Marriage equality eclipsed the entire northeast on Thursday, as Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed historic legislation extending the right to marry to all Rhode Islanders, regardless of sexual orientation.
The Rhode Island House of Representatives approved the bill Thursday afternoon by a vote of 56 to 15, and Gov. Chafee signed it into law shortly after. The entire Republican caucus in the Rhode Island Senate approved the bill last week—the first time a caucus of either party has been unanimous in its support.
"Today we are making history," said Gov. Chafee Thursday on the steps of the Rhode Island State House, the same place where he called for marriage equality two years ago in his inaugural address. "I am proud and humbled to make the Marriage Equality Act the law of the land in Rhode Island."
The governor ended his speech with a message to the gay men and women of Rhode Island: "I know that you have been waiting for this day to come...At long last, you are free to marry the person that you love."
One of those people is Rhode Island House Speaker Gordon Fox, who also addressed the crowd Thursday outside the State House. Speaker Fox choked up as he was speaking about his partner, Marcus: "This more than anything says to me and to this dear man here that we matter...He inspires me, he directs me, when you watch him care for my mother better than I can, tell me that our relationship does not matter."
Rhode Island is the tenth and last state in New England to recognize same-sex marriage in addition to the District of Columbia, and more states look to be on the way. But less than a decade ago, that number was at zero.
As a Republican senator in 2004, Chafee was one of the first lawmakers to speak out in defense of marriage equality.
“When I first defended gay marriage in 2004, as a Republican United States senator, most of my party colleagues were extreme in their opposition,” wrote Chafee in op-ed published in the New York Times Wednesday. “In fact, to draw a line in the sand, they scheduled a vote on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in June 2006—just before the height of a campaign season.”
Chafee was one of six Republican senators to oppose the ban, and one of only four members in the entire Senate to publicly support full marriage equality. He was voted out of office later that year.
When he ran for governor in 2010, Chafee decided to do so as an Independent in large part because of the Republican Party’s stance on social issues, including LGBT rights.
Chafee explained that he left the GOP because the party was “getting away from those core values of fiscal conservatism,” on msnbc Thursday. “There was a reversal of the old-style Republicanism.”
While a majority of Americans currently support marriage equality, 66% of Republicans oppose it, according to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Only two sitting Republican senators—Mark Kirk of Illinois, and Rob Portman of Ohio—have publicly backed same-sex marriage.
GOP donors are now pushing more lawmakers to get in line with public opinion by legalizing gay marriage. But Chafee argues supporting marriage equality would actually be an extension of conservative values, not a betrayal of them.
“There have been studies that show a correlation between tolerance and economic prosperity,” said Chafee on Thursday. “Communities that have a lot of tolerance are going to prosper economically. It’s young, talented people that like that kind of atmosphere....I want Rhode Island to be one of those hip, happening places, and tolerance is a big part of it.”