In politics, sometimes those who should be your biggest advocates are the first to turn tail and run. Such is the case with Rhode Island’s House Speaker, who has been at best an ambivalent supporter of marriage equality since coming out as gay at a marriage rally in 2004. Rather than taking a position of leadership and encouraging his chamber to do the right thing in voting for equality, and getting folks on the record about their support or opposition, he went back on his promise for a vote on marriage this year, and instead is authoring a second-class civil union bill. Supporters of equality are understandably upset at this move. This colossal lack of leadership should be an embarrassment to every single member of the Rhode Island House of Representatives, regardless of their position on marriage equality.
Some prominent incrementalists applaud Fox’s move, citing Vermont’s pioneering move toward civil unions in 2000, and subsequent move to marriage equality in 2009. How quickly we forget that in 2000, when Vermont passed civil union legislation, there was absolutely no recognition for same sex couples anywhere in this country. I remember. Ellison and I started dating at the end of 2000, and those crazy Green Mountain Staters had just entered into an experiment of providing same-sex couples within their borders with access to the state protections provided by Vermont. These unions were not portable, with all rights and recognition dissolving at the state borders. They provided no access to any Federal recognition, or to the rights and responsibilities provided by other states. Within 7 years, Vermont recognized that civil unions were not sufficient to provide the protections they intended, and in 2009 they repealed their civil union law and passed full marriage equality.
Why should we have to make this mistake ourselves? Vermont, Connecticut, and New Hampshire have all recognized that civil unions don’t work, and have converted to full marriage equality. Rhode Island is surrounded on all sides by states that offer marriage equality. Neither Massachusetts nor Connecticut recognize civil unions, so Rhode Islanders will NOT be protected in their neighboring states. While I recognize that there may not be the votes to move marriage equality legislation into the law of the land this year, I am absolutely appalled that an openly gay House Speaker would be the one to cave, and to signal to the legislature that there is no need for courage, no need to stand for equality, and that second class status is good enough. It is one thing to acquiesce and accept what you can get; it is another thing entirely to be the author of inequality and its primary champion. I would love to know all the terms of the back room deal that led to this appalling move.