On May 2, 2013, the tiniest state in the nation took an enormous step forward when Governor Chafee signed the marriage equality bill into law, allowing gay couples to legally tie the knot beginning on August 1 of that same year. For the past 12 months, we in Rhode Island have proudly chosen to celebrate love and promote equality: Cheers to the first anniversary of same-sex marriage in the Ocean State.
It’s a balmy afternoon in July and I’m taking refuge from the merciless summer sun underneath the canopy of a luxurious covered porch that overlooks a gleaming in-ground swimming pool. Joe Asermely, a software consultant, offers me a tall glass of ice water. The grand historic home that he shares with Eric Auger, co-owner of TEN31 Productions, is nothing short of spectacular. After assuring that I’m cool and comfortable, the two smiling men sit on either side of me on adjacent rattan sofas.
There’s less than two months left until the couple says “I do.”
Their wedding will take place on September 6 at the pastoral Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyard in Little Compton. “Originally we were planning to get married in Massachusetts,” Joe tells me, “but after the law passed, we began looking at venues here in Rhode Island. We toured numerous sites throughout the state and were welcomed at every one of them.”
Although Joe and Eric have been together for a decade, they didn’t start talking about marriage until a few years ago; Eric decided that he’d propose to his long-time love during a vacation to Hawaii.
“We go to Hawaii every year,” Joe says. “It’s our favorite place in the world. But what Eric didn’t realize is that I had also purchased an engagement ring and was planning to propose to him on the same trip!”
“Yep,” Eric says, playfully nodding his head in resignation, “we both went on vacation with rings in our pockets. Of course Joe ended up doing it first. I was so aggravated!”
The two smile at each other, relishing in the memory. “More than anything, though,” Eric confides, “I felt reassured. Like okay, I’m not the only one thinking about this.”
As a warm breeze blows through the porch, Eric shares with me that the whole wedding planning process has brought he and Joe even closer: “In meeting the reverend who will be marrying us, it humbled me to realize how special what we have is. After ten years together, we’ve been through a lot. There is no uncertainty. The biggest question we’re facing is what color our tablecloths should be.”
Upon hearing his fiancé’s remark, Joe’s smile is bright as a diamond. “We’re so blessed,” Joe says cheerfully. “We have everything that we could possibly want. We look forward to just being happy and being together... and eventually spending summers on the Cape and winters in Hawaii!”
The couple also looks forward to the day when gay marriage isn’t a lightning rod of controversy. “It’s still new to everybody now,” Joe adds, “but if we’ve already seen all this acceptance, I know it’s only going to get better with time.”
Donna Nesselbush is known about town as a forward-thinking senator who tirelessly championed same-sex marriage legislature in Rhode Island. She and wife Kelly Carse have been an item for over two-and-a-half years now. The couple began seeing each other in late 2011, shortly after the civil unions bill had passed: With marriage equality on the horizon, the timing couldn’t have been better.
“Once we both knew each other was ‘the one,’” Donna tells me, “the quest for marriage equality became synonymous with the depth of our relationship.” She pauses for a moment. “I discovered I was gay while attending Brown University. I remember distinctly that my first thoughts were, ‘wow, I’ll never get married and I’ll never have kids.’ Fortunately, both of these glass ceilings have been shattered. Back when I began practicing law, I would never deny being gay, but I certainly would be, let’s say, discreet. Prejudice regarding sexual orientation was everywhere.”
Kelly came out much later in life – at the age of 40. “The stigma of being gay had its effect on me,” she confesses. “I shared my sexual orientation discreetly and only after getting the vibe from those I was interacting with. I feel so lucky now to be living in this era. The fact that my nieces and nephews find my love for and marriage to Donna such a beautiful and natural thing shows me how far we have come.”
Although Donna played a huge part in that “how far we have come,” she answers modestly when I ask about the role she played in making marriage a reality for all in Rhode Island. “Victory has many parents,” she says simply. “In the nearly 20-year struggle for marriage equality, so many worked so hard for so long.”
Truthfully, it’s been a long and bumpy road.
For many years, the issue couldn’t even get a vote in committee. But then “the House passed the marriage equality bill quickly and decisively in January of 2013, throwing the hot potato over to the Senate,” Donna explains. “Some Senators voiced their unyielding support, others voiced their unyielding opposition, and many played their cards close to their chest. But public pressure mounted, pummeling the Senators with pressure that appeared to me to be far more support than opposition. Our Senate voicemail system was essentially shut down, filled on a daily basis with marriage equality messages.”
Although not all in the Senate were proponents of the bill, the public clamored for a vote. “And vote we did on April 24, 2013,” Donna says. “The vote: 26-12 in favor!”
Kelly remembers August 1 as a very spontaneous day. “I was sipping coffee in the backyard,” she says. “Donna had gone to Pawtucket City Hall at 8:30am to welcome the first gay couple to file for a marriage license.”
“Yes,” Donna says, “I remember receiving rainbow roses from the clerks and waiting for the first couple to come in for a marriage license. The Westboro Baptist Church was slated to be on hand so I wanted to be present as an antidote. Kelly and I had decided not to get a license that day because we hadn’t been able to find a venue that we both liked and that was available on such short notice – we very much wanted to get married in the same year as the law had passed.”
“While Donna was waiting,” Kelly continues, “she struck up a conversation with a television reporter who was waiting there as well. Seconds after their conversation ended, she calls me and starts to describe the venue at Crystal Lake Country Club where the reporter was getting married.”
“I called Kelly and asked if she meant what she said when she said she would marry me. She laughed, as Kelly is known to do, and said, ‘of course,’” Donna recalls. At 11am, Kelly arrived at City Hall and the two women happily signed their marriage license.
“No gay couple had yet come forward, so serendipitously we became the first gay couple in Pawtucket to get the license,” Donna continues. “And we got married on September 20 at the very venue suggested that day by the TV reporter – Crystal Lake Country Club.”
Donna says that being married means the world to her: “I feel uniquely whole and oddly like a full citizen. The substance of the marriage equality bill is very simple. Any two people can marry. The impact? Nothing short of historic.”
“And I feel undeniable joy,” Kelly adds. “For the first time in my life, I feel I have true and everlasting love... a person with whom I will travel the rest of my days.”
I meet up with Rodney Davis and Brian Mills around 6pm at a café in Cranston. They’ve just finished eating. “All done with dinner?” I ask as I slide into their booth. “This is our lunch,” Rodney tells me, his eyebrows raised comically. He is the Director of Communications for Big Picture Learning; Brian is the Director of Communications and Special Events at the Met School. While most everyone who works in education has summers off, these two are working hard as ever.
“We’ve been together since 1997,” Brian says. “Not only do we live together, we also sit across the desk from each other at work.”
“I remember some of our first dates like they were just yesterday,” Rodney says. “It’s like when you’re reading a story and you get lost in the book. You stop and say – how many pages have I read? That’s how it is with us. There’s a lot of story left.”
Brian nods thoughtfully before speaking: “1997 was such a different time. There weren’t as many positive media messages about the gay community back then. I was closeted when I first met Rodney. To be in the closet and be around a Rodney P. Davis who is so open and out there – everyone knew who he was. He was on TV, he was at the State House rallying for rights... but being with Rodney was so natural and so comfortable. For the first time in my life, I realized that I could be who I wanted to be. I couldn’t have had a better person to help me through the coming out process.”
In the years that have passed, Rodney and Brian have worked side-by-side to better our community. They’ve recently stepped down from their leadership roles at Pride: Rodney was a past president and Brian was a board member.
“You’ll talk to people who spend so much time planning the perfect wedding – we’re not those people,” Rodney says with a chuckle. “We spent our time planning how other people were going to get married in Rhode Island.” And though the couple has been engaged for quite a while, they’ve yet to set a date.
Brian chuckles. “We were so caught up in the fight to get married we never allowed ourselves time to think about what our own wedding would be like,” he says. “Also,” Rodney adds, “we are extremely busy and short on time and resources. Weddings are really expensive.”
There are other factors the two have to contend with as well. “I won’t have my mother at my wedding,” Rodney confides. “Many of my family members won’t be there either. The reality is not everyone accepts it. Laws don’t change people – people change people.”
“People are much more difficult to change than laws,” Brian says wisely. “But the arguments are diminishing. The walls continue to come down.”
Rodney hopes that those who come after him understand that their right to marry is one that came with a lot of sacrifice. “The inevitable end is that marriage equality will be recognized in all states,” he says with confidence. “It will just take time.”