Michaela Jae Rodriguez
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Same-sex marriage
advocates switch strategies

Aronda Kirby and
Digit Murphy of Providence, R.I., were once married to
men, received the tax breaks for married couples, and were
legally permitted to take family leave if their
husbands or children got sick. Both women lost those
protections when they came out as lesbians, divorced
their husbands, and set up a new household together with
their six children.

Now, with couples
like Murphy and Kirby in mind, some gay rights
advocates who previously fought for "marriage or nothing"
are shifting strategies. Rather than fighting to
legalize marriage for same-sex couples, they're
lobbying for the protections marriage provides.

Those who follow
the movement say bills taking that approach that were
introduced this year in Rhode Island and Washington State
could signal a broader change in tactics, although
some same-sex marriage advocates fear it could
undercut more than a decade of work.

"We've had all
the rights, so we want them back," Murphy said. "We
don't care how we get them."

Gay rights
proponents have had to accept less than marriage before.
Court decisions forced New Jersey and Vermont to adopt
civil unions. Connecticut's legislature passed a civil
union bill even though many gay rights activists there
had pressed for marriage.

"It's very new,"
said Washington State senator Edward Murray, a gay man
who represents a heavily gay area in Seattle where his
constituents until recently frowned on anything but
marriage. "If I had suggested this strategy a year or
two years ago, I would have been run out of my
district."

Advocates in
Rhode Island have introduced bills to legalize same-sex
marriage every year since 1997, but they've gone nowhere. So
this year, in addition to filing marriage legislation,
they hope to have some success with six new bills that
focus on incremental rights rather than the label of
marriage.

One would allow
same-sex parents to take family leave if their partner or
partner's children fall ill. Another bill would give gay men
and women the right to plan their partners' funerals.

In Washington,
similar rights would be granted under a
domestic-partnership bill. Gay leaders like Murray adopted
the approach after losing a court case they hoped
would lead to same-sex marriage.

Same-sex marriage
advocates in both states say they're still committed to
marriage and will still support marriage bills even if those
efforts are likely to fail. They say they are testing
whether lawmakers who summarily reject same-sex
marriage will approve rights that enjoy more popular
support.

"The holdup is
about marriage, not about the protections," said Jenn
Steinfeld, who leads the advocacy group Marriage Equality
RI. "So we're giving them an opportunity to show us
that."

But the shift has
critics both inside and outside the gay rights
movement.

Evan Wolfson, a
gay rights lawyer who heads the national advocacy group
Freedom to Marry, says anything short of marriage relegates
gays and lesbians to second-class status. He said a
two-pronged approach might be temporarily appropriate
in some places, but he questioned whether advocates in
Rhode Island and Washington pushed hard enough before
switching tactics.

"What I am
against is us going into the conversation bargaining
against ourselves," he said. "You don't even get half a loaf
by asking for half a loaf."

Even though civil
unions and individual laws can grant gay couples some
protection, lawmakers who support them are deliberately
setting up a lesser system, he said.

The Reverend
Bernard Healey, a lobbyist for the Roman Catholic diocese of
Providence, said the church would oppose any legislation
viewed as a gradual step toward marriage, which is
exactly what leaders of Marriage Equality RI say they
have in mind.

Despite initial
victories, including the legalization of same-sex
marriage in Massachusetts, all but four other states (New
York, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Rhode Island) have
amended their constitutions or passed laws banning
same-sex marriage.

Gay rights
advocates in New York are still pushing for a marriage bill
because Gov. Elliot Spitzer has said he's supportive. Basic
Rights Oregon is pursuing an antidiscrimination law
and a civil union system because voters banned
same-sex marriage in 2004.

However, it would
be surprising if same-sex marriage legislation gets a
floor vote in any state this year, said Carrie Evans, until
recently the legislative director for the Human Rights
Campaign in Washington, D.C.

"I think with
legislators, just like the public, people don't change
their minds on marriage equality...overnight," she said.
"Oftentimes we have to bring people along with us, and that
may be the incremental approach in some states."

Back in Rhode
Island, Aronda Kirby isn't sure she'd remarry, but she
wants the same legal options as any heterosexual. And in the
meantime, she wants lawmakers to address her
here-and-now concerns about taxes, property
inheritance, and child custody.

"I don't want to
waste my energy arguing about the argument," she said.
"Just get the rights." (Ray Henry, AP)

Tags: World, World

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