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Fox spurs compromise on civil unions

April 27, 2011

The marriage equality advocates aren’t going to like the civil unions compromise reached by House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport and Governor Lincoln Chafee.
And the militantly anti-gay marriage activists won’t like this deal either, because it is a tangible step toward full marriage equality.
Gay marriage advocates are complaining that civil unions “are unacceptable because they marginalize gay and lesbian couples in very significant ways.’’ That is the word from Martha Holt, chairwoman of Marriage Equality Rhode Island’s board of directors.
But in the real world of the State House, same-sex marriage supporters, particularly Speaker Fox, had little wiggle room if they wanted to get something done and remove Rhode Island as one of only two New England states with no legal sanction for gay unions.
Simply put, the votes were not there in the House or Senate for full gay marriage rights. One can argue that Fox, an openly gay politician in a state with more than a few closeted pols, could have used his speaker’s position to coax enough votes to win House approval. But there was no way, given Paiva Weed’s opposition, that the Senate was going to follow the House on this one. So Fox would have put many Democrats in the awkward political position of making a Pyrrhic vote for no good reason. Yes, the House could have jammed a gay marriage bill at the Senate, but to what effect?
There are few profiles in courage at the State House, which is part of the problem for the same-sex marriage advocates. But Fox was in a box; if he wanted to get anything done in the current session to actually move forward on legal rights for gay couples, civil unions was the only viable path he had.
There is ample precedent for civil unions as a first step toward full marriage rights. Vermont was the first state in the U.S. to permit gay civil unions back in 2000. The Green Mountain State moved to full marriage equality in 2009. If the Vermont experience is relevant, and there is no reason to think it isn’t, what happens is fairly simple. Civil Unions become law and the sky doesn’t fall, the Roman Catholic churches remain open and the average person notices nothing much at all. The lone impact on heterosexual couples is that they receive more wedding invitations. And once a majority of the public realizes nothing really changes, it becomes relatively easy to move to full marriage equality.
There is another political calculus for Democrats. This issue threatened the always-fragile
unity of the state Democratic Party, which for years has faced a schism on social issues between the suburban liberal wing and the archaic remains of the party among conservative Catholics, particularly men. This split was buried while Republican Don Carcieri was governor, because he pledged to veto any gay marriage or civil union legislation and even vetoed a measure giving gays burial rights for partners. Carcieri’s opposition meant that it wasn’t worth it for Dems to push a bill in the Assembly.
Governor Lincoln Chafee, an independent, supports full marriage rights for gays, but says he will sign a civil union bill if it lands on his desk.
The other force is that public opinion is moving rapidly on this issue. Just about every poll shows a marked change in public acceptance of gay rights, especially among voters under 45. In a decade, people are going to look back and wonder just what all the fuss was about.
In Rhode Island, a hint of what is to come was the AFL-CIO’s decision to endorse marriage equality, a move that would not have been possible even 5 years ago.
For now, Fox and Chafee should not be demonized by the marriage equality crowd. One of the problems for full marriage rights is that MERI and its allies didn’t generate sufficient grass-roots support to force some legislative opponents to reconsider their positions. Maybe it is time for Democratic progressives, who have won some impressive primary victories of late, so flex their muscles against DINO state lawmakers. Or convince some of the many silent, closeted politicians in the state to come out.
Over time, marriage equality will become law. Is the compromise fair? Well, one can argue that it isn’t. But it can win approval in a contentious year on Smith Hill. One day Fox will be vindicated for foregoing the moral victory a one-chamber approval would have been. Bragging rights and finger-pointing won’t give gay couples the legal rights they so deserve. Moving a step in the right direction will.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. ALD permalink
    April 27, 2011 9:31 pm

    Thanks Scott for bringing sanity to the discussion. As someone who is three months away from marrying her partner in Narrangansett, I am grateful to Speaker Fox for realizing that getting some rights for gay couples is more important than political posturing. I am proud of MERI for the work they have done but they need to realize that many in the community would appreciate a step in the right direction.

  2. Kate Monteiro permalink
    April 27, 2011 10:06 pm

    As always, Scott, your analysis of the political calculus of the situation is spot on. Equality advocates must redouble their efforts at real grassroots organizing AND must make clear their electoral clout. To paraphrase Bull Durham, politics is a simple game. You hit the ball, you throw the ball, you catch the ball. When the people lead, the leaders will follow. Put the people have to actually LEAD.

  3. Hillary Nicholson permalink
    April 27, 2011 10:39 pm

    (corrected version)

    Dear Mr. MacKay,

    While I do appreciate your intelligently reasoned and mostly correct analysis of the political conundrum faced by Gordon Fox, I have to differ with you in your conclusion. As much as Civil Unions might seem on the surface to be a reasonable (and gettable) compromise, there are some moral distinctions that must be seen as absolutes. Discrimination is either wrong or it isn’t. Less discrimination arguably might be an improvement, but it is still discrimination. If we clean up the “Blacks Only” public restrooms and make sure they have the same number of toilets and the same amount of soap and towels as the “Whites Only” ones do, is that a reasonable compromise?

    You also seem to suggest that any progress in the right direction will lead to more and even full equality later on:

    “If the Vermont experience is relevant, and there is no reason to think it isn’t, what happens is fairly simple. Civil Unions become law and the sky doesn’t fall… And once a majority of the public realizes nothing really changes, it becomes relatively easy to move to full marriage equality.”

    Sure, that approach works out great! Until it doesn’t. Try floating that logic in a room with the thousands of couples in California who were eligible to be married one day, and forbidden the next, creating the bizarre situation of having one class of (married) gay people who are now “more equal” than another, just beacause they made the deadline and others didn’t.

    Furthermore, we have ALREADY HAD many years of ample proof next door in Massachusetts (and in other states and countries near and far) that the sky won’t fall and society will not crumble when gay couples have the same rights straight people do. People who are not convinced by reality on the ground in Seekonk are not likely to be persuaded by the same reality just because it’s now in East Providence.

    Count me among those who feel betrayed by Fox. If the bill fails, it fails, but after 14 years of punting this down the road, it’s far past time for the legislators of this state to take a stand either way and go on the record once and for all. I have more respect for an opponent of equality who votes his or her conscience on the issue (though I could not disagree with them more) than one who professes to be a supporter but won’t stake a public vote on it. Is a principle a principle if you’re unwilling to stand up for it?

  4. Craig permalink
    April 27, 2011 10:45 pm

    The “divide” in the Democratic party is not the neat urban-suburban-exurban line. There are many d’s in the Providence delegation, for example, that would not vote to legalize gay marriage, and so D’s representing rural parts of the state that would vote yes, and the suburban votes as just as split. it really is the catholic legislators vs. the non-catholic legislators, it seems, for the most part. I assume there are catholic legislators who support marriage equality, and non-catholics who don;t, but its the power of the bishop that is key to this. also, even if a state passes marriage equality, doesn’t DOMA at the federal level still deny a lot of rights, no matter what a state passes and calls gay marriage?

    • M. Charles Bakst permalink
      April 27, 2011 11:04 pm

      Scott’s analysis is well written and argued and may be absolutely correct in reading the mood in the State House, and, sure, Speaker Fox is in a tough position, and I feel for him. But what’s the point of his spending years toiling in the Assembly trenches and clawing his way to a position of such high influence if he is not willing to use it to fight _ I repeat, fight _ for the dignity of all human beings, especially in his case, fellow gay people? They should not have to settle for second-class citizenship. Nor should legislators enjoy the luxury of ducking tough votes. People have a right to know how their lawmakers stand on an issue like this. If the legislators prefer not to have to go on record, then they shouldn’t be there. Speaker Fox would have been better off _ Rhode Islanders would have been better off _ if he were to press for a House vote on a marriage bill. I would like to think it would pass. Then, if the senators chose not to follow suit, they’d have to live with the ignominy and their consciences. By the way, you will notice I sign my name. I hope all of your commenters do likewise. M. Charles Bakst, Providence

  5. Katherine Puleo permalink
    April 28, 2011 7:28 am

    Thank God for Catholic legislators who vote their conscience. Because gender matters in marriage, it is constructed legally now between a man and a woman. Therefore, people of the same sex lack the capacity to enter into a marital contract. Twisting natural law and messing with the natural order of human biology into a civil rights argument didn’t convince people… because it is simply absent logic. Two mother or two dads is not the natural order of the family the way it was constructed in nature. Do not mess with mother nature.

  6. Jean Plunkett permalink
    April 28, 2011 1:03 pm

    I’m one of your biggest fans, Scottie, as you know, and as you always do, I think you’ve nailed the politics of the situation. But I’m with Charlie on the morality of the issue. Some things are just plain right, and sometimes we voters want to witness a courageous fight for it rather than another lame backing down.

  7. J. Ferreira permalink
    April 28, 2011 2:07 pm

    My partner & I are completely, totally and utterly demoralized by this latest setback. Civil unions will do nothing for us. When MA legalized same-sex marriage in 2004, my partner was with someone else. They got married in Worcester before Gov. Romney slammed the door shut on out-of-state gay marriages. After my partner and his husband broke up, they were prevented by the 2006 RI State Supreme Court decision from divorcing because their marriage wasn’t recognized in RI as being legal. Until full marriage equality is achieved, then we remain in legal limbo because he cannot petition for divorce as long as we live here and a Civil Unions bill won’t allow for divorce to take place precisely because it would allow for gay marriage to move forward, something the bigots of the RC church leadership (and apparently many parishioners as evidenced from Ms. Puelo’s comments above) will never allow to happen.

    Once again, RI proves that it is little better than the Louisiana of New England, a morass of corruption and backward thinking. At least I have, and will sadly have to take, the option of leaving this state, taking my income and my taxes and my spending, to MA where sanity and reason prevail on this subject. Nothing like telling the gay community (who has much-needed disposable income relative to the rest of the population) just how little they are wanted here in spite of the fig-leaf of tolerance evidenced by Gordon Fox’s leadership role in the legislature. When I moved back to RI in 2007, I though I was home for good. It looks though home will truly have to be where the heart (and thinking minds) are.

  8. J. Ferreira permalink
    April 28, 2011 2:12 pm

    A final note: As “spot-on” as your political analysis may be, Mr. McKay, this isn’t politics. It’s personal, personal in a way that I hope NO heterosexuals ever have to experience in their lives…being told that the public somehow has the right to legally decide whom I can and can’t dedicate the rest of my life to and secure the same legal protections that heterosexuals automatically are granted. Waiting may seem the safe option, but waiting only reinforces the idea that “others” get to decide that I am a second-class citizen…

  9. joe vileno permalink
    April 28, 2011 7:32 pm

    The great justice Oliver Wendell Holmes opined, “justice delayed is justice denied: and Martin Luther King sp0ke of “the fierce urgency of now”.

    Wating for freedom is not freedom; as Jesse Jackson said when he ran for president in response to a suggestion that he wait until the country is ready for a black president, ” if not now, when? if not me who ?”

    Good analysis Scott, but it is in the end as political analysis. The principal of marriage equality or same sex marriage, or whaever it is called is still nascent—the equality now simply does not exist.

    And the “fooling with mother nature” argument against same sex marriage is just plain stupid and silly. Marriage is a creation of the human race. it is not a natural condition exsting equally in all humans, otherwise why do some people stay single or why do some leave marriage ,which we call divorce. In large measure, once you get by the sentimentality of ‘romance’,marriage is a legal device of one’s choosing-so why cannot anyone choose it regardless of the gender of the choosers. I hae aways thouht the “m” word just makes matters more difficult to comprehend.

    No–the principle cannot be compromised, whatever the politics- Holmes and MLK had it right about freedom— whatever they might have said today. Best that people in the RI General Assembly stand up and be counted, like Teresa Paiva-Weed ! More than nine years of equality marriage in our sister state of Massachusetts has still not convinced every one here.

    As you said Scott, the sky (in Boston) did not fall when gays were allowed to marry. Some people will never change like those loudmouths who cannot accept an African-American president so they invent bogus reasons for being against him, like the ridiculous ‘birther’ charge.

    Civil unions are worse than half-a loaf, they make a mockery of the reality of total denial of civil rights, sort of like “separate but (not really !) equal”

    If it is true that the long arc of human history wends its way toward freedom– and equality–
    then we should work to accelerate and extend the arc, not provide psuedo alternatives like civil unions.

    Equality in marriage–in RI— if not now ? –who knows when ?

  10. April 28, 2011 8:31 pm

    “Civil Unions become law and the sky doesn’t fall, the Roman Catholic churches remain open and the average person notices nothing much at all. The lone impact on heterosexual couples is that they receive more wedding invitations.”

    No, people won’t get more “wedding invitations” they might get “civil union invitations” and have no idea how to respond because they have no idea what a civil union is.


  1. Thanks for Nothin’, Mistah Speakah | Woolverine

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