By DAVID KLEPPER
PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The protests started as soon as Rhode Island House Speaker Gordon Fox sounded the death knell for gay marriage legislation and said he’d back civil unions instead. A cop-out, gay marriage supporters said. A compromise for no one. One man made a sign proclaiming, “Fox Hunting Season is Open.”
For the first openly gay House speaker in the nation, the protests were personal. But Fox, who sold ice cream to pay his way through law school and who cites Winston Churchill as a role model, knows something about persevering. About taking the long view. And about counting votes.
“These folks were looking for a champion,” Fox, a Providence Democrat, told The Associated Press. “It hurts me to think that I’m not quite their champion at this point. That bothers me. Because so many people were waiting for so long … but you have to be able to move votes.”
Gay rights advocates had hoped Fox would help them make this the year that Rhode Island legalized same-sex marriage, joining Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont and Iowa. Fox became speaker last year, and newly elected Gov. Lincoln Chafee is a longtime supporter who called on lawmakers to pass gay marriage in his inaugural address.
But those hopes faded with Fox’s announcement late last month. Many supporters of the measure felt betrayed, saying civil unions treat gay couples as second-class citizens.
“In my opinion he’s a self-loathing homophobe,” said Gary D’Amario of Cranston, who attended a rally at the Statehouse called after Fox made his decision.
“What was Speaker Fox thinking?” asked the Rev. Duane Clinker of Providence’s Open Table of Christ United Methodist Church, a supporter of gay marriage. “I think he forgot he had friends.”
Fox said the criticism has stung. But he chalks it up to disappointment and years of frustration.
“I believe they have a higher expectation of me,” Fox said, because of his sexual orientation. “I think it’s also people that want this badly, that may not understand the process as much. … When they say `Oh we’ve now got a gay speaker of the House, now anything is possible.”‘
Fox, 49, has served in the legislature for nearly 20 years and came out in 2004 while addressing a gay marriage rally. But he seldom talks publicly about his sexual orientation.
He explains his decision on the vote as a calculated move designed to get gay couples real rights today. While he may have had the votes to get the measure through the House, the measure faced a battle in the Senate, where Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed opposed gay marriage but has indicated support for civil unions.
The measure would allow gay couples to enter into civil unions that grant all of the state rights and benefits given to married couples in Rhode Island. The full House could vote on the measure as early as Thursday.
Illinois, New Jersey, Delaware and Hawaii have passed civil union laws similar to the one under consideration in Rhode Island. Vermont, Connecticut and New Hampshire all adopted civil unions prior to recognizing same-sex marriage. Iowa and Massachusetts also allow same-sex marriage.
Those who know Fox well say that his decision isn’t surprising, and that gay rights supporters will one day thank him for it.
“This decision was tougher for him than for anyone else,” said William Murphy, the previous House speaker, who endorsed Fox as his successor. “Politically, it was the right move. He’s got a bill that will pass. People who look at this objectively will see he’s advanced the issue further and faster than anyone else.”
Fox is one of six children born to an Irish-American father and a mother of Cape Verdean descent. His father was a jewelry polisher and worked odd jobs to make ends meet. His mother worked as a maid and later made golf balls at a local factory. Fox remembers when the family moved into a new apartment with a view of the Statehouse. He would marvel at the imposing marble dome, and the serious-looking men and women who worked there.
His father picked up extra shifts to send Fox to Providence College, a Roman Catholic school, but Fox had to drop out after a year when his father died. He enrolled at the public Rhode Island College a year later, working his way to a degree in history and political science, and then a law degree at Northeastern Law School in Boston.
Fox officially assumed his post in February 2010, squeaking past California Assemblyman John Perez by mere days to become the nation’s first openly gay House speaker – though Perez’s election as speaker came before Fox’s.
Fox says his proudest legislative accomplishments include the state’s public smoking ban, an affordable housing law and a law requiring health insurers to cover mental health treatment.
“I truly believe, notwithstanding all the stuff you hear these days, that government has a positive effect on people’s lives,” Fox said. “Everyone should have an equal shot at life. An equal chance.”
Fox lives with his mother just a few miles from where he grew up. He’s been in a committed relationship for years.
He’s known as a fast-talking, skillful debater and crafty politician. Fox recently silenced one of his perennial Republican critics by shutting off his microphone.
His friend of 20 years, U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, said Fox wouldn’t let his personal life affect his work. Cicilline, a former Providence mayor, is also gay and said he was disappointed when Fox said gay marriage wouldn’t pass. But it wasn’t disappointment in Fox.
“I know how Gordon really anguished over how to proceed,” Cicilline said. “I also know he’s a smart politician and he made a calculation that the votes weren’t there. People can disagree with the strategy, but I don’t think anyone can question his commitment to marriage equality.”