RI Lawmakers Shift Focus from Marriage Equality to Civil Unions

Fox April 27, 2011

Dear Colleague:

Although my personal position on marriage equality has not changed, I have always been a practical person and I believe my pragmatism is one of the reasons why I was elected Speaker of the House.

I recognize that this is a chamber comprised of members who represent very different constituencies, beliefs, and priorities that must be balanced. Based on individual discussions with many of you, I understand how difficult the marriage equality issue has been.

Based on your input, along with the fact that it is now clear to me that there is no realistic chance for passage of the bill in the Senate, I will recommend that the House not move forward with a vote on the marriage equality bill during this legislative session. I will instead support full passage of a civil unions' bill that grants important and long overdue legal rights to same-sex couples in Rhode Island.

I have had conversations with Senate leadership and, unlike the marriage equality bill, I am optimistic that a civil unions' bill can gain passage in both chambers during this legislative session. 

The new civil union bill is currently being drafted and will soon be ready for introduction and public inspection.  I will be one of the sponsors.

Because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) passed by Congress in 1996, the federal government does not recognize same sex marriages and therefore federal rights are not granted to same sex couples who get married in states that allow it. For example, same sex partners married in Massachusetts are not granted federal rights such as the right to file joint federal tax returns.

Even with passage of a marriage equality bill such as the one currently pending in our House Judiciary Committee, same sex couples married in Rhode Island would not be given access to those federal rights. However, passage of the civil unions' bill that I will be supporting will grant same sex couples all state rights guaranteed to married couples in Rhode Island. I believe passage of such a measure will be a significant accomplishment in helping to ensure equality to all Rhode Islanders.

As both a long-time supporter of marriage equality and a sponsor of the bill, this is not a decision that I have reached without deep thought, long deliberation, and emotional debate in my own mind and heart.  

Throughout my 19 years as a State Representative, I have always worked under the guiding principle that a leader must make a pragmatic decision to forge a path to achieve positive results. With that principle in mind, I am confident that we will quickly obtain the necessary support and votes in both chambers to secure these important and necessary rights for all same-sex couples in Rhode Island.  

From the outset of this session, I made a commitment to both the House members and to all our citizens that while I would address the inequalities that exist for same-sex couples in their everyday life, there are other pressing issues that the House must address as well. The passage of our state's budget during these difficult economic times remains paramount.

Today, I publicly renew my commitment to ensuring the granting of important legal rights to partners in committed relationships throughout Rhode Island. I hope for swift passage of a civil unions' bill in the weeks ahead, as well as many other significant pieces of legislation, including our state's challenging budget.

As always, I value your thoughts and input. I will be available should you wish to contact me about this issue or others of concern.


Speaker Gordon Fox



  1. Francis says

    Social conservatives in action again. I thought they said that the economy was their biggest issue, but seems as if they have a lot of time to deny gay people rights and denigrate our existences.

  2. TampaZeke says

    Take solace in the knowledge that this is just a bump in the road to the inevitable.

    And also take comfort, and satisfaction, in the fact that these “road bumps” will be FOREVER remembered along with the other “road bumps” to civil rights, like George Wallace, David Duke, Jerry Falwell, etc.

    Being a villain of history for eternity is an awfully steep price to pay for being a hero to bigots for a day!

  3. searunner says

    As long as this is an everything-but-the word-marriage kind of civil union, then yes pass it. And once sect 3 of DOMA is struck down, bring the issue back before the legislature. If they can’t pass marriage equality, then take the issue back through the state court system.

    As wholly unsatisfying as civil unions are, they do provide protections and benefits. And once DOMA is repealed, they are yet enough avenue to bring about full marriage equality. You can’t make separate is never equal without a separate, but “equal” institution.

  4. Reg says

    Well now we know why the director of the RI marriage group resigned, joining her MD counterpart. It is abundantly clear that these state groups are profoundly incompetent. Not because they lost, but because they both confidently predicted that the bills would pass. The RI group in particular was very clear that once Gov. Carcieri left office, the path to full marriage was clear. Now we find out that there was stiff resistance in both Democratic-controlled chambers. Pathetic!

    They should demand a vote for marriage. Find out where people stand. When it loses, accept civil unions. CUs are unacceptable as an ultimate goal, but they are very useful as a transitional measure. CUs let people see with their own eyes that the predictions of doom from the anti-gay side are nonsense. In all places where CUs have existed, support for marriage accelerates.

    Then with CUs in place, let’s use the next election cycle to demolish some of the Dems who voted no on marriage. With the catalytic effect of CUs coupled with retribution on anti-gay Dems, they can re-visit marriage in 4-5 years and win. This same strategy would work in MD, where the Dems betrayed us, but where CUs would pass overwhelmingly today.


    Your attitude is unhelpful. First, your assumption may not be correct. Second, even if it is correct, unless we act smartly and vigorously, the “inevitable” can be delayed for generations. For example, the very first major political goal of the gay movement was to pass a federal gay civil rights law banning discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations. That bill was introduced in 1975. Since that time, gay “leaders” pared it back, dropping the housing and public accommodations provisions. But 36 years later, even the pared down bill hasn’t been passed. And it could be decades more before it does. So don’t take too much comfort in the inevitable, since the inevitable might occur in the year 2070.

  5. TampaZeke says

    @REG, What attitude?

    I made no statement about my personal feeling on the matter. I made an objective observation about the fact that this is a small “bump” on the road to inevitable victory.

    I really don’t get your point.

    NO ONE has been a bigger advocate and WORKER for marriage equality than I have been. How many states have YOU traveled to, and spent MONTHS in, fighting for marriage equality? I’m at THREE and counting, NOT including my own state of Florida. Forgive me if I’m not willing to be lectured by a person whose greatest contribution to the cause is probably snide and uniformed comments on blogs.

  6. Gregv says

    @Tyn: these parallel institutions are never the same. Different wording allows different interpretations, and we end up having to go to court over each of the over 1,000 rights and responsibilities that are not covered.
    Even the symbolism involved in putting citizens into two different categories of rights is insulting.
    Would women have accepted a parallel “ballot-casting” instead of VOTING, where their ballot counts almost, sort-of like a man’s vote? Slaves weren’t permitted to marry? Would you accept if black voiles still had separate legislation that allowed them to “jump the broom” but not to have their marriages recognized across state lines under the full faith and credit clause?
    Second-class citizenship is better than third-class, but most of the public is very poorly educated on what a marriage contract implies, and they get confused by inaccurate statements that these various parallel scenarios (like CU’s, DP’s, CP’s and PACs) achieve equality. They don’t.
    There’s never equality until the SAME laws cover all citizens equally.

  7. Rick says

    Another straight woman standing in the door trying to prevent men from marrying each other.

    That is what this boils down to–and it is becoming epidemic.

    Straight women are increasingly threatened by the idea of a male culture shorn of homophobia, one that would free men from emotional and sexual dependence on women, and, in turn, threaten their source of social power.

    I just hope I live long enough to see them kicked off their little pedestals…..

  8. tyn says


    Maybe you overlooked it, but I said in my post “AS LONG AS YOU GET THE EXACT SAME RIGHTS AS MARRIED COUPLES”.

    Meaning, call it a civil union if that makes the religious wack jobs calm down about the word “marriage”, but it MUST include each and every right that marriage has.

  9. Dana says

    The mot effective argument used to pass prop 8 was that gays already had every right of marriage, taking it away wasnt taking away rights. It was simply “restoring marriage”. californias Domestic Partnership Registry must by law be “equal”. NJ, lawmakers voted down marriage because gays already have every right of marriage. New Jerseys Civil Unions must by law be “equal”. Thing is… Its not equal. If you enter a DPR or Civil Union youre branded as different and inferrior. the STATE is labeling you…i will never disrespect myself or my parter by allowing the state to mark us like that. The only “equal” is marriage

  10. Dana says

    …… domestic partnerships and civil unions make it much much harder to gain the right of marriage. Had the supreme court in MA allowed civil unions we would not have marriage…anywhere. Fox says CUs are “unacceptable” and “lesser”…. Now hes sponsoring the bill…. That is exactly what convinces people that these things are okay and marriage isnt important to us….Fox is setting us back years in our fight. Way to be a hypocrite mr. speaker..I hope the gov. Vetos it.

  11. Reg says


    Sorry if I read you the wrong way. I was reacting to an attitude that I see a lot, that since SSM is inevitable anyway, our defeats and the reasons for those defeats, are not that important.

    Since you are engaged in the fight, that clearly is not your attitude and I was wrong. But others do have this laid back attitude, not appreciating that, absent competent moves on our side, NOM can fight a delaying action for a half a century or more.

    BTW, you are wrong about me too. I do a lot more than comment on blogs. Now why don’t you tell us what you think about MD and RI?

  12. mcNnyc says

    YEah I guess we could have an ENDA bill without the T and work incrementally but the gay community screamed bloody murder.
    Civil Unions for ALL or Marriage Equality for All.

  13. TampaZeke says

    Very simple. Legislators in MD and RI still FEAR anti-gay religious nuts more than they do us and we won’t stop losing these initiatives until that changes. It’s really just that simple. Legislators who know us well, who have gay friends and family members, who know that we aren’t the demons and villains that we are being portrayed to be voted against our civil rights. Why? Their love of their power and position is more important to them than our basic human and civil rights and until they feel that WE threaten their hold on office more than our opponents they will continue to vote for our opponents. That’s why many of our campaigns, as sweet and honest and heart touching as they are, are basically WORTHLESS. We are telling them things that they (often) already know and believe, but they don’t feel that voting against what they know will hurt them as much as voting for it.

    And the same goes for public referenda on marriage equality. We can (and should) tell our stories until we’re blue in the face but until voters feel that it hurts THEM personally, they will continue to vote against us for another ten years minimum. My own parents and brother voted for the marriage amendment in Mississippi knowing full well that they were voting against MY civil rights. They, like most other selfish Americans, are only looking at what’s in it for them, or what they THINK is in it for them. The discrimination has to hurt THEIR bottom line before they are willing to change their tune. My parents and I differ in the fact that what hurts MY son DOES affect my bottom line. NOTHING affects my bottom line more than something hurting my child! Sadly, many people don’t see it that way.

    No hard feelings. And sorry for being reactionary and accusing you of being one of the “all comment” no “DO” crowd.

    Oh, and by the way, make that FOUR states plus Florida where I have traveled to work against anti-marriage equality votes. I forgot about talking to everyone I knew in Mississippi while home for Thanksgiving, just before their disastrous vote.

  14. says

    “…… domestic partnerships and civil unions make it much much harder to gain the right of marriage.”

    That’s not entirely true. VT CUs–the first–came about because the Supreme Court of VT ruled that gay couples in VT must have rights equal to marriage within the state. It was then left to the legislature to figure out how to implement that. When it became clear that marriage equality wouldn’t pass, CUs were enacted as a compromise. It took us almost 10 years, but we kept fighting for marriage and won, because rationality and fairness can win in the end, particularly when people see that gay couples unioning (such an awkward word) affects no one but those couples. Our Democratic lawmakers–and a handful of fair-minded Republicans–came to understand, through persistent lobbying, that separate is unequal.

    So, CUs have in fact paved the way in giving rights and protections, while also making apparent how gay couples still face discrimination in being denied full state equality and any federal recognition. Which isn’t to say that it wouldn’t have been much simpler–not to mention fairer–to simply pass a marriage equality bill in RI; it would not infringe on religious liberties any more than CUs do, but lawmakers tend to be spineless creatures.

  15. Ken says

    I hope organizations in Rhode Island will target the Democrats blocking this in primaries similar to what’s being done in New York. This news coming on the heels of the Minnesota news is so disappointing. A year ago I would have bet Minnesota and Rhode Island would be the next two states to legalize same sex marriage, now both appear to be years away from doing it.

  16. Ken says

    Also I need to point this out to all of you who think the Democrats are so much better than the Republicans: The RI Senate is controlled by Democrats by a margin of 29-8! We were promised marriage equality if we elected a pro equality Governor, but they lied to us again. At least the Republicans are honest when they say they will do nothing for us. And for those of you who think civil unions are so great: we should be refusing to accept seperate and unequal status rather than thanking those who attempt to institute it.

  17. Dana says


    You raise a good point. Look at Vermont. the Supreme Court ruled that gays must have access to marital benefits. The legislature created a brand new institution…civil unions…something never before seen or heard of…. instead of letting gays marry. Had the legislature not been given a way out VT would have had marriage equality a decade earlier. Put Massachusetts in the equation.. the legislature wanted to give gays civil unions, the supreme court said ‘no!”… and Massachusetts has marriage. What happens is we accept a lesser institution and that’s what’s we get..it’s not a spring board to better things, it’s a trap. You let people think of you as inferior then that’s what you are and politicians will not risk their careers giving you marriage when you’re perfectly happy with your civil union; Civil Unions shouldn’t even be an option.


    I’m sorry that you feel that way. I’m sure incremental change over the decades is fine for you. Maybe 10 years from civil unions, RI will finally give you equal protection under the law…and lets not press it federally either…don’t ask for too much… maybe some rights here and there…maybe in 50 or 60 years most of the states with no amendments banning our rights will have civil unions..or DPRs…or PACs or whatever they want to call it…Maybe we can even adopt in most states! Maybe we can even get the federal government to partially recognize those fantastic civil unions we you would have been fortunate enough to be blessed with… I’m glad these democrats are putting us in our place… I should never have had the idea of being the same as normal people… at least RI is all for letting us abnormal queers have something…

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