Rhode Island Legislature Considers Gay Marriage

by Joe Siegel

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday May 19, 2009

The desire for same-sex couples in New England to get married has finally reached its final battle. With New Hampshire's governor on the verge of signing its gay-marriage into law, the momentum has shifted to the tiny state of Rhode Island.

The debate over gay marriage continued at the State House in Providence on Wednesday. As in other states that have confronted this contentious issue, there were plenty of supporters and opponents waiting to testify before the House Judiciary Committee.

The Legislature is currently considering two bills: One would legalize same-sex unions. The other would have the exact opposite effect--amend the state constitution to limit the definition of marriage to be a union between one man and one woman.

Representatives from NOM (the National Organization for Marriage, which has stepped to the forefront in the religious right's fight against such unions); members of the clergy; and individuals from throughout the state spoke in favor of banning gay marriage on the grounds that allowing it would destroy the institution of marriage.

State Rep. Frank Ferri (D-Warwick), flanked by family members, expressed his outrage at the lack of action taken by his fellow legislators on the issue of marriage rights for gays and lesbians. Ferri married his husband, Tony Caparco, in Canada in 2006.

"It is embarrassing and insulting that I have to come here before you again to beg for the constitutional right of Rhode Island's gay and lesbian citizens to marry the people we love," Ferri said. "It is deeply personal, and after 12 years of getting the same runaround and the bill dying in committee, I am tired of this issue not demanding your attention and action."

Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts (D) did not testify at the hearing but sent a letter in support of same-sex marriage to the Judiciary committee chairman, Don Lally (D-North Kingstown).

"As a legislator and as lieutenant governor, I have consistently supported legislation that would create marriage equality," she wrote. "My husband Tom and I have been married for almost twenty-seven years and I believe that marriage is a right that any committed couple deserves under Rhode Island law. The right to marriage is a civil right that should not be denied."

Peter Quesnel, who married his partner in Massachusetts, told the committee of the happiness he felt on his wedding day: "If you were there to share with us, even just to witness our joy we had on that day, how you could deny that to somebody in the future, how you could deny that to all Rhode Islanders."

Another one of the speakers was Susan Heroux, who married her partner Stacy in Massachusetts a few years ago. The couple lives in Coventry with their daughter.

Heroux chided the committee for a lack of action on same-sex marriage in the past and urged them to vote the bill out of committee: "It's time to stand up to the leadership of the House of Representatives, it's time to stand up to Speaker (William) Murphy and say 'this is what's right and we need to do it', it's time to stand up for the gay families of Rhode Island."

Cassandra Ormiston is fighting just as vociferously for another right in the other direction-the right to divorce her wife in a Rhode Island court. She tried to do so previously and was denied a divorce decree. Ormiston married Margaret Chambers in Massachusetts in 2004, shortly after same-sex marriage became legal there.

Ormiston recently announced the formation of a new group called Equality Rising, which is a separate entity from Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI). "At this time, having been married in Massachusetts," she said, "I remain, forever it seems, married to a woman I do not love and who does not love me."

Another bill has been introduced in the legislature which would allow same-sex couples married in other states to obtain a divorce in Rhode Island.

Despite the pressure of some legislators, the lieutenant governor, and gay groups and their allies, passage of the same-sex marriage bill seems unlikely this year. The state's top leaders, including Gov. Don Carcieri, a Republican, House Speaker William Murphy (D-West Warwick) and Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed (D-Newport), all oppose same-sex marriage.

The frustration felt by gay marriage advocates was summed up most effectively by Ormiston in her words to the committee: "We have had it. We are tired of waiting. We have appreciated your support but it is not enough."

Joe Siegel has written for a number of other GLBT publications, including In newsweekly and Options.