Rhode Island Legislator Comes Out
State Rep. Nancy Hetherington Uses Pages of Providence
Journal to Tell Her Story
Bay Windows, March 15, 2001
By Peter Cassels, Bay Windows staff
By acknowledging her sexual orientation in an op-ed article she wrote for
the states largest daily newspaper to advance a civil-unions bill she has
introduced, Rhode Island state Rep. Nancy Hetherington, D-Cranston, has become
the first open lesbian to serve in the Rhode Island General Assembly. She
joins Reps. Mike Pisaturo, D-Cranston, and David Cicilline, D-Providence, in a
three-person club: the state Legislatures gay caucus.
Hetherington is the prime sponsor of a bill that would legalize civil
unions for same-gender couples in Rhode Island. It is similar to legislation
that has legalized such relationships in Vermont.
"What do civil unions mean to me? As a gay person, they mean having
the same concerns for my family as everyone else has and wanting to see those
I love protected by every means legally available to me," the legislator
wrote in the op-ed piece published in the March 8 edition of The Providence
"By denying the rights of gay individuals to enter into legally
recognized, permanent relationships, we are indeed attempting to deny their
humanity," the article emphasized. "In doing so, we diminish
ourselves even as we seek to devalue others. There is no moral, ethical,
religious or other rationale that can justify such behavior."
The 56-year-old mother of two grown daughters, Hetherington shares a home
in the Edgewood section of Cranston with Elaine Martin, 44, with whom she has
been partners for eight years.
"I always thought that any of your actions need to have a
result," she replied when asked in an interview why she chose to come out
the way she did. "My sense is theres a power in the coming-out process
that could be used for a specific end when its going to serve a
Revelation no surprise
Disclosing her sexual orientation was no surprise to many colleagues,
friends, constituents and others who know her personally, she points out. She
is also a co-sponsor of the gay marriage bill Pisaturo has introduced in the
Legislature for the last several years and Judiciary Committee hearings on
both bills are likely to be held later in March. Whats most important,
Hetherington believes, is that couples will testify at the hearings about the
need for their relationships to be legitimized.
Pisaturo agrees. "Its actually a good thing," he said in an
interview. "It will educate everyone, particularly the gay community, on
the difference between marriage and civil unions. My bill represents full
equality and hers a third of equality. Its about 300 rights and benefits
versus 1,000. Her bill will go a long way to educate people on what the
Pisaturo says he thinks "its wonderful that Nancy has come out. Its
good that people get to see non-males in a long-term relationship with
children [that break] gay stereotypes. She is passionate about her issues but
speaks impassionately and moderately."
"I think we have a better shot with civil unions," Hetherington
says. "Ultimately, the committee can see there are two ways to get
justice. Considering both bills gives them some choice. It might make civil
unions look more palatable because they are up against the marriage
word. I see our community coming to the hearings and telling us what they
want. If someone wants marriage only, then say that."
In an interview, Cicilline said he welcomed Hetheringtons declaration of
her sexuality: "I think its wonderful to have an extraordinarily
talented legislator with a profound commitment to social justice issues over
the years, particularly to the gay and lesbian community. I think any time we
become active in politics or any other walk of life it benefits not only our
present community but also future generations of gay people."
Hetherington credits Cicilline with putting together her civil-unions bill.
"He even handed me the finished text," she says.
The Providence lawmaker explained why he didnt introduce the bill
himself: "I have three bills: one on weapons, the Government Integrity
Act and an education bill. I can only shepherd so many through the process.
Nancy and I had discussed it in the past. I thought there was a certain
appropriateness for her to be prime sponsor."
First elected in 1994 and a member of the House Health, Education and
Welfare Committee, Hetherington has become known as a tireless advocate for
adult education, welfare and health care issues, and a champion for civil
rights and people with disabilities. Shes a progressive who supports womens
right to choose, but gets along well with and is widely respected by her
colleagues who have different views. An ordained Methodist minister, she is a
professional social worker at Dorcas Place, an adult literacy center in
Providence helping low-income families make the transition from welfare to
Kate Monteiro, president of the Rhode Island Alliance
for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights, recalled Hetheringtons eloquent speech on
the House floor during the debate over repealing the states onerous sodomy
law several years ago: "There was barely a dry eye in the house. Nancy
spoke on that bill from the perspective of a mother of a daughter who is
wheel-chair bound and she was able to talk about the importance of repealing
the sodomy law from that perspective."
Hetheringtons daughter Carol, a veterinarians
assistant in Walpole, Mass., is married to someone who also is disabled. One
strategy she used in calling for repeal of the sodomy law, she explains,
"was that people understand that it wasnt the one issue of being gay.
I talked about Carol and Steves wedding, about how I knew that when they
went off to their honeymoon their intimacy would be defined under the law as
detestable crimes against nature. I think that reached the legislators
because they could think of their own children and what it would be like to be
in that category." She views the issues of being gay from the perspective
of what its like to be disabled and living as second-class citizens:
"I learned to say to heck with other peoples views and were going
to live our own lives."
Shell use the same technique of personalizing her argument for
legitimizing same-gender relationships: "My 96-year-old Aunt Vera in
Wichita [Kans.], had a partner, Velda, for 50 years. They were seen as two old
maids living together. Im going to tell about what happened when Velda
became ill. Her family moved her to Oklahoma and took over all of her care.
When Velda died, her family stripped their home of anything that she
Monteiro says Hetherington illustrates the gay communitys diversity,
which she sees as being a plus. She "comes from a different perspective
for these folks. Shes a mother of two and a social worker and is a
different kind of gay person from David and Michael, who are both fabulous,
but for some people represent a gay male perspective. Adding the dynamic of
not just a lesbian, but also a middle-aged mom, I think is an eye-opener for
many of their colleagues. The fact that she is a woman and her personality and
her actions with a whole host of other legislators, I think perhaps just makes
for a different mix."
Reaction shes received since the op-ed article appeared has been
overwhelmingly positive "not one negative word." Many who have
contacted her are straight constituents who say they are pleased to be a part
of her district. She says she is uncomfortable when people offer their
congratulations. "I dont see it so much as a personal success as
calling attention to gay issues. I would like to give credit to the entire
Rhode Island gay community."
Some from outside the state have contacted her to offer their support.
"Carol, a truck driver from California, read the Journal article while in
Rhode Island and took the time to go into the legislative Web site to find my
e-mail address. She wrote this really touching note about how much it meant to
her and how it will affect our lives. A couple from Nebraska, both lawyers,
had gone to Vermont for a civil union. In their note, they used a phrase
saying we were civilized and unionized in Vermont. That word civilized
can be expanded upon because of what does it say about being a full part of
Many well wishers from outside the state learned of her coming out through
the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which issued a statement the day the Journal
op-ed piece was published. Hetherington "deserves enormous credit for her
courageous willingness to tap into the positive power of coming out in the
legislative workplace," said Victory Fund Executive Director Brian Bond.
"As more gay and lesbian incumbents are coming out, more are finding that
honesty really is the best policy. Voters respect and re-elect public servants
who are true to themselves while tackling the issues of concern to their
Some Rhode Island legislators remain closeted. Hetherington believes that
her coming out "affects the environment and thinking for everyone else. I
would expect the same right of choice for them as I had. I would hope they
would make a choice as to when it serves them and serves the purpose. How
could it not? Theres a critical mass that generally makes it easier people.
One reason why I was uncomfortable not coming out was that I was doing nothing
to be more openly part of the community."
Others agree that closeted legislators will be encouraged by Hetheringtons
actions, but emphasize that its up to them to decide if and when to reveal
"I think that legislators who happen to be LGBT are people
first," Monteiro says. "As with every one of the rest of us they
should come out when it is right for them. And so, I wouldnt be surprised
if Nancys coming out doesnt help other legislators think about the
possibilities and see something that they might want to do, but it has to
happen when it happens and at its own pace. Because that is when it is right,
not just for the legislators but the issues."
Cicilline says he has never been a proponent of a "soul-searching
disclosure of coming out. We have internalized homophobia so much that we
think we need to soul-search the coming out process, like it is a bad thing.
Its buying into the shame thing when we buy into the coming-out process in
such a way. [Declaring ones sexuality should] underline the notion about
how proud people should be with their orientation. It sends the right message
not only about sexual orientation but that the process doesnt require
Pisaturo sees Hetheringtons image as an average mainstream legislator as
an example to closeted lawmakers: "Im hoping our other gay colleagues
will see that its not a big deal anymore."
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