Friday, March 22, 2013

Rhode Island’s Marriage Marathon

GLAD Attorney Janson Wu testifying at last night's hearing

Advocates for the freedom to marry often say that this movement is a marathon, not a sprint. Rhode Island is a case in point. Marriage bills have been filed every session since the late 1990’s, yet Little Rhodey is the only one of our New England neighbors that has not opened marriage to same-sex couples.

But this could be the year when loving, committed same-sex couples finally win the opportunity to say “I do.” Not in nearby Swansea or South Attleboro, Mass. or Pawcatuck, Conn., but in the state they call home. Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, a coalition of which GLAD is a part, is running a stellar campaign, thanks to dedicated local leadership and experienced veterans of other New England marriage campaigns. The House has already passed the marriage bill. Gov. Lincoln Chafee has pledged to sign it. Now, it just needs to pass the Senate, a more conservative body, but nonetheless where we have steadily built support.

But back to the marathon, a word that encapsulates well yesterday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill. The hearing began shortly before 5 p.m. yesterday afternoon and wrapped up shortly before 5 a.m. this morning. Yes you read that correctly. The hearing lasted 12 hours.

Yes, that was plenty of time for the parade of usual suspects who oppose the freedom to marry for same-sex couples to malign the good LGBT people of Rhode Island or otherwise engage in fringe talk, like the guy who fretted that the world would become depopulated if same-sex couples were allowed to marry, or the woman who argued that children need a mother and a father because “a woman’s love can be smothering.” I could go on, but I’ll spare you the ridiculousness. No matter how ill-informed, outlandish and outright false much of the opposition’s testimony was, such trash talk is hard to hear for hours on end.

Hopefully the good testimony will outweigh the bad in the hearts and minds of Judiciary Committee members, and love will save the day, to quote the late Whitney Houston. Because there was plenty of love on our side. I didn’t stay at the hearing until the wee hours, but I had the privilege of helping to prep many of the personal testifiers -- the average Rhode Island folks, gay and straight, who shared personal stories about why marriage is important to them and why they believe same-sex couples should be able to share in that institution. I reviewed the testimony of folks like Rock Ripple, who talked of his 20-year relationship with his spouse (they were married in Massachusetts) and the pride they take in their college-bound teenage daughter, who Rock characterized as “12 pounds of willful joy” when she joined their family.

I got a little misty reviewing the testimony of Julian Harvey, a 20-year-old lesbian who wrote of her parents, “They, arguably, have taught me everything I know that’s worth knowing. Some of the most important lessons I’ve actually learned just from watching them and following their example,” – including the meaning of “true love and commitment, about steadfastness and understanding.” She attended the hearing with her mother Susan, who passed the time waiting to testify with her knitting.

I reviewed the testimony of Galen Hamman, who showed up for the hearing cradling her infant son Jackson. She talked of what a blessing he is to her and her spouse Jayme “because we now have the chance to share the love that our families gave to us.”

Every member of the Committee received written copies of testimony from these wonderful people – and there is no way they won’t be moved.  In it they will have heard the truth about the real lives of their gay and lesbian constituents, the families they are raising or desire to someday create, and the many people who love and support them.

In addition to the many personal stories told, my colleague Janson Wu addressed what seems to be one of the thorniest issues for several committee members in this heavily Catholic state - the intersection of the freedom to marry and religious liberty.

“It is my hope that by elucidating the clearly established principles that currently allow religious liberty and marriage equality to freely coexist, we remove an impediment to moving this bill successfully out of committee,” Janson said at the outset of his testimony. Judging by the response he received, we think he held up his end of the bargain. Let’s hope the Senators got the message. You can link to Janson’s testimony from this page on our website.

Now we pace ourselves as we wait for the Judiciary Committee to digest the testimony and vote on the bill. There are still hearts and minds to be changed in the legislature and around the state. But the work will get done. This is a marathon we’re going to win, so hang in there.

See you at the finish line.

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