The little state that should have been a slam-dunk dragged its heels on the way to the altar, but ultimately got there
NOTE: This story first appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of Boston Spirit magazine.
by Tony Giampetruzzi
Frank Ferri plans to marry his partner of 32-years, Tony, today, August 1, the couple’s anniversary.
A democratic state representative from Rhode Island, Ferri has seen many August firsts come and go and, as a long time marriage equality advocate, each has been bittersweet. But Rhode Island became the tenth U.S. state, and the final state in New England, to allow gay marriage when lawmakers voted approvingly in May.
Conveniently, for Ferri, the first day that the law goes into effect is August 1.
“It’s still settling in. It’s a funny feeling to know that I don’t have to get out of bed tomorrow and advocate another day for gay marriage,” says Ferri, an elected official for six years, but someone who has walked the Statehouse floors for nearly two decades advocating for marriage equality. “I’ve been talking to so many people over so many years about it and trying to educate people. You know, every chance I got I was advocating for it, even if it was just in subtle ways. So, now it’s happened, it’s strange. Pinch me! It’s a really, really strange feeling.”
To be sure, it’s been a long haul for Rhode Island which was out of the gate earlier than most states in 2002 with a domestic partnership law. By then, a bill to legalize gay marriage had been introduced every year since 1997, and in every subsequent year leading up to the victory of 2013.
So what happened?
Most attribute the delay in getting one of the bills to stick to the state’s political leadership beginning in 2003. Newly-elected Republican Governor Donald Carcieri, as well as the speaker of the House, William J. Murphy, and the Senate president, M. Teresa Paiva-Weed, both democrats, all opposed marriage equality.
“I don’t think we have a great answer to why Rhode Island was the last of the New England states to get marriage equality passed, except to say that in most recent history [Murphy] not only tried to thwart marriage equality efforts, but really any efforts to pass legislation that would protect same-sex couples,” says Janson Wu, Staff Attorney at Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), a major partner in marriage equality efforts throughout New England.
In November 2008, the fifth anniversary of gay marriage in Massachusetts, GLAD announced an ambitious project called the “Six by Twelve” campaign to bring marriage to all six New England states by 2012. Despite a hiccup in Maine where a law was passed, repealed and then passed again in November 2012, Rhode Island remained the lone outlier.
And, by then, activists were staging a full court press. In fact, what was occurring behind the scenes in Rhode Island in the months leading up to and after the 2012 elections was a campaign strategy that the Associated Press (AP) called “a recipe” for other states. “Phone banks, an army of volunteers and alliances with organized labor, business leaders and religious clergy propelled gay marriage to victory in Rhode Island … a savvy and coordinated strategy that relied on growing public support and old fashioned bare-knuckle politics,” the AP reported last May.
Ray Sullivan, Executive Director of Marriage Equality Rhode Island, and a former legislator, was one of masterminds behind the plan.
“It’s interesting to me that anyone would have thought that Rhode Island could have passed this sooner. I served in the assembly for six years, so I know some Republicans are more Democrat and some Democrats are more Republican,” he said referring to trifecta of anti-marriage state leadership.
The light at the end of the tunnel began to shine in 2010 with election of Governor Lincoln Chaffee, then an Independent (he has subsequently become a Democrat).
“That’s when things began to change. Chaffee was a huge supporter of the LGBT community. He made marriage equality a part of his platform. He highlighted it in his state his State of the State address. … It was a huge priority for him.” The challenge, though, was getting a bill to his desk—the landscape of the Statehouse had to change, and it would require an enormous effort.
To that end, a progressive coalition was formed leading up to the 2012 elections that included labor unions, faith organizations, environmental and women groups who all had common interests in common candidates. This allowed for combining resources to focus on 12 house and five senate seats. The effort was successful. “That was when we could realistically articulate that there was a path to getting this done,” says Sullivan. “We didn’t win every race but we won enough to influence the process.”
It helped that the new Speaker of the House was openly gay Democrat Gordon Fox. “Going into session, we had a fired up speaker, a new class of sponsors, and we knew we could get it done, it was just a matter of connecting legislators with their constituents who could tell their stories, tell them why marriage matters,” says Sullivan.
Wasting no time, in January, Representative Arthur Handy and Senator Donna Nesselbach introduced legislation that would legalize gay marriage.
“Early on it was a fairness thing for me. Why does one person have a right that another person doesn’t have?” says Handy, who has been a marriage supporter in the legislature since the early 2000s and who credits the stories of others with an even greater evolutional shift in his thinking on the issue. “I’m a straight man, I’ve been married since 1997 and I have a nine-year-old son. Over the years, this issue actually caused me to look at myself and my marriage and why the ‘marriage’ aspect of my union is so important to me. I moved from looking at it from a legal right to more of an emotional connection that comes with having the right.”
Handy’s experience is exactly what Sullivan and company were hoping to duplicate throughout the Statehouse by having Rhode Islanders share their personal stories, their wedding albums, what it means to them that all their children are allowed to get married, and why they want their children to grow up in state where all families would be treated equally.”
“The messaging became critical,” says Sullivan adding that the size of the bullhorn also helped. “I think that legislators were taken aback by the size and sophistication of the campaign. We were connecting them with as many as 50 constituents per hour. The phones in their homes or offices would ring non-stop.”
According to Sullivan, many have called the effort the largest grassroots campaign in state history. “In 15 years, I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says.
The campaign did have its opponents. “We have, by far, the highest percentage of Catholics of any state in the nation, and the Church has been adamantly opposed to gay marriage’” says Speaker Gordon Fox. “But despite their continued opposition this year, I really sensed a momentum shift. We had a fantastic and engaged activist movement in our state that handled this issue like a political campaign.”
Case in point, the pro-marriage side tapped their vast resources to blunt the anti-gay Catholic leadership with a “collar-to-collar” strategy. With more than 150 faith leaders in support of marriage, any effort by a faith leader to speak out against marriage would be swiftly answered by a pro-gay faith leader.
“We had unrelenting momentum and an unprecedented grassroots build up,” says Sullivan. “And, at the end of the day, we simply asked the legislators to receive what we are saying with open hearts and minds. Ninety percent did. And we flipped votes because they heard from so many people in their districts that this was the right thing to do.”
After a 16-year build up, marriage equality was approved handily by the legislature on May 2; Chaffee signed the bill the same day.
“This has had a wonderful impact on both me and my partner Marcus. We’ve been in a committed, loving relationship for 14 years, and now we have the same rights that everyone else enjoys,” said Fox. “On a personal level, it is tremendously gratifying because I always felt pressure to get this bill passed, even though I knew the votes just didn’t exist at the time. It took a great deal of patience and perseverance.”
Ferri hasn’t made final plans for he and Tony’s nuptials, although he thinks it will be a reception of sorts in Providence with cake and champagne. Reflecting on the struggle in Rhode Island, he admits that when the state finally legalized gay marriage—the tenth state to do so — he was a little disappointed that the event didn’t receive the same national fanfare earlier efforts garnered.
“It makes me feel average [laughs]. But, it’s a good thing,” he says. “We always use the term ‘fabric of society,’ and that’s what we’ve become. We’ve moved on from being the misfits. It’s not a controversy anymore.”
Controversy or not, Wu concedes that there’s plenty to be done. “Our goal was to bring marriage equality to all New England states by 2012, and I think we did pretty well,” he says. “Now, having worked with all six states and in different capacities in the courts, in the legislatures, and at the ballot box, we’ve amassed a tremendous amount of expertise and certainly look forward to working with and advising our colleagues throughout the country in getting marriage equality passed everywhere.” [x]
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