2008: Scandal and Setbacks for Rhode Island Gays
2008 was filled with triumphs and setbacks for Rhode Island’s GLBT community, and featured a scandal involving openly gay Providence Mayor David Cicilline.
Cicilline was the subject of some complaints from the GLBT community when he failed to show up for the Pride festival in June. Cicilline had been announced as one of the grand marshals for the Illuminated Nighttime Parade.
United States Senator Sheldon Whitehouse filled in for Cicilline as Grand Marshal.
Rodney Davis, co-chairman of RI Pride, later claimed the city had thrown "stumbling blocks" in the organization’s path, making it difficult for RI Pride to put on the annual Pride celebration.
Davis cited a "lack of leadership" and a "lack of communication" from city officials.
Cicilline had also been accused of snubbing the GLBT community by refusing to fly the rainbow flag from the top of City Hall, an annual tradition.
Club promoter Chris Harris showed his feelings toward Cicilline by sponsoring a float in the Pride parade dubbed "Chris Harris for Mayor".
Owners of several downtown gay clubs complained about police harassment and mistreatment in a meeting with John Lombardi, a member of the Providence City Council.
Clubs such as the Dark Lady and Mirabar had to pay money for special police details to provide security.
A reported assault at the Alley Cat drew a weak response from the police, according to owner Randy Diantuono: "When they came, they didn’t do anything."
Making matters worse for Cicilline was the conviction of his brother John Cicilline, an attorney who received an 18-month federal prison sentence after pleading guilty to conspiracy, obstruction of justice and making false statements.
Cicilline and co-defendant attorney Joseph Bevilacqua, Jr. were accused of extorting money from their clients by claiming they could set up drug deals. The clients could then inform investigators about the drug deals to win lighter prison sentences.
Cicilline was also accused of writing bad checks to the city of Providence on behalf of one of his clients.
Chris Bizzacco, one of the Mayor’s former aides, told Rhode Island State Police in an affidavit that he had briefed Cicilline about the first of two bounced checks - which totalled $75,000.
Cicilline had denied any knowledge of the checks when first questioned by investigators.
Mayor Cicilline told WJAR/Channel 10 that he may have had a brief discussion about the check with Bizzacco.
"But what is absolutely not possible is that it was ever brought to my attention that a check had been issued, had been dishonored by bank or bounced in the amount of $75,000 by my brother," Mayor Cicilline said. "I would have immediately intervened."
The mayor blamed his brother for directly or indirectly pressuring his staff to provide cover for his bad checks.
"It has, obviously, put members of my administration in positions they never should have been asked to be put in as the result of the behavior of my brother, John," the mayor added.
Cicilline, who was elected in 2002 and re-elected in 2006, has been mentioned as a possible candidate for Governor.
Meanwhile, the battle to win marriage rights for same-sex couples in the Ocean State continued to gain momentum, as a record 35 members of the state legislature co-sponsored marriage equality legislation in 2008.
Four bills were introduced, including the "Compassion for All Families Act," which would’ve provided domestic partner benefits such as family medical leave and funeral planning to same-sex couples.
Another bill would’ve allowed same-sex couples who married in Massachusetts to obtain a divorce in state courts.
Cassandra Ormiston testified before the House Judiciary Committee in May to plead for equality. Ormiston married her partner Margaret Chambers in Massachusetts in 2004 and later fought for the right to get divorced in Rhode Island. The state Supreme Court denied Ormiston and Chambers’ request in 2007.
"Why is it that you feel you can discriminate against me? A woman with a valid (marriage) contract. I did not ask any faith to bless my marriage. I absolutely respect anyone’s right to believe and worship in any way they choose. But I demand the same right," Ormiston told the committee.
Despite the efforts of activists such as Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI), there was no floor vote on any of the bills.
In November, 500 supporters of marriage equality gathered at the Statehouse in Providence to protest the passage of Proposition 8 in California.
One of the speakers was state Rep. Frank Ferri (D-Warwick), who married his partner Tony Caparco in Canada in 2006.
"It’s time for equality. It’s time for fairness," Ferri said, noting the passage of Prop.8 had energized the fight for marriage equality in Rhode Island.
Ferri defeated Republican challenger Jonathan Wheeler in November’s election.
Out lesbian Deb Ruggiero defeated Republican incumbent Bruce Long in the contest to represent District 74 (Jamestown) in the state legislature.
House Majority Leader Gordon Fox (D-Providence), also openly gay, was also re-elected.