Benjamin Gray and Francisco Vargas describe themselves as a “non-traditional” couple at least three times over the phone.
The pair, who became the first gay couple to get married at sea in a January ceremony, never actually proposed to each other. They discussed the subject as a practical matter. After a friend’s partner passed away, he was dispossessed by the deceased’s family. Because the two weren’t married, he wasn’t legally entitled to their property, and it left him with almost nothing.
Although their families are supportive of the relationship, Vargas wanted to ensure no one would be able to take away the life they share.
“It validates our relationship and our love for each other,” he claims. “It makes me feel better knowing that if something were to happen to me, Ben would be able to take advantage of everything we fulfilled together.”
They just wanted to have the “same rights as everyone else,” Vargas adds.
Fewer same-sex couples, however, will have the same opportunity to claim those protections after Bermuda rolled back marriage equality. In February, the small island country became the first nation to repeal same-sex unionswhich had been just legalized last Maywith the passage of the Domestic Partnerships Act of 2017.
Upon signing the law, Bermuda governor John Rankin claimed it’s intended to appease LGBTQ rights opponents by replacing same-sex marriages with “domestic partnerships.” He assured the two categories are “equivalent.”
But the bill’s passage has led to widespread calls to boycott Bermuda. On Twitter, celebrities like Ellen Degeneres and Patricia Arquette encouraged travelers to book their vacations elsewhere. Jamison Firestone and his husband made headlines by cancelling their trip on Cunard Lines, which operates the Queen Mary 2.
“I simply do not feel comfortable taking a cruise on a ship registered in a jurisdiction that does not accept my marriage,” he wrote in an email to Cunard.
Although the company is owned by the U.K.-based Carnival House, it’s registered in Bermuda. That means gay couples will no longer be able to get married on its ocean liners after May 31, when the new law takes effect.
P and Princess Cruises, also registered in Bermuda, will likewise be impacted by the legislation.
Advocacy groups have also urged tourists to put pressure on these businesses by hitting them in their wallets. Nick Harding-McKay, director of the LGBTQ agency Travel Designers, told The Times newspaper that “companies do listen to money.”
“If P is not prepared to do something progressive about it, then it is as bad as the Bermudan government,” said Harding-McKay.
A boycott could have a profound impact on Bermuda’s economy, as the country of 60,000 relies heavily on tourism to generate revenue. Its second largest industry brought in $431 million last year from visitor spending. Nearly 200,000 people traveled to the island last year.
Given that they had gotten married just days before marriage equality was officially repealed in Bermuda, Gray and Vargas say the decision was a surprise. “It felt like we took a step back,” Gray claims.
Vargas agrees. “It brought me back for a moment to when we didn’t have rights,” he adds.
The couple describes their wedding as like “something out of a fairy tale.” They were married in a restaurant on the ship, exchanging vows against the backdrop of an enormous, ivory-colored rose as they were joined by family and friends. Vargas tried to hold back tears because he didn’t want his makeup to run, but he admits he did cry a little bit.
“Nothing prepares you for that moment,” Gray says. “It’s like you’re in a movie, but the movie is your life.”
The couple stresses that their marriage will not be impacted by the rollback of LGBTQ rights in Bermuda for two reasons. The first is that couples who tied the knot prior to the repeal of marriage equality will retain their relationship status. The second is that their cruise was registered in Malta, unlike many other ocean liners.
Celebrity Cruiseswhich is also Vargas worksbegan allowing same-sex couples to wed on its ships last year after the European country passed marriage equality by a landslide vote.
A representative for Celebrity Cruises confirms LGBTQ partners will still have the ability to get hitched on its vessels.
Despite their claims of unorthodoxy, Gray and Vargas say their hope is to show their marriage is no different than anyone else’s. In fact, the most radical thing about their love story is how average it is. They were introduced by mutual friends, and Vargas was immediately drawn in by Gray’s good looks and his love of the singer Sadé. After their meeting, he began hearing “Kiss of Life” everywhere they went.
“He checked all the boxes,” Gray agrees.
What are those boxes, exactly? He claims they’re the kind of people who “prefer flip-flops over Prada.” (They do live in South Florida, after all.)
The ability to lead relatively average lives of domestic bliss is a sign of progress, they say. Gray’s uncle is gay, and his longtime partner was referred to as his “roommate” for years. His hope is that by being on the frontlines of equality, generations who come after will never have to hide who they are.
“I feel like we shouldn’t have to say ‘We’re normal,’ but we are,” Vargas adds. “I think we are changing people’s hearts. It’s gradual, but it’s being done. And it gives me hope.”