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Thursday, May 19, 2011

RI Lawmakers Advance Civil Unions Bill

Gordon Fox
Gordon Fox
By Kilian Melloy -

It’s a bill that anti-gay activists and family parity advocates alike say they don’t want, but Rhode Island lawmakers have taken a major step toward establishing civil unions in that state, the Advocate reported on May 18.

The measure follows a retreat from a bill that would have extended state-level marriage parity to gay and lesbian families. Openly gay speaker of the state house Gordon Fox announced last month that the necessary votes were not in place to advance the measure, and instead embraced the civil unions bill, which has been characterized by some as a "compromise" measure.

But it’s a compromise that marriage equality advocates say leaves same-sex families stuck with second-class status, while anti-gay activists oppose civil unions, saying that level of recognition for gay and lesbian families is a "stepping stone" to marriage equality.

Moreover, two of Fox’s fellow Democrats in the state house, Peter Petrarca and Patrick O’Neill, say that contrary to Fox’s April 27 announcement, the needed support was there to advance a marriage equality bill.

Some even allege that the marriage bill was sabotaged by family parity supporters, though to what end it is not clear. Rhode Island Democratic Party Chair Edwin Pacheco told EDGE that such allegations were "ridiculous and absurd."

Fox, meantime, has borne the brunt of ensuing criticism, according to a May 18 Associated Press article.

"These folks were looking for a champion," Fox said. "It hurts me to think that I’m not quite their champion at this point. That bothers me. Because so many people were waiting for so long... but you have to be able to move votes."

Not only did some regard Fox as less than heroic for abandoning the marriage equality push; there were mutters of far worse.

"What was Speaker Fox thinking?" asked Rev. Duane Clinker. "I think he forgot he had friends." Rev. Clinker’s comment was one of the more generous appraisals.

The AP reported that Fox viewed the response as partly a response to expectations based on his sexuality.

"I think it’s also people that want this badly, that may not understand the process as much," Fox told the AP. "When they say ’Oh we’ve now got a gay speaker of the House, now anything is possible.’ "

Fellow politicians see the issue in a way that voters might not--and think that Fox was wily in having adopted the strategy he did.

"This decision was tougher for him than for anyone else," William Murphy, who was House speaker before Fox took over the job, the AP reported. "Politically, it was the right move. He’s got a bill that will pass. People who look at this objectively will see he’s advanced the issue further and faster than anyone else."

"I know how Gordon really anguished over how to proceed," said Rhode Island’s openly gay U.S. Congressman, David Cicilline. "I also know he’s a smart politician and he made a calculation that the votes weren’t there. People can disagree with the strategy, but I don’t think anyone can question his commitment to marriage equality."

The AP article also notes that the votes might indeed have been there to get the issue through the state house--but it would almost certainly have been killed in the state senate. But a civil unions bill may have a chance of clearing the senate; the head of that chamber, Teresa Paiva Weed, a marriage equality foe, has expressed civil unions support.

The AP article noted that the civil unions bill currently under consideration would grant the same state-level rights and protections as marriage. No state can confer federal rights, protections, and benefits onto same-sex couples, however. An anti-gay federal law, the 1996 "Defense of Marriage" Act, specifically cuts gay and lesbian families out of participation in marriage at the federal level.

"Illinois, New Jersey, Delaware and Hawaii have passed civil union laws similar to the one under consideration in Rhode Island," noted the AP article. "Vermont, Connecticut and New Hampshire all adopted civil unions prior to recognizing same-sex marriage. Iowa and Massachusetts also allow same-sex marriage."

"I truly believe, notwithstanding all the stuff you hear these days, that government has a positive effect on people’s lives," Fox told the AP. "Everyone should have an equal shot at life. An equal chance."

The civil unions bill may yet transform into another measure to grant marriage equality, if an attempt by State Rep. Rep. Arthur Handy to amend the bill succeeds. Handy has said that the marriage bill should have been given a vote.

Kilian Melloy is EDGE Media Network’s Web Producer and Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews media, conducts interviews, and writes aggregate news stories and commentary for EDGE.

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