Dan Lawlor: Gay Pride Parade Brings Out the Best in Providence
Monday, June 18, 2012
"You Whitmans of another breath, there is no one else to tell how the alienated generations have lived out their expatriate visions..."
-Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Adieu a Charlot
I remember the first time I came upon the Providence Gay Pride parade. It was back in high school, and I was driving off Chalkstone Ave. with a few good friends.
We saw spotlights in the distance - "What's that," we wondered.
"To the lights," we decided.
Rhode Island had its first gay pride parade in 1976, the year of our nation's bicentennial, our celebration of the casting away the ruling families of monarchy and beginning a new type of elected government. According to RI Pride, "State and City leaders attempted to block the parade, but those early organizers pursued litigation which eventually led to a court ruling allowing this “pride” event to take place. About 75 individuals marched through downtown Providence to celebrate their diversity and to highlight the contributions they had made to the wider community." From those 75 original marchers, now RI Pride parades reportedly number over 25,000 attendees!
RI Pride, in addition to promoting cultural change and awareness, cited its work in local legal fights for equality, working for the 1995 RI Civil Rights Legislation for Gay men, Lesbian and Bisexuals, and the 2001 inclusion to protect the rights of transgender individuals. The 1995 Civil Rights legislation brought little Rhody national press. The New York Times reported that the Civil Rights protections passed in 1995 were the culmination of over 11 years of lobbying. 11 years.
The victories won in Rhode Island were part of a larger story. In his book, The Long Arc of Justice: Lesbian and Gay Marriage, Equality, and Rights, Richard Mohr cites the 2003 Supreme Court ruling, Lawrence v Texas, as a key turning point for full legal acceptance of LGBT people in the US. As a result of the case, the Supreme Court struck down anti-sodomy laws across the country. Justice Kennedy's Majority Opinion in Lawrence v Texas reads, in part, "In our tradition the State is not omnipresent in the home. And there are other spheres of our lives and existence, outside the home, where the State should not be a dominant presence. Freedom extends beyond spatial bounds. Liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct."
The Lawrence v Texas ruling was shortly followed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts legalizing same-sex marriage in 2004. Since 2004, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, Iowa, New York, and, briefly, California, have legalized same-sex marriage. Internationally, those US States are joined by places as diverse as South Africa, Portugal, Spain, and Canada in recognizing same-sex marriage and the diversity of consenting adult relationships.
RI Pride began in a very different state. In June 1976, Rhode Island's unemployment rate was 7.7% (down from 9.1% that January), the questionable Philip Noel was Governor, the mob was king, the highways had just recently demolished old neighborhoods, and the riots at Providence High and Middle Schools were a fresh memory. Amidst the chaos of factory closings, naval base departures, and Buddy Cianci being a potential Vice Presidential candidate, RI Pride was held. In the decades since, from Options Magazine to Youth Pride, from SEAQUEL (Southeast Asian Queers United for Empowerment and Leadership) to Protestant Christian and Jewish advocacy for Gay Rights, from Marriage Equality to the Gay Men's Chorus, things have changed, and with more effort and growth, will continue to change, toward acceptance and justice.
Mohr cites De Tocqueville, writing, "The inevitable evil that one bears patiently seems unbearable as soon as one conceives the idea of removing it." Let me put it another way - the last forty years of civil rights advocacy and culture change mean that the remaining legal barriers for equality and dignity for gay couples in this state seem out of whack. I have many friends who have come out as gay, sometimes with difficulty. The laws of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations should not make the lives of my adult friends more difficult because of who they love. It's time for the Speaker of the House, the Senate President, and the Governor to pass Marriage Equality.
At the Pride Parade this past weekend, I marched with my church, Bell Street Chapel. Congregationalists marched. Episcopalians marched. Quakers marched. Unitarians marched. We were marching because love is the spirit of our church - and human dignity is inherent in everything person. We weren't marching to be in a party - we were marching because "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" doesn't have an asterisk next to it. States have often violated people's dignity in the name of "order" - denying rights for interracial couples to marry, deciding that "unfit" women and men should be made sterile, deciding that abused women could not divorce their husbands. From rainbow flags to high fives, from smiles to chants, hundreds and hundreds of people lined the streets of downtown in loud celebration.
While holding signs for justice and equality, a woman ran up to me, smiling, "Justice! That's my daughter's name!"
I hope Justice grows up in a Rhode Island that is respectful, that is honest, and that is thriving! When she's a bit older, I hope she too follows the spotlights.
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