State Senate repeals 1896 sodomy law
A bill to repeal the 102-year-old statute was passed by the House last month and is
now awaiting Governor Almond's signature.
The Providence Journal-Bulletin,
June 3, 1998
75 Fountain St.
Providence, RI 02902
By Jonathan Saltzman
Journal-Bulletin Staff Writer
PROVIDENCE -- Kate Monteiro was a teenager when she began her fight to
repeal Rhode Island's 19th-century sodomy law, which makes it a felony for consenting
adults to engage in oral or anal sex.
As a member of the state's model legislature in 1979, the Burrillville High School
student argued that the law was an anachronism that should be stricken from the books.
Through the years, bills have been introduced in the General Assembly to do that, but they
never got anywhere.
Yesterday was different. After a brief debate, the Senate passed a bill to repeal the
102-year-old law that calls for a prison sentence of 7 to 20 years for anyone engaging in
oral or anal sex, defined by law as "an abominable and detestable crime against
Monteiro, now the president of the Rhode Island Alliance for Lesbian and Gay Civil
Rights, embraced beaming activists outside the Senate chamber after the 26-to-17 vote.
'I'm proud to be a born-and-bred Rhode Islander,'' she said, "and proud that the
State of Rhode Island has said, 'What is personal is personal, and what is private is
The House passed the legislation last month. Rep. Edith Ajello, D- Providence, who
sponsored the legislation six times before she was successful, said she was optimistic
Governor Almond will sign it.
Since the early 1960s, at least two dozen states have repealed similar sodomy laws,
according to statistics supplied by Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island
affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union. And five other states have had their laws
struck down by the courts.
In Rhode Island, supporters of a repeal argued that the 1896 "crime against
nature'' law was archaic and unfair. More often than not, they said, it was used by police
departments to harass homosexual men.
Sen. John Roney, D-Providence, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said he doubted
that "a single person in this chamber has not, at some point in his lifetime, broken
Three of the state's newspapers have editorialized in favor of repeal. And three
Superior Court judges have criticized the law. Just recently, one of the judges, Frank J.
Williams, said the law violates the equal-protection clause of the state Constitution
because it's typically applied to unmarried couples, not married ones.
As in the House, opponents sought to water down the bill or kill it outright, citing
fears of burgeoning public sex and invoking religious beliefs.
Sen. John A. Celona, D-North Providence, acknowledged that some handicapped people rely
on the proscribed acts as their only source of sexual gratification. But he feared that a
blanket repeal might encourage others to have oral or anal sex in public, perhaps in view
As a compromise, he suggested the legislation be amended to prohibit oral and anal sex
if "committed while in a public area or in view of others.''
Roney spoke against the amendment, saying it was worded so broadly that a couple could
be arrested for engaging in oral or anal sex in their bedroom if the shade was up.
The state already has other laws, including bans on lewd and lascivious conduct and
disorderly conduct, to prevent public sex, he added.
The amendment failed by a vote of 24 to 19.
Sen. Michael J. Flynn, R-Smithfield, implored his colleagues to "uphold 5,000
years of Judeo-Christian law'' and to keep the sodomy ban. He said he believed oral and
anal sex were wrong under "moral law and natural law,'' and he exhorted the Senate
not to be stampeded by editorial writers and judges.
"The presence of HIV and AIDS alone should make us wary of repealing this
statute,'' Flynn said.
But proponents of a repeal said the issue of sexually transmitted diseases and the
sodomy law were unrelated. Indeed, three New England states without sodomy laws -- New
Hampshire, Vermont and Maine -- have a lower rate of HIV transmission than Rhode Island,
according to statistics supplied by Rhode Island Project AIDS.
Supporters also said that people who contract the AIDS virus through the proscribed
acts might actually be less likely to seek medical treatment out of fear, warranted or
not, that they could be charged with breaking the sodomy law.
Although gay-rights activists were among the most vocal supporters of the bill,
Monteiro said after the vote that all couples, heterosexual or homosexual, should be
pleased by the outcome.
"It's always been the same issue: government doesn't belong in anyone's bedroom,''
Brown, of the ACLU, said the repeal was "long overdue.''
"I'm glad that Rhode Island, in terms of its sex laws, has finally entered the
20th century,'' he said, "just in time for the 21st.''
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