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Dan Lawlor: Marriage Equality Supporters Must Step their Game Up

Tuesday, October 09, 2012


As a family member has said, paraphrasing Shakespeare, "Something's not right in Denmark."

Rhode Island is one of the few New England states to have not legalized same sex marriage. I am a supporter but I haven't done enough myself to work for it.

For the past ten years, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire have all legalized same sex marriage, two through the courts, two in the legislatures. Maine's legislature and governor passed marriage equality, but it was overturned in a public referendum. Rhode Island joins Maine as a New England hold out- not necessarily because people in RI don't support same sex marriage, but because the organizing effort has not worked.

The Speaker of the House supports marriage equality. The Governor supports marriage equality. The majority of Rhode Islanders support marriage equality. The Senate President does not. While an obstacle, that opposition alone should not be make or break. Marriage Equality RI needs to do more - as all of us who support marriage equality do.

Particularly in recent years, the leaders of the Marriage Equality RI, to an outside observer, appear to have played inside baseball, essentially becoming an auxiliary arm of the state Democratic Party. In doing so, I think the movement is hindering its ability to organize, mobilize, and push for progress. MERI's attachment to powerful people seems to be thus far completely ineffective in advancing its agenda. If Gordon Fox can't pass marriage equality, will the next very important politician who agrees with the idea be any more effective?

The goal to pass marriage equality is won in convincing a large, active number of Rhode Islanders that, of course, gay citizens should have the same protections and security in committed relationships as any one else.

If the leadership of MERI wants to become a full part of the progressive movement in Rhode Island - and connect the fate of marriage equality to other causes like tax policy and pensions- that's their choice. If that's the case though - MERI needs to do a much, much better job of building the base of supporters for Marriage Equality. Until legislators in Johnston, in Warwick, in Smithfield, in Warren, and beyond are being bothered by more people at the door about Marriage Equality, it's not going to pass.

The fact is, a Tea Party supporter, a Federal Hill Democrat, and an independent in Little Compton, despite their differences, can all support marriage equality.

Instead of MERI focusing funds top down to pay for campaigns, use funds bottom up - convince the people directly, not just their representatives! What more can be done to build a critical mass of supporters, beyond the already committed? Can prominent news anchors or local sports figures be recruited? Can prominent business owners be engaged for support? How to best expand and grow affinity groups? How to better promote religious organizations that do support marriage equality? How to better connect with civic groups, bowling leagues, sports teams? How to more publicly highlight regular Rhode Islanders and their stories by ads in the legion of community newspapers throughout the state?

The fact is, no matter the spin, despite some notable wins, the expensive strategy to oust multiple high profile opponents of marriage equality did not work.

The right to marry - to enter into a contract of security with a loved one- is a right that all citizens of age in this state deserve - and that all people in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Vermont freely exercise today.

Earlier this September, at a debate at the West Broadway Neighborhood Association, in Federal Hill, State Senator Paul Jabour said that he personally was a believer in traditional marriage and the civil unions we currently have, but that "if that bill [for marriage equality] gets to the Senate floor, and my constituency tells me they want me to vote for it, and its overwhelming, than I'm obligated to do what my constituency wants..."

Insiders can only make history when they have a moral compass and face pressure from people outside. A few angry activists from Providence won't change things. A few angry activists from every town and several thousand allies will. I want to believe Senate President Paiva-Weed will change her mind about marriage equality - but only if she and her peers start getting a lot more phone calls from a lot more people

So, my fellow Rhode Islanders, not only does MERI need to step up their game- but all of us who say we support the cause must as well. Join your friends, and, before the November election, call or contact your legislator and demand that marriage equality for same sex couples be brought to a vote this year, not 2022.


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