Voters tend to think of campaigns the way they think of the Olympics, or the Oscars. They are cyclical, predictable, and when they are are over, there are clear winners, and clear losers. The truth is, there are many different types of campaigns, and this year, only a few short weeks after the biggest campaign of the last four years ended, and long before the last celebratory bottle of champagne was drained, another campaign began here in earnest—the campaign for marriage equality.
The truth is, half the battle was already won. In January, the R.I. House passed a bill, in a decisive 51-19 vote, that would grant full rights to same-sex couples. But like any marriage, it takes two to say “I do.” The Senate was expected to prove more of a challenge. Still, Marriage Equality RI director Ray Sullivan has found it has been a very respectful, civil and open dialogue on all sides. According to Mr. Sullivan, “so many members have been very responsive and amenable, thoughtful, open and honest. We appreciate this, we respect the process, and we will continue to follow this process. We are prepared for this campaign to continue until the end of June, if necessary.”
East Bay central to battle for marriage equality
Amy Mello, a Tiverton native and Field Director for Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, and Margaret Hughes, an organizer from Barrington, are on the front lines of this campaign every day, and they are finding that they are spending far more time in sunshine than in shadow. “We have seen such wonderful success organizing and building teams in communities like East Providence, Barrington, and Little Compton,” Ms. Mello says. “It is such a special opportunity to be part of this campaign in this place, at this time. We are receiving so much enthusiastic support. Communications director Devin Driscoll agrees. “This is unlike anything I have ever seen in an issues advocacy campaign. There is so much positive, bipartisan energy and enthusiasm. We recently read something about a marriage equality campaign in Minnesota claiming they had the first Republican Senator to cosponsor a bill. Not only is that not true, as Senator Christopher Ottiano, who represents Portsmouth and Bristol, is a top-five sponsor of the current legislation, but the late Senator June Gibbs of Newport, who also represented parts of Tiverton, Little Compton, Portsmouth and Middletown, was a key sponsor of marriage equality legislation introduced way back in 2000.”
Indeed, marriage equality enjoys broad based support, from local councils of churches and rabbis, to a business coalition that includes representatives from companies and institutions ranging from Betaspring and A.T. Cross to Brown and Johnson & Wales Universities. According to Ken Block, former Moderate Party candidate for Governor, “This is an issue of basic civil rights. Our society ascribes benefits both legal and otherwise to couples who have been designated ‘married’. To deny those benefits to couples based on their sexual preferences is wrong, and likely unconstitutional as well. I haven’t heard a valid, non-religious argument for why marriage should be denied to same sex couples.”
The Rev. Charles Cavalconte, who lives in Bristol along with his wife Cheryl, also an ordained minister, has a unique perspective on the issue. “Cheryl and I have been celebrating marriages for about 15 years. We have about 1700 under our belt, of which about 100 have been (same-sex) marriages or civil unions. To us marriage equality is a cut and dry justice issue of contractual law. Marriage Equality is not a privilege but a right for mature adults who are in committed, lifelong relationships with each other. Couples deserve all the legal rights and elements that define, sustain, surround and protect the particular human relationships we call marriage. We recently celebrated a beautiful wedding between two Rhode Island women. However, the morning of the wedding we all needed to slip over the state line into Swansea to “make it legal”. Despite the joy and tears and love, and happiness of the couple and their parents, I felt the anger of injustice because of the need to be compliant to a piece of geography to be legal.”
R.I. lone New England state still denying same-sex couples marriage equality
That, says proponents, is why marriage equality is so important right now. Rhode Island is the only remaining state in New England that does not allow same-sex couples to legally marry. That exclusion is about more than the fact that a Rhode Island resident who wants to marry cannot do so in their own home. Like so many other issues, there is an economic impact. Governor Chafee has stressed the fact that Rhode Island cannot be as competitive attracting talented workers and viable business to the state, if we are bound by laws that make it legally complicated for people in same-sex marriages to live here. Opponents to marriage equality would like to see the issue put to a vote, but proponents are clear that is a highly flawed process. “You cannot allow the majority to vote on the civil rights of the minority,” Mr. Driscoll says.
Ultimately, the issue is about things far less cynical than legislative maneuvering and economic competitiveness. It’s about love. Ms Hughes enjoys working in the field, meeting people and hearing their stories. “There are so many beautiful families, out there, and I love hearing about them, from the people who love them. I grew up in Barrington, with parents who have been married for 21 years now. Isn’t that what we all want?”
Bristol residents Erich Haslehurst and Timothy Sweeney certainly do. “Our relationship is probably similar to most people’s. We work hard every day to ensure that we can provide a home for ourselves. We clean our yard when it is sunny, we shovel our driveway when it snows. We pay our mortgage, property taxes and utilities. We attend church on Sunday and volunteer for causes close to our hearts, in our spare time, together. We love each other. We would like nothing more than to be able to share our love in Marriage and have it recognized in the eyes of the law. Marriage is a commitment to the person you love. It is the promise that we will be there for them in sickness and in health…..in life and in death. Yet, every day there is a reminder, that despite our love for one another, we are not equal in the eyes of the law. We have been excluded. With the passage of Marriage Equality we will be granted the rights and protections that our married family members and friends currently enjoy that we do not. It is then that we will stand beside our friends and families as equals.”