Erich came out as gay teen when he was a sophomore in an Attleboro, Mass., high school.
“In the early ’90s, being openly gay wasn’t accepted,” said Erich, now 34. “It was illegal to be who you are.”
He knew that by coming out, he would be subject to bullying and ridicule. But to pretend to be something you’re not, he said, “was far worse to the soul.”
“I hated walking through the hallways and recess, and lunch because that’s where you’d get picked on the most,” he said. “I was taunted and bullied immensely. At bus stops, people would throw rocks at me. I was teased, kicked.
“If I ever told authorities back then, I was told that boys will be boys.”
From his experiences, a gay rights activist emerged. Erich was out to level the playing field, not just for himself, but for all people, letting them know that the disparaging treatment of homosexuals wasn’t right.
“When I was just a kid, I was lobbying for safe schools, and Gay Straight Alliance and anti-bullying coalitions, and anti-sodomy laws in Rhode Island to be repealed,” he said. “Over the years, we started checking things off the list.”
Also on that list was a desire to be seen as equal in the eyes of the law in terms of marriage. He lobbied alongside local and state officials to narrow the margin of equality between same-sex partners and that of heterosexual couples.
In July 2011, Rhode Island granted civil unions — not a marriage license — to same-sex couples. The legislation included extensive exemptions that allowed religiously affiliated organizations or institutions to not recognize the spouse of a civil union.
“It was a compromise made in the General Assembly,” he said. “It was two separate laws. Civil unions still did not afford all the rights of marriage.
“Separate is never equal.”
As time drew on, his fight for his right to be married took on a deeper meaning. After dating his partner, Bristol Town Councilor Tim Sweeney, for three years, Erich became even more determined. With Tim by his side, the two spent time before judiciary committees testifying to change the marriage law.
Born and raised in Bristol, Tim came out as a gay man when he was in college. His high school experiences differed greatly from Erich’s, largely because of the accepting community he grew up in.
Those differences didn’t make his argument for fair treatment in the eyes of the law any less valid, Tim said.
“We joined that campaign for equality because we knew we wanted to get married,” Erich said. “Because again, separate is never equal.”
On Aug. 1, 2013, a landmark bill legalizing same-sex marriage in Rhode Island took effect. Erich and Tim were present at the Statehouse when Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed the measure into law, giving same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual couples.
The two didn’t rush into marriage just then, though they wanted to. Instead, they chose Nov. 29, 2013, as their official wedding day. It marked the four-year anniversary of their first date.
“It was just love at first sight,” Tim said. “And to be one of the first couples married, because it’s legal, it’s been such an amazing, positive experience.”
About 150 of Erich and Tim’s closest family and friends were present as they pledged their lives to each other in a private ceremony in Bristol’s First Congregational Church. Members of Bristol’s Town Council were present, as well as State Reps. Ray Gallison and Ken Marshall.
“To have all my colleagues come and support me, it was really powerful and great,” Tim said. “It was a special day, to be married in front of our friends and family and faith community … It’s just amazing.
“I remember turning to my sister and saying, ‘isn’t this great, we’re all married now,’ ” he said of his siblings.