The positive vibes were palpable at Roger Williams National Memorial on the afternoon of June 26 in downtown Providence. Standing where Roger Williams had advocated for religious freedom and tolerance over 350 years earlier, the park filled with smiling faces and bright rainbows, celebrating the historic 5-4 Supreme Court ruling in favor of gay marriage announced earlier that day. Over 150 members of the local LGBT community were out in force to greet one another and commemorate the legalization of gay marriage nationwide, the result of decades of advocacy and struggle by trailblazers in the gay community finally come to fruition.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered to be a crucial swing vote, delivered the majority opinion. “No longer may this liberty be denied,” he wrote Friday. “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.” Kennedy pointed to the fourteenth amendment, which guarantees “equal protection” and “due process” of law and points to this as the reason all couples have the right to marry. The law now requires all states to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples, including in the 13 states where bans were previously in place. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, Stephen Brayer and Sonia Sotomayor also voted in support of marriage equality, allowing for a victory in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, ensuring all Americans the right to marriage regardless of gender or sexual orientation. In an unusual turn, the four conservative judges who voted against marriage equality—Scalia, Thomas, Alito, and Chief Justice Roberts—each filed a separate dissent, highlighting the polarizing nature of the issue. The ruling comes nearly 50 years after the Stonewall Riots, which are commonly regarded as the beginning of the gay rights movement.
Jim Obergefell filed suit because he wasn’t allowed to put his name on the death certificate of his late husband, John Arthur, when he died of ALS in 2013. They had been together for two decades. Obergefell told ABC News, “I can rest easy knowing that John’s last official record as a person can never be changed by the state of Ohio. Our relationship will be recognized and honored. My friends who want to marry can marry. It means my friends who are married in one state can move and remain married.” In total, fourteen couples and two widowers filed suit to challenge the ban on gay marriage in their home state.
Sixty percent of Americans support the right to marry for all people, so the law now reflects the majority opinion of Americans. President Obama pointed out the swift change in public opinion, up from just 27 percent approval in 1996, and 42 percent in 2010, saying, “shifts in hearts and minds is possible.”
Supporters outside the Supreme Court were reported as chanting “Love has won,” and the spirit was echoed in Providence. Love and a long-sought victory for our community was the spirit of the day and leaders and community came together to feel the love.
Among the speakers were Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, Representative Edie Ajello, former Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts, and former Providence Journal columnist M. Charles Bakst. The crowd was also addressed by local LGBT pioneers Frank Ferri and his husband Tony Caparco, Jenn Steinfeld, Marti Rosenberg, Kate Monteiro (the event’s unofficial host), and Rodney Davis, whom Monteiro describes as “Rhode Island’s Harvey Milk if there ever was one.” Davis quoted Maya Angelou, saying “We marvel at the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it took to get there.” In a uniting and meaningful moment, Davis sang “We Shall Overcome,” mesmerizing the crowd and drawing together in the spirit of victory for civil rights that felt incredibly appropriate.
“This is a victory not just for the LGBT community,” Mayor Elorza said, in his address to the crowd. “This is a victory for every single person who believes in justice, who believes in what’s right, and believes that everyone has a seat at the table and a place under our umbrella. This is a wonderful day for the United States.”
A message from all of the local speakers was echoed: we have achieved a great victory, but our work is not finished. Monteiro said it well in her opening remarks, “We stand at the top of a very, very high hill. We have carried that pack, and wanted for water, and struggled and slipped, and we stand at the top of that hill, and the view is beautiful. It is absolutely splendid. Just a little bit further, is the next big hill. Because we are not at the top of the mountain, let alone the other side of the mountain. We are here today to say that marriage equality is the law of the land in these United States.”
Frank Ferri and his husband Tony Caparco were giddy with joy, prompting the crowd to hug a person next to them and say “Thank you,” which most participated in, hugging those around them whether they knew them or not. They encouraged the crowd to dance, to celebrate. Ferri wore a shirt from the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation, which he had been hanging onto for over twenty years to wear on the occasion if gay marriage ever became the law of the land. The symbolism of this was obvious to all present and a concrete reminder of the generation that has been fighting for our rights for decades.
Indeed, there is a great distance to go until all members of our community are safe and protected, and given full and equal rights. In the words of President Obama, “There is so much more work to be done to extend the full promise of America to every American, but today we can say, in no uncertain terms, that our union is a little more perfect.”