PROVIDENCE – After 17 long and frequently contentious years of political and legislative struggle, Rep. Gordon Fox, the first openly gay Speaker of the House, brought down his gavel Thursday and announced that the bill to allow same-sex marriage in Rhode Island passed by an overwhelming 56-15 vote.
The House Chamber -- packed with gay and lesbian Rhode Islanders along with their friends and families – erupted in jubilant cheers and applause as a group in the overhead gallery broke into a spontaneous singing of “America the Beautiful.” Supporters held up a sign in the gallery over Fox’s head that said: “Love Always Wins.”
Moments later the House and Senate bills were brought out to the white marble steps of the Statehouse for Gov. Lincoln Chafee to officially sign them into law as hundreds of people stood on the lawn, watching with anticipation and whooping with unabashed joy when the governor triumphantly held the signed law aloft.
The Senate passed the same-sex marriage bills by a similarly lopsided 26-12 margin last week, setting the stage for Thursday’s celebratory finale in the House. Rhode Island is now the tenth state to legitimize same-sex nuptials.
“Today, Rhode Island is making history,” Chafee told the crowd. “We are living up to the ideals of our founders who believed so deeply in the words etched behind me in marble: “to hold forth a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained…”
The governor recalled that when he advocated for marriage equality in his 2011 inaugural address, “I said then: ‘When marriage equality is the law in Rhode Island, we honor our forefathers who risked their lives and fortune in
the pursuit of human equality.’ I believe those words just as much today as I did then, and I am proud and humbled to make the Marriage Equality Act the law of the land in Rhode Island.”
The law will take effect on August 1. Lawmakers said they wanted to give cities and towns time to prepare the proper paperwork for issuing marriage licenses to same-gender couples.
Warwick Rep. Frank Ferri, a gay man who has championed the marriage issue since he was first elected in 2007, said that, although he and his partner, Tony Caparco, were married in Canada 32 years ago on August 1, just to make sure everything is legal, “Speaker Fox will marry us on August 1.
“Today, a dream has come true,” Ferri said, “this moment is surreal.”
“Happy Equality Day, Rhode Island,” Ferri declared.
North Providence Rep. Arthur Corvese, perhaps the most vocal opponent of same-gender marriage in the House, praised Fox for the fairness with which he handled the debate, “not only with those who supported the issue, but those who opposed it.
“It is an historic day for both the gay community and the community at large,” Corvese said, “for it marks and end and a beginning for both communities. For the gay community it seemingly marks the end of a quest for legitimacy and the beginning of a new era for them in Rhode Island society.
“For the community at large, it marks the end of a millennia-old definition of traditional marriage and the beginning of what I feel is unforeseen and unforeseeable economic, educational, legal and social changes in changes inherent is such a redefinition,” Corvese added. “There is no man-made law that can ever replace, supplant, suppress or subjugate the natural law – no piece of paper, no document can convey legitimacy where it doesn’t exist.”
Cumberland Rep. James McLaughlin told his colleagues, “I am a Catholic, and so are a lot of you people. Believe it or not, I want to say I am going to follow my lord and savior. I hope you respect that. I have no bigotry in my heart.” McLaughlin voted against the bill.
Lincoln Rep. Jeremiah O’Grady thanked the Senate for making amendments to the bill passed earlier by the House “so the last leg of this legislative steeplechase would take place in the House of Representatives.”
Jamestown Rep. Deborah Ruggiero told the chamber that for heterosexual couples, “nothing is going to change, but tomorrow morning, for gay and lesbian couples, it’s going to be a very, very different world.”
There was an odd dynamic to the House debate. Almost never are individual lawmakers cheered wildly at the end of their floor speeches, but that is what happened Thursday – for the pro-gay marriage legislators anyway.
Raymond Sullivan, the former state representative who quarterbacked the effort to pass the marriage bills as campaign director of Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, said, “We’re just excited that, finally, Rhode Island is a place where all loving and committed couples have the freedom to marry.”
Concluding his speech at the signing ceremony, Fox told the crowd, “From this day forward, we’re not going to be talking about same-sex marriage anymore; we’re going to be talking about marriage.”