No weddings, no funerals

by by George Warner

On Tuesday, November 10th, Governor Donald Carcieri vetoed a bill sponsored by Representative David Segal and Senator Rhoda Perry that would have added domestic partners to the list of people legally authorized to “dictate funeral arrangements.” The bill had passed the Rhode Island legislature with near unanimous support.

Currently, Rhode Island law only allows family members and appointed funeral planning agents the right to accept the deceased’s remains from the state. The proposed bill was a direct response after a month long ordeal Mark S. Goldberg, a Segal and Perry constituent, went through in October, 2008. After the suicide of his partner of 17 years, Ronald Hanby, Goldberg battled with state officials to receive and cremate Hanby's body according to his will, waiting while the state sought out a legally-capable recipient through public notices, because he was neither a family member, as a married partner is, nor an appointed agent.

Carcieri objected to the proposed bill in part because the bill defines 'domestic partnership' with language limiting the status to relationships of over one year. In his veto letter to lawmakers, Carcieri described this time period as both unascertainable and insufficient to “establish a serious, lasting bond.” His final objection calls the bill part of a “disturbing trend” towards the “incremental erosion of the principles surrounding traditional marriage.”

The veto came at an awkward time: Queer Action of Rhode Island and Carcieri had already planned a meeting for Thursday, November 12th to address the concerns of Rhode Island's queer citizens. The group initially requested to speak with Carcieri in September after he announced his intention to address the Massachusetts Family Institute—a group that views homosexuality, as described by their website, to be not merely an alternative lifestyle, but a destructive behavior—during their annual October fundraiser.

While both Carcieri's veto and delayed reception of Queer Action of Rhode Island would suggest that Thursday’s meeting should have been tense and unproductive, Susan Heroux, the spokesperson for Queer Action of Rhode Island, in an interview called the meeting
“positive, because the governor is listening to us and understands there is a problem, and wants to fix it, and I think that is new.”
Amy Kempe, the Governor’s Press Secretary, reiterated the sentiment in an interview, saying that “Carcieri is willing to explore and possibly support language that would define domestic partnership and the rights afforded to those partnerships,” a new public position that might provide hope for those dismayed by his recent veto.

But the definition of domestic partnership imagined by the Governor may not line up with the publics' conception of the term. While most think that “domestic partnership only refers to same-sex couples,” Kempe said that the Governor is interested in domestic partnerships as an alternative for elderly couples, something that Washington's recently passed definition of domestic partnership includes. Advocates of including elderly heterosexual couples into the definition note that domestic partnership allows elderly couples marriage-like benefits without sacrificing shared-pensions or alimony from an early marriage. Kempe continued, “This [issue] isn’t about domestic same-sex partnership.”

For Susan Heroux and others in the queer community, this issue is about same-sex partnership, in the form of full civil marriage. “We’re talking about people in committed relationships,” Heroux said. So while some queer leaders see progress being made in Carcieri's willingness to converse with queer leaders, it is up for debate whether they are even discussing the same thing.

George Warner b’10.5 covers marriage equality for the Independent.