Has Rhode Island’s LGBT Movement Lost Momentum?
Has momentum behind the LGBT rights movement in Rhode Island stalled?
An increasing number of activists feel that the passage of the state’s civil unions law last June actually weakened what they contend was a once-strong movement.
Gay House Speaker Gordon Fox (D-Providence) last April unexpectedly announced his support for the civil unions bill, effectively killing any chance that the marriage equality bill would pass. Activists had been hopeful that lawmakers would support a measure that would have allowed gays and lesbians to marry once Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who supports marriage equality, took office.
Chafee’s Republican predecessor, Don Carcieri, was a vocal opponent of nuptials for gays and lesbians who aligned himself with the National Organization for Marriage.
Marriage Equality Rhode Island remains hopeful that the General Assembly will pass bills that would allow same-sex couples to tie the knot and allow gays and lesbians who married out of state to obtain divorces in the Ocean State.
Another bill known as the Equal Religious Protection Act calls for the repeal of an amendment that state Rep. Arthur Corvese (D-North Providence) attached to the civil unions law that allows religiously-affiliated hospitals, schools and other institutions to ignore the legal standing of a civil union spouse.
With no hearings yet scheduled on any of the bills, however, more LGBT Rhode Islanders have lost patience and are publicly venting their frustrations.
"While I can’t speak for the whole community, there is certainly some disillusionment -- we have all called our state representatives, signed the post cards and gone to the rallies," said Kim Stowell, editor of the LGBT newsmagazine Options. "We’ve all heard them say ’This is the year!’ more than once, but nothing ever seems to happen," Stowell continued. "I wouldn’t call it apathy, but I do worry that there is an attitude of complacency out there."
Ray Sullivan, campaign director for MERI, told EDGE that he expects Rhode Island to have marriage equality within an 18 month to 2-year time frame. He declined to comment on the record about those who continue to allege that his organization has not done enough to push for nuptials for same-sex couples in the state.
Gay State Rep. Frank Ferri (D-Warwick) remains confident a vote on marriage equality will occur within the next 15 months.
"MERI is positioned to do the work and needs more support and volunteers from our community than anything else," he said. "We need people working on campaigns and lobbying at the statehouse. I definitely believe electing pro-equality legislators will make a difference. Just saying ’we will have marriage eventually’ is not enough."
While some of criticized MERI for the lack of movement on the marriage equality bill, others feel the state’s political leadership has stalled LGBT-specific issues from moving in the General Assembly.
"Our legislators seem to have a lack of will or courage in doing what is necessary to make Rhode Island competitive or even par with our neighbors," said Matt Donnelly of Warwick. "From regressive taxes to social issues, we have had the least progressive legislation in Rhode Island. We were supposed to be ’a lively experiment’ in social and religious freedom, and we’ve turned in to a bastion of safe, socially stunted thinking."
Josh Kilby, a member of the International Socialist Organization, described Fox a "political opportunist through and through" on his support of the civil unions bill. He also feels that LGBT activists did not fight hard enough for marriage equality and other issues during the Carcieri administration.
"MERI, even under the very capable leadership of Kathy Kushnir, who is perhaps the most principled liberal I’ve ever worked with, and whom I still hold in very high esteem, were the chief ’hand sitters’ and most unfortunately the de facto leaders of the LGBT rights struggle and remain so," Kilby continued. "The Providence Equality Action Committee (PEAC) and Queer Action RI (QuARI) were worthy, but at best feeble efforts to direct street heat, but were never able to match the reach and credibility that MERI had built up over years and both organizations were crushed under the weight of internal trouble."
Cranston resident Gary D’Amario plans to marry his boyfriend who lives in Massachusetts once the federal government recognizes same-sex marriages. He said he feels marriage equality activists in the state are "too concerned with political correctness."
Kate Monteiro, a veteran activist who was one of the leaders of the state’s burgeoning marriage equality movement in 2003, notes the struggle for civil rights has always had peaks and valleys.
"Rhode Island’s LGBTQ community lost precious momentum in the Carcieri years allowing the threat of a governor’s veto to keep our goals unnaturally low and our timeline interminable," she said. "The question now is: how do we jump start our hopes and expectations anew. How do we move as a community from waiting, however impatiently, to demanding and achieving change?"
Monteiro feels the community should stand up and demand equality.
"The movement is driven, or allowed to idle, by those who show up," she said. "If we want more, we have to do it ourselves."
Joe Siegel has written for a number of other GLBT publications, including In newsweekly and Options.