For the past 13 years, annual legislative efforts to pass a marriage equality bill in the General Assembly have met with opposition from Rhode Island’s heavily Roman Catholic population — and by the eight-year term of a governor opposed to gay marriage.
Following the recent gubernatorial election of self-proclaimed gay-rights champion Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14, the 2011 political stage is finally set for the passage of a same-sex marriage bill in Rhode Island.
Rhoda Perry P’91 — a Democratic member of the Rhode Island Senate and the sponsor of several failed marriage equality bills — said that after more than 10 years of advocacy, she plans to act quickly and decisively to collaborate with the new governor on the issue.
While Perry acknowledged that the positions of some of the newest members of the legislature remain somewhat unclear, she expressed confidence that Rhode Island would soon join its New England neighbors as a state that both recognizes and performs same-sex marriage.
“We are very serious, we are tenacious and we feel that we’ll be victorious,” she said.
Although Rhode Island is the most Catholic state in the union — at 45 percent of its population — Perry expressed little concern that one religious lobby would impede the passage of the bill.
“This state is also a state of independent-minded people,” she said. “Many legislators feel that it is their job to represent all of Rhode Island — and all religions.”
On the move
For the past year and a half leading up to the election, Marriage Equality Rhode Island has been everywhere in the Ocean State — literally.
According to Kathy Kushnir, the executive director of Marriage Equality Rhode Island, the group has canvassed in neighborhoods across the state, knocked on over 30,000 doors and engaged in an extensive postcard campaign — all to ensure the election of a pro-marriage equality governor.
As for the Nov. 2 results, she said, the leadership of the group couldn’t be happier.
“Governor-elect Chafee is not only pro-equality — he has made that a priority. He has said that he is not interested in delaying that process,” Kushnir said. “He is ready to have all of Rhode Islanders treated equally under the laws.”
According to a recent poll conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and available on the Marriage Equality website, voter support for gay marriage in 2010 was 59 percent statewide, representing a 10-point increase in just two years.
By and large, this shift is a result of increased dialogue, Kushnir said. More people are discussing what equality means to them and the effects are showing.
For the past several months, Seth Magaziner ’06 — a former president of the Brown Democrats — has been working with Marriage Equality to spread the word about gay rights.
“Our primary goal is to make sure that the legislators hear from our supporters who maybe in the past were unsure but who have now decided that the time is right,” he said.
According to Magaziner, increasing support for marriage equality has become a matter of time.
“When I look at the legislators that were there four or five years ago — when I was at Brown — I see a whole lot of people who have gone from opposing marriage equality to supporting it,” he said. “I don’t see a single person who has gone the other way.”
Kushnir said it was important for new legislators to understand that a gay marriage bill would not require religious establishments to recognize or perform same-sex marriages.
Christopher Plante — the executive director of the Rhode Island Chapter of the National Organization for Marriage — said that given Rhode Island’s economic woes, he does not want the General Assembly focusing its energy on a marriage bill.
But “marriage equality will help drive our economic recovery, as couples who want to marry will move to the state, and people and businesses who would thrive in a tolerant environment will do the same,” Jesse Towsen ’12, the elections and advocacy chair of the Brown Democrats, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. “This is an argument Chafee made continually throughout the campaign, including during the debate at Brown.”
Plante said that marriage equality is an issue that affects a minority and the state ought to prioritize issues that affect all Rhode Islanders.
“I have gay and lesbian friends, but this is an idea that only applies to them,” he said of the push for equality. “This law is for a tiny fraction of the Rhode Island population.”
Though Plante acknowledged that the issue cannot be ignored, he advocated a more direct resolution of the issue. “Give the vote to the people,” he said.
“Let’s go for it, let’s be American and let the votes fall where they will,” Plante said.
“The smart thing — the logical thing — in the face of our economic crisis is to put it on the ballot,” he said. “Legislators are tired of this annual wrangling when there are so many more pressing issues at hand.”
Marriage Equality, along with the Brown Democrats and other gay marriage supporters throughout Rhode Island, stand strongly opposed to a ballot initiative.
“We can’t leave minority rights up to the vote of a majority who already enjoys those rights,” Towsen wrote. “History shows that civil rights are advanced into law when bold lawmakers do the right thing.”
With bated breath
On the night of Nov. 2, as votes were tallied around the country, several groups on College Hill waited for state election returns with bated breath.
“We were terrified because (Republican John) Robitaille and Chafee were super close,” said Gabriel Schwartz ’13, a member of Queer Action.
Though the other two candidates for governor were also supporters of same-sex marriage, Schwartz said the group was thrilled by Chafee’s win.
“It would have been a lot harder to hold (Democrat Frank) Caprio and (Moderate Ken) Block to their campaign promises,” he added. “It would have been a popularity issue, as opposed to with Chafee, it’s a policy and moral issue.”
According to Katerina Wright ’11, the president of the Brown Democrats, marriage equality is the group’s first priority this year.
The pro-equality combination of Chafee and Speaker of the House Gordon Fox, D-Providence, is just one of many indications that Rhode Island is finally ready for change, she said.
In an e-mail, Terrence George ’13, president of the Brown Republicans, declined to comment.
Queer Action and the Brown Democrats have collaborated with Marriage Equality on letter-writing campaigns and helped with voter registration on Election Day. In the months leading up to the opening of the legislative session, both student groups plan to continue the campaign for same-sex marriage.
“If this process and debate is conducted openly in the public and is well-covered in the press,” Towsen wrote, “it will be very difficult for lawmakers to take any position except that which Rhode Islanders believe is fair and just.”
“We really do need to continue pressure and not have this be what it was for Obama,” who has yet to fulfill his campaign promise to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, Schwartz said. “Both sides have recognized that this is the next battle state and this is the most likely place for marriage equality.”
The groups that oppose gay marriage in the state, Schwartz acknowledged, often have more organization, more experience and more funding than their opponents.
“I think that’s what (the National Organization for Marriage) is counting on, but I think they’re going to face a really tight-kni
t group that values the ideals of their communities in Rhode Island,” Schwartz added.
Though Schwartz said he is hopeful a marriage bill will be passed within the next six months, he emphasized that its passage would not end the effort for equal rights.
“The legal issue is the first step and the next step is getting over the reason it was there in the first place,” he added. “How to go about approaching really changing people’s minds about how they view and interact with the LBGTQ community is going to be an issue that goes on for the rest of our lifetimes.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly claimed that activists for same-sex marriage in Rhode Island would settle for civil unions, attributing that claim to Seth Magaziner ’06. In fact, Magaziner said he and other same-sex marriage supporters in the state were not willing to settle for civil unions. The Herald regrets the error.