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Marriage Equality Advocates Testify Before Rhode Island Senate Committee

Capping off what has been a very busy and optimistic week, on Thursday night advocates for marriage equality in Rhode Island offered testimony before what is perhaps their most challenging audience: members of the Rhode Island Senate.

In a room that was packed to overflowing several hours early, members of a Rhode Island Senate committee heard testimony from marriage equality advocates and opponents late into Thursday night.  The committee must now vote on whether to send the proposed marriage equality legislation to the entire Senate floor for debate.

Patricia Baker (left) and her partner, Deborah Tevyaw.

Much of the testimony was understandably emotional, perhaps none more so than Patricia Baker, 54, a corrections officer from Johnston, R.I., who in December was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.  Requiring an oxygen tank to breathe, Patricia shared her story with lawmakers as her partner, Deborah, wiped away tears. Shortly after being told that her cancer is incurable, Patricia was stunned to learn that Deborah will not be able to collect Patricia's hard-earned Social Security benefits upon her death.  This realization prompted Patricia to become an outspoken advocate for marriage equality during what are the perhaps the last few months of her life.

"I worked all my life for those benefits," Baker told lawmakers.  "We own a house. We pay taxes. But they told me my Social Security benefits would go back into the system when I die.  How is she [Deborah] going to keep the house?"

(Patricia and Deborah's story is movingly chronicled by reporter Karen Lee Ziner in today's edition of The Providence Journal.  Ziner's outstanding work here provides a devastating, but critical example of the concrete harms that stem from marriage inequality.  GLAAD encourages reporters to follow Ziner's example here, highlighting more stories like that of Patricia and Deborah.  They are all too familiar, yet covered much too infrequently by the media.)

The Rhode Island House could vote on its own version of marriage equality legislation within a few weeks.  In the House, the legislation has the support of House Speaker Gordon Fox, who is openly gay and a co-sponsor of the bill.

Independent Gov. Lincoln Chafee is also supportive of the legislation, having called for marriage equality in Rhode Island during his inaugural address.

The greatest challenge is expected in the Senate.

Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed opposes the bill.

Of the likelihood of marriage equality legislation passing in the Senate, Sen. Rhoda Perry (D-Providence), one of the bill's Senate co-sponsors, said, "I think it's really, really close.  A lot of people are going to be working hard to change people's minds."

U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin (D-Rhode Island).

That couldn't be more true.  Just last Saturday, U.S. Rep Jim Langevin (D-Rhode Island) penned an op-ed in the state's highest-circulation newspaper in which he powerfully vocalized his own support for marriage equality in Rhode Island and the nation.  A devout Catholic who previously supported civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, Langevin wrote that his mind began to change three years ago after attending the commitment ceremony of a longtime staffer and his partner of nine years.

“Before their friends and family, they professed their love, commitment and respect for each other," wrote Langevin.  "Their sentiments were just as moving, heartfelt and sincere as any of the vows I had heard at other weddings, yet I realized that their union would not be treated the same under the law.  That difference struck me as fundamentally unjust, and I began to challenge the wisdom of creating separate categories of rights for certain groups of citizens.  I began to see that civil unions fell short of the equality I believed that same-sex couples deserved.”

Building on the momentum created by Langevin's op-ed, on Tuesday the Rhode Island Marriage Coalition unveiled a television ad that advocates for the passage of marriage equality legislation in Rhode Island.  Sixty seconds in length, the commercial features six diverse couples from Rhode Island discussing what marriage means to them and why the time has come for the Rhode Island General Assembly to adopt marriage equality legislation.

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Rhode Island would be the sixth state to legalize marriage for gay and lesbian couples.  Currently, marriage for gay and lesbian couples is legal in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia.

For readers who live in Rhode Island, or have friends and family there, it's now critical that you be in touch with legislators to voice your support for marriage equality legislation.  For more information on how you can be supportive of marriage equality legislation, please click here to visit the Web site of Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI), the lead organization working to achieve marriage equality in the state.

In November 2010, GLAAD was on the ground in Providence, training couples on how to share their stories of love and commitment with the media.  Additional spokesperson trainings are in the works, and we look forward to doing all that we can to make marriage equality a reality in Rhode Island!