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    Winning Rhode Island and Beyond

    By Thom Watson, Marriage Equality USA

    I was poised to write this column as a speculation about which state would be the tenth to recognize civil marriage equality for same-sex couples, joining nine other states and the District of Columbia where the freedom to marry already is guaranteed.

    Would it be Delaware, where the House recently passed a marriage equality bill, just five days after the bill’s introduction?

    Maybe Rhode Island, where two critical Senate votes had finally been scheduled, three months after a similar bill passed in the House? Or Minnesota, where a state senator seen as a key swing vote announced he would support the pending bill?

    Might it even be former front runner Illinois, which seems to be floundering after an initial brisk start out of the gate, when swift Senate approval had been hailed as a Valentine’s Day gift for Illinois’s same-sex couples?

    Even Nevada has gotten into the game, albeit by necessity taking a much longer view. Due to statutory requirements, Nevada residents won’t be able to vote to repeal the existing ban and to sanction civil marriage equality until 2016 at the earliest.

    Coming off a two-month period where there had seemed relatively little activity on marriage equality legislation, I was primed to handicap the race and make my predictions for the finish.

    But when you’re a writer, the real world can end up throwing curve balls – or, perhaps more aptly, dramatic ninth-inning game-tying home runs, which to Giants fans like my fiancé and me has become a heart-poundingly familiar part of the game.

    That’s pretty much what happened –a game-tying late-inning home run by the Giants and a marriage equality curve ball – just as I was putting my column to bed. Shift-click, delete. Reboot. Sadly, the Giants went on to lose that evening. But marriage equality was poised for at least one dramatic win.

    With the Rhode Island Senate’s incredibly swift and stunningly lopsided bipartisan vote for marriage equality, the largely procedural formality of sending the slightly amended bill back to the supportive House for re-approval, and Governor Lincoln Chafee’s public endorsement, the question of which state will be the tenth to recognize marriage equality already seems clearly answered. Same-sex couples should be able to start marrying in Rhode Island this summer.

    I also wouldn’t be terribly surprised if we saw an 11th state moved into the win column very soon. The U.S. sometimes moves faster on marriage equality than even those of us who devote much of our time to the issue might expect or predict.

    Now that my prediction about the outcome in Rhode Island is moot, I can turn rather to why I think it’s particularly meaningful.

    First, that any state comes to recognize the freedom to marry is momentous. Each state that moves to embracing fuller equality for same-sex couples brings us one step closer to equality for all. Some Supreme Court scholars suggest that the Court cares very much about where states and state governments stand on an issue – more than they might care about where a majority of Americans themselves stand on an issue – so every state that recognizes marriage equality is one more point in our favor on that hypothetical scoreboard.

    There may never be a more critical time, in fact, than in this period between the February Prop 8 and DOMA oral arguments and the decisions expected next month, to demonstrate to the Court that more and more states are moving towards fuller equality for same-sex couples rather than continuing to reject or qualify equal treatment under the law. Still, Rhode Island has its own particular, and in some ways even unique, significance in the movement for marriage equality. With Maine’s recognition of the freedom to marry at the ballot last fall, for example, Rhode Island had remained the only New England state to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples.

    Significantly, all five members of the Senate’s Republican caucus voted for the bill, the first legislative caucus of either of the two major political parties in any state to unanimously support the freedom to marry. Marriage equality is not a partisan issue, and support for the freedom to marry crosses party lines, superseding politics.

    The Senate vote similarly demonstrated that marriage equality is not inimical to religious liberty, and that religious belief need not correlate with opposing the freedom to marry. The percentage of the population identifying as Catholic is among the highest in the U.S. Many state senators are publicly and proudly religious. During floor debate, several confirmed they had been pressured to oppose the bill on religious grounds, but they had come to recognize they were voting for civil marriage equality, and that their churches’ understanding of the religious sacrament of marriage was neither affected nor in any way jeopardized by the civil marriage legislation.

    Perhaps the most important take-away from the Rhode Island legislative process, however, was a message at the heart of Marriage Equality USA’s own mission. Hearts and minds change in favor of marriage equality when the legislator or the voter knows someone gay: a family member, a close friend, a neighbor or a colleague.

    Research has borne out what we’ve long proposed. When someone you know or love is gay, it’s less likely you will vote to restrict their freedom and equality, and more likely you will advocate for their inclusion as full, rather than as second-class, citizens. Senator after senator in Rhode Island last week said that they had been planning to vote against the marriage equality bill before they got to know lesbians and gay men, spent time with same-sex couples and their kids, and saw that while their love and commitment and family values are the same, the way the government and the law treats them is different. They saw that this is unfair, and that it is wrong, and that it is un-American. And they voted to make it right.

    It turns out that being open, honest and out of the closet – telling our stories, in our own words, to the people already in our lives – is among the very best tools we have to ensure our equality. That is a “lifestyle” worth promoting.

    Thom Watson, a leader in the nationwide grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA, lives in Daly City with his fiancé and partner of ten years, Jeff Tabaco. Thom and Jeff plan to marry this year, after the U.S. Supreme Court agrees with the lower courts that California’s Prop 8 is unconstitutional.