The debate over same-sex marriage is personal for Rhode Island house majority leader Gordon Fox, who on Wednesday announced publicly for the first time that he is gay. The Providence Democrat spoke at a statehouse rally and again at a house committee hearing on bills on both sides of the gay marriage debate. Fox, a lawyer who's been in a committed relationship for six years, said he supports a bill that would allow same-sex marriages, adding that he hadn't planned to come out publicly but felt the timing was right. "It's an important message to get out," Fox said. "We are in these [elected] positions to lead." Fox said he's not aware of any other openly gay state lawmakers, although there have been several in the past.
The house judiciary committee on Wednesday heard four bills dealing with same-sex marriage and benefits for domestic partners. Rep. Arthur Handy (D-Cranston) introduced a bill to allow same-sex marriage. Under his measure, members of the clergy would not be forced to officiate at such wedding ceremonies. Fox told the house panel that gay people "are not monsters, they're not caricatures. We should be afforded equal protection under the law. I feel I am a normal person. I hope I'll be the same person in your eyes." Michael Pisaturo, an openly gay former legislator, embraced Fox after his announcement. "He overcame his fear and came out today," Pisaturo said. "He was clearly touched by the passion and commitment of the people here today."
Stephen Cote, a deacon who represented the diocese of Providence at the hearing, said same-sex marriage "disputes a centuries-old belief and undermines the sacramental meaning of marriage.... Marriage as a union of one man and one woman must be preserved." Paul Eno of Woonsocket, who spoke at Wednesday's hearing, said to expand the definition of civil marriage to include gay and lesbian couples is "just a left-wing struggle against reality." They were two of the speakers supporting a bill sponsored by Rep. Victor Moffitt (R-Coventry), which would define marriage as a union between a man and woman. The bill would also ensure that any gay marriages approved in other states would be illegal in Rhode Island. Moffitt said he believes he has the support of the "silent majority" in the state. "I feel the compassion and emotion of the gay and lesbian community; they want some of the marriage rights," he said. "But what happens is things like this can be easily abused." Moffitt gave as an example someone who agrees to marriage just before death to allow a partner to claim federal benefits. But Moffitt sees no problem with efforts to grant specific benefits to domestic partners, including allowing them to recover damages in cases involving wrongful death and to be eligible to collect a one-time death benefit.
The house committee also heard bills on both those issues. At the rally before the hearing, Fox's announcement was greeted with loud applause. Many in the crowd held poster boards with photos of gay and lesbian couples eager to marry. Chris Butler, executive director of AIDS Project Rhode Island, told the gathering, "The people who represent us...need to know one thing: Rhode Island will have gay civil marriage. Our day is coming," Richard Hatch, a Middletown resident who won notoriety as the openly gay winner of the first Survivor TV reality show, testified at the hearing that he also believes gay marriage is in the state's future: "I could go to Argentina tomorrow and marry my partner and be an Argentinian citizen. We're just behind the eight ball here. It seems to me it's inevitable, but more important, it's moral, it's ethical, it's right."
Miniature wedding cakes were delivered to each member of the house and senate committees that will debate the bills this year. Labels on the boxes read: "Wedding Cake...$500, Marriage License...$24, Civil Rights...Priceless." A senate hearing last week on same-sex marriage attracted more than 100 people and dozens of speakers supporting or opposing equal marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples. Fox said the odds aren't good that this year's bill will pass the general assembly, but eventually "the argument will prevail," he added. No votes were taken on any of the bills Wednesday.