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Stonewall Democrats unify for Kerry
Gay and lesbian Democrats’ group doesn’t want gay marriage to split the gay vote

PROVIDENCE -- Twenty years ago, relates John Murphy of Providence, he was commonly cursed and called a faggot. Today, the straight community, at least in the Northeast, has completely accepted the fact that he is gay. "Suddenly, it’s no big deal at all," relates Murphy.

Murphy, 51, was one of 300 gays and lesbians who met in Providence last weekend for the biennial meeting of the Stonewall Democrats, a national organization of gays and lesbians. At workshops and meetings, delegates from as far away as San Diego, California discussed how to run for office and participate in political campaigns. But the gathering was also a celebration of the surge in civil rights that Murphy and so many American gays and lesbians have experienced in the last two decades.

In his address to the predominantly white and male gathering, Stonewall Democrats executive director David Noble highlighted Rhode Island’s phenomenal progress on gay and lesbian issues. The Ocean State was the ninth state to enact a law prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians in employment, housing and credit, Noble noted, and the second to enact a similar law for transgendered people. ("Thank you," shouted one delegate.) Noble, a native Rhode Islander who ran Democratic gubernatorial candidate Myrth York’s unsuccessful 2002 campaign, also lauded Rhode Island for being the first state with an openly gay mayor of its capital city and an openly gay House of Representatives majority leader.

Providence Mayor David Cicilline was prominent at the convention. He addressed delegates twice and was featured prominently on the group’s web site. Unrecognized, however, was another Rhode Islander who fought for gay rights 10 years ago, before gays we became an important political force.

Standing quietly in the rear of the convention as Noble praised Cicilline and House Majority Leader Gordon Fox, was former state Representative Frank Gaschen (D-Cumberland), the sponsor of Rhode Island’s gay rights law. Gaschen, now counsel for the Rhode Island Human Rights Commission, pushed equal rights for gays and lesbians in the early 1990‘s, several times using an unpopular parliamentary maneuver to force a roll call vote on the issue despite opposition from the House Judiciary Committee. His proposal finally became law in 1995.

"During the last 20 years, there has been an acceleration of acceptance of civil rights for gay and lesbian people," Gaschen commented in an interview. During legislative debates over gay rights, no one considered gay marriage possible, he explained, yet today it is a focal point of the presidential campaign. Gaschen is saddened, however, that the cause he trumpeted "is now being used to keep people separated."

Murphy blames polarization of the gay rights issue on "the politicization of the religious right." And he adds, "they have basically organized under the care and feeding of the Republican Party."

The Stonewall Democrats’ national focus is clearly to counteract that trend by campaigning for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in key states. Noble told delegates the group is organizing new chapters on college campuses in battleground states like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. They are also recruiting activists from safe Democratic states like Rhode Island and Massachusetts to take time off to campaign in swing states and placing them in the homes of host families.

The loosely knit group has about 90 chapters around the country, including the newly formed Rhode Island Stonewall Democrats headed by Murphy ( The 50 member Rhode Island group plans to focus on local issues, Murphy says, like helping a Newport gay bar open despite city council opposition. "That kind of political activity needs to be addressed when there is an abuse of equal rights," he says.

The convention, was not without controversy. Those attending the opening meeting at The Westin Hotel were greeted by a picket line of 50 Providence firefights chanting, "No contract, no peace." Michael Clark, health an safety officer of the Providence Firefighters Local 799, contends that Cicilline should spend his time resolving the firefighters’ union contract, not attending meetings of national organizations. Cicilline responds that the contract will not be settled until firefighters agree to pay a portion of their health insurance costs as Providence teachers recently did.

Later, inside the hotel, a Stonewall Democrat delegate interrupted US Senator Jack Reed’s (D-RI) speech to ask whether he supported gay marriage. Reed, who had been applauded earlier for opposing a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, responded that he supports "civil unions," but not gay marriage.

Issue Date: July 26, 2004
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