On Wednesday May 25, around 100 people turned up to a rally held at City Hall, aimed at encouraging officials to extend legal safeguards found in Bermuda’s Human Rights Act to all persons regardless of sexual orientation. The event was launched by Krystl Assan [pictured] who says she encountered discrimination at a local guest house, and allegation the guest house owner has denied.
Ms Assan was one of three speakers at the event, along with Selina Bean and Pastor Sylvia Hayward-Harris who also addressed the crowd — some of whom were waving placards demanding the extension of full Human Rights protections to gays and lesbians.
Ms Assan’s full speech follows below:
You know, when given – or should I say when you take an opportunity like this, because rarely are we given opportunities to talk candidly and non-defensively in public spaces, it’s natural to wonder what you should say.
What is appropriate for the time or occasion, what’s significant enough to warrant the time and attention of a group of people, or even a nation for even a moment?
In Monday’s paper I released my first and only statement I’ve made since all of this happened, saying that this would be a rally against homophobia and discrimination.
I thought about talking about the number of years that progressive individuals and organizations have been inviting our Government to end discrimination on the basis of the sexual orientation.
I thought about the 3 annual reports in which the Human Rights Commission recommended that such discrimination be outlawed and how the government failed to take heed. I thought about former Minister Renee Webb’s proposal of the amendment in 2003 and the shameful silence that emanated from the Cabinet as our leaders refused to even debate it.
About former Minister Dale Butler’s attempts, and their futility. I thought about voicing the private frustrations of gay and straight people alike when it comes to this issue, like – isn’t there something really wrong with politics or society when I have to present an argument for why it’s not okay to discriminate against me, or my friends, or my loved ones on the basis of who they love?
Why do I need to prove to you that it is wrong and should be punishable by law to deny someone service at a restaurant on the basis of who they are or how they’ve chosen to live your life – convicts are given this amount of decency and respect, as they should, but as yet, gay people are not.
I thought about letting Bermuda Government know that contrary to what seems to be popular belief, I’m not of the opinion that rights, or dignity, or respect must be fought for… rather that they are inalienable, that each individual should be able to exist in society knowing that there is a foundation of respect and freedom that is due to them,by every one.
I thought about voicing the opinion that if the powers that be need proof of discrimination, they need look no further than the fact that it wasn’t until 1997 that gay sex was decriminalized in this country, for up until that point while it was perfectly legal for heterosexual couples to express their care, concern, and attraction to each other it was punishable by law for same-sex couples to do the same. I thought about all the things I should say…
I thought about taking the time to pose some questions to Bermuda as a society, questions that I believe are not just applicable to a small subsection of the population or to an individual but to some very well meaning, very well-intentioned people also.
For instance, what does it mean to say that you’re not homophobic, to insist that you’re not discriminatory, but to follow that up by saying that you’re ok with homosexuals as long as it’s not in your face?
I wonder, then, exactly, what’s in the public face – is it holding hands on any given sidewalk, cuddling on any given beach, two men or two women sharing a joke that’s too intimate to be between friends in a restaurant – where exactly are you comfortable with people being who they are and what exactly are you willing to do when it’s too close for comfort?
Discrimination is simply treating one person differently than another on an unfair basis, and I think that we’re kidding ourselves if we can’t acknowledge that such a statement fundamentally reveals a discriminatory attitude towards a certain group of people on the basis of who they are.
As allies against discrimination, no one can continue to applaud these veils of decency as positions of tolerance, to continue to allow members of our society to think that such attitudes regarding gay people, and the actions that inevitably follow from strong beliefs, don’t endanger the freedom and dignity of the people they say they have no problem with. I thought of what I should say…
However, what you should say is for politicians. It is for spokespeople, and I am neither. What you must say, what you are compelled to say, is for ordinary people, people with a sense of conscience, a sense of conviction, and even people with senses of confusion and humility.
People who are kept up at night by the truth and its burden and who literally can’t sleep until it is told. What lesbian feminist thinker Audre Lorde says in “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” is most fitting.
It is where I choose to begin to this conversation, this dialogue with you who have gathered here, who have supported this issue, with those who are not here and wish they were, and for those who are not here and don’t want to be.
Lorde says this: “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect.” In that spirit I understand these notes that I’ve written, as informally as if I’ve folded a paper plane, may get damaged in flight.
People and publicity and press gravitate towards people with answers, people with positions, people who believe who believe they are right and are unwilling to be budged, people who can be champions for a cause. This experience has taught me that people aren’t interested in dialogue; they aren’t interested in reaching solutions that work for the best of all involved, they are interested in rhetoric, in conflict.
And while I am so grateful for all the support and love and empathy and even outrage that I’ve received over the past week, I am stating now and as many times as I need to: I am not a spokesperson for any cause. If I am a leader its only because I am willing to lead a discussion, and then to walk away from it when the value of my contribution has been maximized.
I have been told that the powers that be wonder what it’s like to be gay in Bermuda. The truth of the matter is, I’m not the best person to ask. Based on the fact that I don’t seem to “look” gay – and I trust that we all know what that means, as ignorant as it sounds and is – I think that I’ve managed to avoid the worst of Bermuda’s homophobia.
For some of my friends, who more openly break gender rules in terms of their personal style or mannerisms, the consequences of being gay in Bermuda have been severe. Some of my male friends were beaten up in high school as a result of being gay. An ex claimed that she lost a job on the basis of her lack of feminine dress.
When walking down the street one day I was called a faggot, when I refused the sexual advances of a man by telling him I had a girlfriend. It is obvious that we live in a society where we are not wanted. For many of us, living or attending school abroad is our first experience of complete acceptance, and returning home isn’t returning home at all – it’s a place where we are confronted by hate when we listen to the morning talk show, when we read the comments on news stories about discrimination.
We don’t forget how Rosie O’Donnell’s cruise was successfully prevented from coming to the island because of their fear, their fear of picketing and lobbying. And of course there are highly notable cases of discrimination: Mark Anderson’s barring from the Bermuda Day a few years back. And of course what happened on May 17.
Whether or not this will be believed or not, I never had any intention of speaking to the press. As naive as it sounds and indeed was, I organized this rally in an instant flash of emotion: rage and frustration at what my instincts saw and told me had happened and a feeling of enough is enough.
Had I taken the time to think about the consequences of the simple act of posting what essentially began as a Facebook event – the fact that the press would report on something that was stirring in cyber space, the fact that the press didn’t need my perspective to write a story, the fact that stories were written regardless based on an obviously condensed version of what occurred and that would be quoted as my stand and perspective – I would have been much more detailed and deliberate in my statements.
As much as I don’t want to make this event about me or about any single issue, I feel that to be transparent I must return to May 17 and deal with what occurred. I apologize to Mrs. Anderson because although I haven’t spoken to her myself as yet, it is my understanding that she would be happy for this to be done and to return to the inscrutability of absence from the press, as would I.
I apologize to her because I feel that by illuminating my own perspective now it will return this matter to the spotlight and for that Mrs. Anderson I am sorry. I would also like to state that I am completely aware that this is a she say/she say situation. It is an absolutely fruitless cause to debate such a thing in the press.
Nevertheless I am compelled to say it, in order to force Bermuda to deal with the complexity that is discrimination. My biggest fear is that in the distance between me and you the audience, between today’s discussion and tomorrow’s paper, that what I am saying will lose its nuance. That what I say will be bruised or misunderstood.
What happened on May 17? Why did I feel that I had been discriminated against because I was sleeping in a bed with a woman? The short of it is: a lot of reasons. Unless someone is really as bold as to say I am discriminating against you because I don’t like black people, white people, Muslims, lesbians, there’s unlikely to be a red flag you can point to, pick up and wave that definitively solves the issue.
It is also highly unlikely, unless someone is exceptionally bold, that they will admit to their discrimination. It’s usually in the subtle. These are the reasons why I continue to feel that I had been discriminated against on May 17.
The incident on that Tuesday began when the owner of the guest house, Mrs. Anderson, came to inquire about the presence of a second person staying in the guest house. Our initial dispute began when I sought to clarify that yes, a friend had been spending the nights, but that she was not a permanent guest.
We exchanged a few words to the same effect back and forward- Ms. Anderson saying that security had seen her bike there often and me saying yes, that’s true, but she’s not a permanent guest and that I didn’t feel I should be charged for her being there. Fair enough, nothing discriminatory there.
On our second conversation, about 15 minutes later around 10:45am, Ms. Anderson returned to the apartment to inform me that she had made a decision, that she had decided to rent the apartment to someone else, and that checkout was at 11’o clock.
Needless to say I was very taken aback that I was being kicked out and given 15 minutes to leave. I told her that I felt it was unfair and tried to talk to her. She literally walked away from me in the middle of speaking to her.
I initiated our third conversation. I felt that it was in both of our best interests to resolve the issue seeing as I needed a place to stay and I quite liked the guesthouse. I went to her door with my friend and payment in hand to tell her that if it was really about the money, she could have full payment for my guest as if she were a permanent guest then and there.
Ms. Anderson responded by telling me she didn’t want to speak to me, that I could “go stay with my girlfriend,” which, in my perspective, shows that although she did not know of my sexual orientation when the reservation was booked, as my father booked it, she became aware of it at some point during our dealings.
She attempted to close the door in my face more than twice, requiring me to put my hand out to stop it from slamming in my face. She told me repeatedly to get off her doorstep, shouted and talked over me, and literally walked away from me, again, in the middle of speaking to her. The conversation broke down when she called her husband to come to the door, as she was walking away, because she literally refused to engage with me.
And of course there are the non-verbal elements of our exchange that I can’t relay – her tone of voice, demeanor, attitude, all the intangibles you record but can’t easily convey when you know someone has treated you wrongly. At that point I walked away from her door in tears at the way she had treated my friend and I and returned to the apartment to pack my things.
To be fair to Ms. Anderson let me note two things that I discovered after I had relocated from the guesthouse: at the door she had told me that she didn’t want my money, that she wouldn’t take any money from me. I’m not sure whether or not I’ve been quoted as saying that, but I now think that the reason why she said that was as a result of a conversation with my father to the effect that he would intervene and settle payments without my being involved.
I’ve also been made aware that she felt that there was a good possibility that I might leave the guesthouse early as a result of our initial disagreement, terminating my reservation and leaving her less the profit of my stay. To me, that helps to justify why, as a business decision, she may have decided to cancel my stay – to ensure that she wouldn’t suffer financial losses as a result of an early termination.
So where does that leaves us in evaluating this situation? It leads us, I think, to deal with the messiness of discrimination: the fact that there are usually no clear offenders and victims, and the fact that the more honest you are, the more perspectives you can see.
In light of the new information I was given after the triggering incident for this rally took place, after I had posted the event online and it had gone viral, by Bermuda’s standards, I really had to take a moment to step aside and fully consider what I have become responsible for.
I realized the fundamental difficulty in asserting to know, or in proving, someone’s intent. It is one thing to say that someone kicked me out a guesthouse with 15 minutes to leave, tried to slam a door in my face a number of times, told me to get off their doorstep repeatedly while saying that I could go stay with my girlfriend… and it is another altogether to say that she did all of those things because she’s homophobic.
And although I was passionate and wholly sincere about the sentiments that I posted to the event page, I now more strongly feel that as someone involved in the conflict, I’m not altogether qualified to make that determination as to the intent behind all of her hurtful actions, based on my own subjectivity.
I have questioned my initial convictions and was really troubled, to the point of sleeplessness, over whether or not I had publicly, wrongfully accused Mrs. Anderson.
However, I feel that, on balance, my initial instincts and reading of this situation were re-confirmed in hearing her repeat what so many people say as an expression of tolerance that exposes their deepest, discriminatory sentiments about people that are different from them: I’m okay with black people, as long as they don’t move into my neighborhood or marry my daughter. I’m okay with Muslims as long as they don’t feel the need to be different in public, with their hijab or burqa. I’m okay with gay people as long as it’s not in my face.
Amendments to the HRA are best for all parties involved… the press is not the place to reach resolution, or to foster unity. Home is where the hatred is: the level of homophobia in this country is intolerable. Literally intolerable.
People get tired of fighting and it’s more than a shame: the best, and brightest Bermuda has to offer have moved away unable to tolerate…Homophobia is the last acceptable discrimination.
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