gay tourism for many years. The LGBT travel company Pied Piper, for example, has been organizing trips — albeit on a smaller and much quieter scale — to the country since 1990, without incident.”

“Bermuda is not a place you can expect to find a gay scene. The natives may be considered friendly, but somewhat homophobic. There was a report of a gay bashing incidents where locals accosted two ship passengers seen holding hands and kissing in public, which was very unwise thing to do anyhow. on the part of the passengers. I think they were drunk.”

“There are gay folks who reside there but they are mostly underground and have random bars they jump to with no one bar being all that friendly. However that being said, I’ve never had any comments or otherwise directed towards me. I would heed the advice about public signs of affection–don’t do it.”

“Rosie O’Donnell chartered a ship for a Gay/Lesbian Family & Friends Cruise in July ’07. One stop was to be Bermuda. They cancelled this stop due to the fact that it was becoming very obvious that they would not be well received there when a couple of preachers protested at a rally. Mostly they cancelled for the fact that they did not want to expose the children to the negative attitudes.”

“And around and around it goes. I don’t think any two people have the same opinion here, and it seems they are usually completely opposite. It must depend on how you define “gay friendly.”

Prevailing Caribbean Attitudes Toward Homosexuality

For most gay and lesbian tourists only secondarily do they consider the prevailing local attitudes toward the LGBT community in the Caribbean tropics. Few LGBT tourist are aware that in nine (out of thirteen) of the independent Caribbean island-nations homosexual activity is illegal, an actual crime written into the law books of those countries.

In only four independent island-nations is it legal, as well as legal in the four multi-island territories ruled by the US, UK, France and Holland (which combined are about 24+ islands, which brings the total legal-island count to about 28. (See the list at the end of this story.)

The range of attitudes and amenities runs the gamut from overt public advertising and internet websites offering gay ‘Get Wet’ weekends in Dutch controlled Curacao to the colorful visible scene in San Jaun, PR and to the upscale style-scene in St Barthelemy and down to the palpable and edgy homophobia in Jamaica (if one ventures beyond the gates of the luxury resorts).

In between there are hit-and-miss playgrounds and beaches for lGBT travelers such as the US governed St Croix in the US Virgin Islands and the Dutch ruled St Maartin with it nude beaches. One can find a surface appearance of gay friendly bars and clubs and hotels with happy-hour parties (usually mixed gay-straight) and the rare clothing-optional beach. Without thinking locally, tourists from the north usually bring the scene with them so it is mostly ‘enclosed’  with LGBT groups of friends meeting up with other groups of friends for fun time of dancing, drinking, flirting, sexing and eating, mellowed out with hikes, swims, diving and island rain forest trips. Some folks actually chill out in a hammock or deck chair and read books.

Homophobia in Bermuda

This is not highly visible. There is rarely a bashing. Rather there is a steady stream of anti-gay sentiment in the press and from the Christian preachers who are convinced homosexuality is the work of Satan and gay marriage will destroy civilization. Historically same-sex behavior was illegal thanks to puritanical Victorian UK laws. It was decriminalized in 2000 due to another–opposite–UK government’s pressure to reverse those old laws. But decriminalization changes did not bring anti-discrimination changes so today anyone can rant and rave and discriminate against LGBT citizens with impunity.

There is also a racial influence in the homophobia: “Among the black community 42 percent support gay cruises while the white community approves at 64 percent. A total of 29 percent of black people listed themselves as opposed to such cruises, compared to just 11 percent of white people.”
Full story here.

The head of the New Testament Church of God has come out against any plans to extend human rights to Bermuda’s gay community.Bishop Lloyd Duncan, the pastor at the Heritage Worship Center firmly believes gay rights legislation will be followed by a push to allow gay marriages in Bermuda <followed by the end of the world?!>

Sexual orientation is seen as a vote loser, especially in constituencies with strong fundamentalist church membership… Past polls have shown support for a ban on discrimination. A majority of Americans now support gay marriage for the first time ever. While that idea remains a step too far for many in Bermuda, it seems likely that acceptance of homosexuality in Bermuda is advancing as well.

Fighting Back Against Homophobia

Single-handedly a young woman named Krys Assan has started her own campaign to end discrimination against LGBT in Bermuda. ““I am organizing ‘Home is Where the Hatred Is’ in order to raise awareness about discrimination against gay people on the island. Homophobia to this degree has no place in any decent civilized society. We are free to openly disagree with other forms of sexual expression, but that does not equate to any kind of right to abuse a person on this basis. “As chair of the HRC, I have regularly met with the most senior officers of the Ministry of Human Affairs…

There are two pro-gay organizations that advocate for gay/human rights and health in Bermuda.

(1) Two Words And A Comma dot com
In July 2007, a group of concerned citizens took human rights education into their own hands and launched Two Words and a Comma, a campaign to include sexual orientation as a protected grounds under the Human Rights Act. If you want to learn more about Bermuda’s human rights regime, you can join the Bermuda Human Rights Study Group by emailing bdahumanrights@yahoo.com.

Gay rights and life in Bermuda discussion/blog group supporting Two Words and a Comma
“we now live in a society where we have to start accepting that we cannot have one set of rules for one segment of society and another for another. We are facing the exact same situation that many of our forefathers were persecuted for. I’m not saying you do not have a right to be concerned after all you have the right to your own religious beliefs etc. but when does it get to the point that we stop repeating the mistakes of the past?

This blog includes a lengthy essay about homosexuality: Being Gay: A Life Style Choice?? by Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.
“The question of what causes some people to be gay has been a topic of endless debate among the general public and the mental health community…”

(2) Rainbow Alliance of Bermuda started August 2012
“We want to show that there are people on this island, and abroad, who stand strong behind the LGBTQ community of Bermuda…  we are frustrated by the discussions around, and treatment of, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) and queer people in Bermuda, using the word “queer” in its reclaimed meaning as an umbrella term for all sexual minorities. As epitomized through the recent “take note” motion in Parliament surrounding a new “Equality Act”, discussion followed by inaction continues to be too common a thread when it comes to rights for LGBT/queer people.

“However, more than that, the discussions in the House, in the media, on the internet, on talk shows and various other forums have demonstrated the disturbing absence of a safer space in which LGBT/queer people are given a voice to speak about their own struggles and rights. The discourse is often either drenched in openly oppressive, hurtful ignorance or diplomatically tiptoed around in apparent hopes that if the subject (ie actual LGBT/queer people) is made abstract enough, no one will be offended. It is time for this to end. These are real people whose lives are being used as rhetoric, political capital or scapegoats. We agree that Bermuda’s legislation needs to join the modern world and start protecting people of different sexual orientations and gender identities from discrimination by amending the Human Rights Act…

Our first event, held August 17, 2012, was a total success! We had over 100 people turn up throughout the two-hour open forum, with dozens of people taking the microphone to speak or sing… Help us start taking small steps toward being supportive allies to an all too frequently silenced part of our island.

http://www.facebook.com/RainbowAllianceBermuda

A space for allies and supporters of the LGBTQ community of Bermuda.

Google images for Rainbow Alliance

(3) GoodMen Project
Junior Burchall, Bermuda writer and father, is putting his face and words behind an amendment to protect homosexuals under Bermuda’s Human Rights Act. This campaign is looking to add sexual orientation to the list of protected traits.  Read more here.
See the poster.

HIV support Group

The Allan Vincent Smith Foundation was registered as a Bermuda Charity on December 9 1992. Their mission statement follows that of the Terrence Higgins Trust the UK’s leading AIDS Service Organization: to support, educate and advise the people of Bermuda on AIDS and HIV  and to prevent their spread through the active distribution and dissemination of materials and information to all groups deemed to be at risk.”

Finally

So what appears to be–and is–a smooth cruise into a colorful palm-tree port for LGBT tourists is actually, at the same time, a walk in a field of nettles that stick and sting fed by ignorant fundamentalist religious anti-gay beliefs, legalized homophobia and criminalization backed by weak-willed government authorities  who cling to their inch of power and turn a blind eye to discrimination and human rights abuses.

From Bermuda in the far north of the Caribbean to Trinidad & Tobago in the far south adjacent to Venezuela (about 1500 miles) there are about three dozen islands that entice gay northern visitors. Ninety-five percent of these visitors will come and go with pleasant memories and appealing digital photos. Nothing wrong with that of course. The other five percent may pause  and notice the injustice beneath the pleasantries and appreciate and support the few LGBT rights groups in this huge vacation playground of the western world.