Rhode Island’s Reluctance in a Sea of Blue

Smallest state behind the times in New England
By Peter Lacerenza

After a whirlwind year of LGBTQ breakthroughs in 2012—including the addition of Maine, Washington and Maryland to the dossier of states permitting gay marriage, and the election of Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay U.S. Senator in history—2013 will prove monumental for the queer civil rights cause. With the likely passage of gay marriage bills in several more states, and the Supreme Court hearings for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and California’s Proposition 8 set to take place this summer, the stakes are undoubtedly high. Though we as a nation have come a long way, the fight is certainly far from over.

Less than a month into the new year, the state of Rhode Island passed gay marriage legislation with an overwhelming majority of 51 to 19. Though the January 24 vote proved a shining victory for activist organizations like Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI), and the openly gay state house of representative leader Gordon Fox, there is something rotten in the Ocean State.

Senator Tammy Baldwin
Senator Tammy Baldwin

Unlike New York, where similar legislation was enacted only after state Democrats worked their détente magic on a Republican-controlled senate, gay marriage advocacy is being challenged by high-ranking Rhode Island Democrats, namely Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed, Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio, and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Michael McCaffrey.

Though a decision has yet to be reached, Rhode Island’s recent efforts for marriage equality represents the culmination of state LGBTQ advocacy that has been over a decade in the making. Rhode Island voted on gay marriage as early as 1997, and again in 2011. Though both attempts failed to pass, a recent Public Policy Polling survey found that support for gay marriage in the state is at an all time high of 57%, a 7% increase from 2011.

Passage in 2013 would not only be a substantial victory for queer Rhode Islanders, but would cement New England as the first region in the nation to universally legalize gay marriage. Although the bluing of the region has been many years in the making, embrasure of marriage equality would only solidify New England’s having come full circle, from its puritanical roots to the most progressive grouping of states in the nation.

Not to be outdone, Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, with support from Governor Patrick Quinn, has made clear his ambitions to pass same-sex legislation on Valentine’s Day, and believes that such a bill has the 30 votes it will need to move onto the Illinois House of Representatives. Victory in this case would not only bring equality to the fifth most populous state, but would likely put pressure on neighboring states. Such pressure would have a beneficial outcome in Minnesota, where a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex unions was overturned in 2012, and help push for future equality initiatives in fellow Midwestern blue states Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio.

In the Mid-Atlantic, Delaware has been speculated to follow suit with New York and Maryland. In a March interview with Reuters, Governor Jack Markell called the transition from the state’s current civil unions “inevitable.” Though New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed gay marriage legislation last year, he has proposed putting the measure up for a popular vote.

While prospects are hopeful, one cannot deny the influence that the aforementioned Supreme Court decisions will have upon support and progression of state marriage legislation. For the past five years, the 2008 passage of Proposition 8 in California has set a pall over national gay rights initiatives. Prop 8 not only reversed the state’s decision to legalize gay marriage earlier that year, but also resulted in an amendment to the California Constitution that limited marriages to those between one man and one woman. As the definitive case for this issue, Hollingsworth v. Perry has the potential to revise injustice in the Golden State. Victory in this case would not only reestablish the rights of gay Californians to marry, but would also mean that more than a quarter of Americans will live in states with marriage equality.

In addition, the Supreme Court will also rule on the constitutionality of The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the conservatively and religiously backed legislation that seeks to uphold the traditional, heteronormative conception of matrimony. If DOMA is ruled unconstitutional, LGBTQ initiatives will be further supported. If the decision is ultimately unfavorable, however, policy decisions in Rhode Island, and across the country will be subjected to greater scrutiny. If that is the case, the work for queer Rhode Islanders, Americans and their allies will remain cut out.

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