Friday, May 20, 2011

A marriage equality sellout in R.I.

A marriage equality sellout in R.I.

A marriage equality sellout in R.I.

Rhode Island activist Josh Kilby looks at the fallout following the defeat of legislation that would have granted same-sex marriage rights in the state.

THE 2011 legislative season began in Rhode Island with a renewed sense of hope that a 15-year battle to allow all gay and lesbian couples in the state to obtain a marriage license would finally end victoriously. Instead, the session is drawing to a near close with most of the bill's one-time allies in public office abandoning it for a compromise that, quite literally, no one wants.

The announcement, which came on April 27, was a shock for activists on the ground, and drew the ire of Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI) and the state's gay press. This defeat, while tragic, is worth exploring in order to tease out the political questions opened up by the betrayal of our legislative "allies" and to contribute to a debate on how to move forward.

The fight for marriage equality in Rhode Island had been previously looked at as virtually unwinnable, given that former Gov. Don Carcieri (whose opposition to same-sex partners planning each other's funerals drew national attention) was guaranteed to veto such a bill. In the legislature, although Gordon Fox, an openly gay man, rose to the position of speaker of the House, state Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed remained an opponent.

Despite this, a marriage equality bill has been dutifully introduced every year since 1997. The activists in MERI and its small army of volunteers centered their strategy on lobbying individual legislators, both directly and by hand-delivering postcards from their constituents. This was successful in building a core of support inside the legislature, but an open vote on marriage equality was never achieved.

This year, with the loathed Carcieri gone and the election of Republican-turned-Independent and progressive favorite Lincoln Chaffee (a marriage-equality supporter) as governor, a new wind was put in the sails of marriage-equality supporters. Chaffee, in his inaugural address, stated, "I hope that Rhode Island will catch up to its New England neighbors and pass a bill to establish marriage equality, I urge our assembly to quickly consider and adopt this legislation. When marriage equality is the law, we honor our forefathers who risked their lives and fortunes to defend human equality."

In response, the right-wing National Organization for Marriage went on the offensive, calling for a popular vote on the issue.

In January, the bill was introduced with great hope for its passage, and with good reason; Lincoln Chaffee had called for it, while Gordon Fox, being an openly gay man, has a personal stake in the battle (one would think). The R.I. Bar Association, the New England Association of Educators-Rhode Island (NEARI) and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) all put out statements endorsing marriage equality. In 2009, a Brown University poll stated that 60 percent of Rhode Islanders were in favor of marriage equality.

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SO WHY, then, did Gordon Fox effectively end the debate on marriage equality this year?
The truth is that Fox had shown earlier signs of wavering. In the face of a February 9 rally for marriage equality that drew some 500 people--with 137 people sitting through an eight-and-a-half hour Judiciary Committee meeting to testify in favor of marriage equality--the committee Chair Edith Allejo stated that the next logical step would be a committee vote.

It was Fox who very quickly stepped in to put the brakes on. He was quoted in the Providence Journal as stating, "Edie wants to move quickly. She's a new chair...and she wants to push things so they can get through their agenda. But we, in the leadership, myself and the majority leader, really need to talk to a few people. We actually want to have some conversations with the senate, with the governor's office, and that is going to take some time."

The Senate Judiciary Committee held its hearing on marriage equality in early March with similar results.

But all this set the stage for supposed marriage equality "ally" Gordon Fox to follow in the footsteps of openly gay "pioneers" like Barney Frank in selling out the interests of the LGBT movement and squandering the political momentum that many had worked very hard to build.
Abandoning the fight for marriage equality, Fox stated in an e-mail that he would recommend that the House not move forward with a vote on the marriage equality bill. Instead, he said that he would offer a civil unions bill in its place.

For those of us fighting for full equality and liberation, terms like "compromise" and "practicality" should not even be in our vocabulary. Gordon Fox, by giving ground to the bigots of the National Organization for Marriage, has proven just where his loyalties lie. Civil unions, in legal terms, do not offer the same protections as civil marriage, and cannot be accepted on that ground alone.

Those elected to public office (even the openly gay ones) will not act without continued pressure from below. The fight for full same-sex marriage rights is not over, but activists must fight to set the terms of the debate and make the legislature act. This means we must wage the ideological battle in the streets.

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