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Rhode Island House Speaker: Marriage Equality Won't Happen in 2011, Focuses on Civil Unions

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On Wednesday, Rhode Island House Speaker Gordon Fox (D) said that marriage equality legislation has "no realistic chance" of passing the state's General Assembly this year.  Fox, who is both openly gay and a champion of marriage equality legislation, now supports new legislation that would create civil unions.

"This is the best we can do right now," Fox said.  "Full marriage will happen.  I'm born and bred in Rhode Island.  When I do get married it will be in my home state."

Marriage equality legislation has been proposed in the General Assembly every year since it was first introduced in 1997.  With the support of Speaker Fox and Governor Lincoln Chafee (I), a slew of prominent endorsements, including the Rhode Island  AFL-CIO, and a powerful television ad, many advocates strongly believed that 2011 would be the year marriage equality was finally realized in the Ocean State.

However, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed's (D) opposition has been a key obstacle to passing marriage equality legislation.  After months of discussions with his colleagues, ultimately it was the anticipation of continued opposition in the Senate that prompted Fox to decide that he would not be moving forward with a House vote on marriage equality legislation this year.

"Based on your input, along with the fact that it is now clear to me that there is no realistic chance for passage of the bill in the Senate, I will recommend that the House not move forward with a vote on the marriage equality bill during this legislative session," Fox wrote in a letter to his colleagues.  "I will instead support full passage of a civil unions' bill that grants important and long overdue legal rights to same-sex couples in Rhode Island." (You can read the letter in its entirety by clicking here.)

Wednesday's announcement came as a big disappointment to Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI), the statewide advocacy organization that has been leading the effort to bring marriage equality to the Ocean State.

"While a civil union may offer many of the legal rights of marriage, it's still a separate, lesser category than marriage," said Martha Holt, board chairwoman of MERI.  "Civil unions are a compromise for no one.  We are extremely disappointed in the lack of leadership at the Statehouse, and we urge Speaker Fox to rethink sponsoring legislation that would create a second class of citizens."

Currently five states (Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont) and the District of Columbia legally allow marriage for loving and committed gay and lesbian couples who want to take care of and be responsible for each other. Five states (California, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington) provide loving and committed gay and lesbian couples with access to many of the state-level benefits and responsibilities of marriage, through either a civil union or a domestic partnership; three others (Illinois, Hawaii, and Delaware) are on the verge, which will mean that eight states legally recognize the relationships of loving and committed gay and lesbian couples, through either a civil union or a domestic partnership.

In November 2010 and earlier this month, GLAAD was on the ground in Providence, R.I., training individuals on how to speak in the media about the importance of marriage for loving and committed gay and lesbian couples who want to take care of and be responsible for each other.

We will continue to support the tireless efforts of our colleagues in Rhode Island, and we look forward to the day when all of Rhode Island's loving and committed couples are treated equally.  Until that day comes, we urge the media to continue spotlighting the stories of those couples who are still not able to take care of and be responsible for the people they love most: each other.