It helps to have a foot in two worlds. The first time I went to the State House, over twenty-five years ago, to a hearing for equal rights, I encountered the minister and teachers of Apponaug Pentecostal Church. I was a former member–one of their failed conversion attempts. My Baptism in the tank under the altar did not wash away my doubts. I eventually found my spiritual community in the First Unitarian Church, where you can doubt all you want– they’re cool with that.
Apponaug was not cool with free discourse. They had bused their church school children to the hearing to listen to the testimony of their supporters, but hustled them out before they could hear actual gay people talk about how much prejudice had hurt them. This was during the AIDS crisis, when the failure to maintain a coordinated and responsive health care system was falling very heavily on some of our population. (Having narrowly escaped the Polio epidemic of the 50’s I am not complacent about where Mother Nature might show her wrathful face next.)
It hurt to see the scene at the Statehouse tonight.
My husband John and I had testified for MERI (Marriage Equality Rhode Island) in past years and we were on a mailing list. I got a call on my cell today, asking if I would testify again. As luck would have it, I was at work nearby and could just walk on over to the State House after my shift. John was busy, but planned to meet up with me there later. We had both spent many endless evenings at hearings– sometimes till close to midnight. We knew that the timing would be unpredictable.
I speed-walked from Promenade Street to Smith about 5pm to find a long line in front of the State House door. What broke my heart is that the line of people organizing against equal rights for gay people were Black and Brown. Conversations around me were in Spanish. Duane Clinker, minister of Open Table of Christ Church was in line ahead of me. We had a few friendly words, because the practice of Christianity that values justice and mercy shares values with Unitarianism, and Duane Clinker takes the Beatitudes as Gospel.
The police at the security check were kind of funny, one chided me for my Swiss Army Knife, which always hangs me up at the Statehouse, but they always give it back. I thought about the awful assaults we are seeing against the right to peaceably assemble, and I value highly the gathering tonight of fiercely opposed citizens using their freedom of speech. I don’t take the peaceful expression of views for granted.
I was trying to get oriented to the situation, calling an organizer who was not on scene and had no idea that a couple of thousand people had come out to rally against same-sex marriage. I was directed to a room on the second floor which turned out to be empty. I could see that the stairway leading to the third floor was solid with people and not moving. I walked down to the North staircase and found at the top a line filling the hallway. This may go on record as the largest crowd yet to turn out for a marriage equality hearing.
After cell calling and waiting in line a while I figured I had nothing to lose by just walking up to the hearing room. After more cell calls I found that I had been signed up that morning, when I agreed to testify. This understanding of how it works was acquired by several years of testifying through sessions that ran till near midnight–just to say I wasn’t just being presumptuous. I put the hours in.
Prepared to wait indefinitely, I knew that I could be called suddenly.
I had asked MERI if they could print out my previous testimony– the volunteer though it was good and wanted me to repeat it. I finally connected with the organizer and got the copy, but it was more an outline than a convincing statement.
Word in the halls was that testimony would be limited to two minutes. Thank the gods. I had endured years of unstructured and indulged grandstanding and it’s a welcome development that a time limit will be observed. It’s only fair when hundreds of people are standing around for hours waiting for their chance to speak.
I waited outside the hearing room for a couple of hours. I saw people who looked familiar wearing stickers that said, marriage=1man+1woman. I work in health care, and without the skill and dedication of immigrants we would be much worse off. Health care is labor-intensive, requiring skilled, responsible and caring people in every area, from pedi to geri. The people opposing marriage equality looked like people I work with, patients I serve.
The huge number of people who turned out– on a work day, on a cold day, was a visual statement. My first thought was; this is why we cannot put the rights of a minority to a majority vote. Too many people I talk to say, “I don’t care if gay people get married.”
Yes, they are making a statement that is a leap of tolerance for them. But the most they can manage is that they don’t care. Those who do care- who see a way to power through inflaming prejudice– they will get out the vote. Gay people don’t have the numbers.
I thought about the last time I had seen so many people speaking Spanish in the Statehouse. That was a march for immigrant’s rights in May 2006. That march drew the largest crowd I had seen since the Vietnam War protests. I also remember 2007, when a reaction had set in. The most ugly prejudice had been dominating the media all that year, and the crowd had diminished from 20,000 to a few hundred.
Thinking of the endless mutability of prejudice, I stood in the hallway and wrote my testimony. From my notes–
Here tonight at the State House I am reminded of May 2, 2006. 20,000 people marched from Central High School to the State House to bear witness to the rights of immigrants to respect and justice. I was proud to be there in support, proud to wave the American flag.
All our rights are hard-won. Before 1967, my marriage of 30 years would have been illegal in some states because my husband, John is black and I am white.
Mildred and Richard Loving braved prison, exile and the worst kind of hatred to win their right to marry.
If the Supreme Court had not upheld their equality under the law we would be fighting a bitter state to state battle– but nearly fifty years later we take this peace for granted.
I ask the General Assembly to take a brave stand for full and equal rights and end this hurtful and divisive battle and turn our energies to the real challenges facing our State.
When I left the hearing room, John was waiting for me. He had come to the State House. Despising cell phones, he had not been able to find me but hung out in one of the overflow rooms where people watched the hearings on video.
Maryellen Butke was on the elevator with us. I was impressed with her testimony of listening to two elderly ladies disparage gay people as perverts, and then giving in to the angels of her better nature and giving them a ride back to their car six blocks away in the rain.
You never know who your angel might be.
I looked at the crowd of people waiting to testify against the right of gay people to marry and wondered what was happening in their own families. Inevitably, there will be the son or daughter, the niece or nephew, who is different. People can’t help wanting the world to be fair, can’t help wanting happiness.
That is why Martin Luther King said, “The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, but It Bends Toward Justice”
It’s no mystery, it’s just that human beings will always strive for something better. That is what we see in our time, and that is why the equal right to marry will not be abandoned, but will be won no matter how long it takes.
UPDATE: Today’s Providence Journal reports that ‘nearly 200’ people attended the rally against same-sex marriage. It looked like way more than that to me. If you have time to take a poll for or against, go to ProJo.com.