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Same-sex marriage
advocates switch strategies

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)

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