Frank Ferri, a state legislator in Rhode Island, describes how and when there will be marriage equality in his state.
By Frank Ferri | Contact
In November 2007, Frank Ferri became the first out, gay, married, non-incumbent elected to a State Legislature.
Frank and his spouse Tony Caparco- together more than 27 years- have been active donors and volunteers in the RI LGBT and AIDS-services communities for decades.
Frank and Tony have always been outspoken advocates for fairness and acceptance, sharing their story of life and love with the media long before the marriage movement took off.
Frank is the former Co-Chair of Marriage Equality RI and he owns Town Hall Lanes, a bowling center. His website is www.VoteFrankFerri.com.
On November 27th, 2007, Marriage Equality RI (MERI) helped break a barrier in politics, when I was elected to the Rhode Island General Assembly. As far as we can tell, I am the first openly gay, married individual elected to a state legislature as a non-incumbent. I was delighted to be re-elected to a second term in November 2008!
Breaking that barrier had a little bit to do with me and a great deal to do with MERI, an organization I was proud to birth, support financially and co-chair.
HOW MARRIAGE EQUALITY RHODE ISLAND WAS BORN
Late in 2003, bolstered by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision, Goodrich v. Massachusetts, to grant marriage licenses to Rhode Island couples, several Rhode Islanders came together to form a grassroots group, then called the RI Campaign for Marriage Equality. I was one of that group of people, with Tony, who had been my partner for 23 years at that time. Tony and I had been involved in our community as donors and volunteers, but most of the time and financial support we gave were to service-based organizations. This was really our first time involved in public policy.
I quickly got very involved, as I was motivated by all of the passion and experience around the table. The organization needed leadership, and I was honored to be elected to a co-chair position and to serve, side by side, with then co-chair Jenn Steinfeld who returned to a teaching career in August 2008 after laying the groundwork for MERI's work.
HOW MARRIAGE EQUALITY RHODE ISLAND WINS HEARTS AND MINDS
MERI, at the time an all volunteer organization, was remarkably successful in 2004. That first year we had 11 legislators who sponsored our equal marriage bill. Before we could win votes in the legislature, we knew we needed to win hearts in our communities. We raised funds and purchased Rhode Island's first-ever pro-equality radio commercials. We held events at the State House, drawing hundreds of Rhode Islanders who had never before even stepped foot inside the State House.
Let me tell you - that impressed both the legislature and the media! We went door-to-door in neighborhoods and collected and delivered thousands of post cards from each and every city and town to our elected officials. We hosted meetings with our legislators in our communities, attended by dozens of constituents we had met during our community organizing work.
And we met with many state legislators, including my own state representative. He was a long-serving Catholic legislator, like most in Rhode Island. He had never supported LGBT rights before. Like all legislators, he was concerned about electability. He was concerned about what his overwhelmingly Catholic constituents would think about any support for LGBT rights. He knew he lived in a very conservative district. But in the end, meeting with constituents in his neighborhood, face- to-face, is what changed his mind. He agreed to not only vote yes if the bill came for a vote, but to sponsor the bill the next year.
In the last five years, MERI has held countless meetings with legislators who share the same concerns. MERI has won many of them to the side of equality. Winning the hearts and minds of our legislature has been a direct result of tireless public information campaigns and community organizing. Because of this work, Rhode Island ranks among the highest percentage of people who support full and equal access to marriage, according to national polling data. In fact, a statewide poll conducted by Greenerg Quinlan Rosner Research in April 2008 reported an increase of RI residents who support civil marriage equality, now at 49%! Strong support in the House grows every day; our focus this year is working with Senators. Sponsorship of our legislation continues to grow substantially each year.
In addition to MERI's work, Rhode Island has changed for the better because we now have hundreds of same-sex married couples living here. So many Rhode Island same sex couples have married in Massachusetts, Canada or abroad, and brought their marriage certificates home. In 2005, my partner Tony and I celebrated our 25th anniversary by getting married in Vancouver, Canada. MERI has stood by, and with, all married couples and helps us tell our stories and helps us advocate for ourselves with our employers.
SO, WHAT DOES THIS ALL HAVE TO DO WITH ELECTING THE FIRST MARRIED NON-INCUMBENT LEGISLATOR?
A lot. It was MERI's tireless work in the community that made my election to the state legislature possible for two reasons:
First, my relationship with MERI brought me to the State House and taught me how the process works. It helped me to understand that elected officials are people, just like me, and that public service is important.
Second, and most important, MERI created an environment in which I could be elected to the state legislature. My former state representative was right; we do live in a very conservative, traditional district. But MERI's extensive work in communities like mine has shown our neighbors that same sex couples deserve and are worthy of equal treatment under the law.
WHY MARRIAGE EQUALITY RHODE ISLAND DESERVES SUPPORT
While I can no longer serve MERI as its co-chair due to my role as a state legislator, it is an honor to continue to support an organization I love and in which I believe because I have seen the real results of our dedicated work. MERI has a strong plan to win marriage equality in 2011, when our anti-equality governor leaves office due to term limits. But MERI needs your support NOW to continue our work, so that in 2011 we have the votes we need to pass equal marriage legislation. Please join me in supporting MERI so that Rhode Island is no longer the "Island of Inequality." The small size of Rhode Island ensures that everyone's contribution can lead to huge results. I am an example of how one person can participate in the process to make a difference.
In 2008 MERI added a 501(c)3 nonprofit arm - the Marriage Equality Rhode Island Education Fund. Please visit the MERI blog to learn more about the organization and its activities and/or to make a tax-deductible contribution at http://donate.marriageequalityri.org/