Last edited: February 14, 2005

Rhode Island Legislator Comes Out

State Rep. Nancy Hetherington Uses Pages of Providence Journal to Tell Her Story

Bay Windows, March 15, 2001
Boston, MA

By Peter Cassels, Bay Windows staff

By acknowledging her sexual orientation in an op-ed article she wrote for the state’s 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 Legislature’s 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 Journal.

"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 there’s a power in the coming-out process that could be used for a specific end — when it’s going to serve a purpose."

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. What’s most important, Hetherington believes, is that couples will testify at the hearings about the need for their relationships to be legitimized.

Pisaturo agrees. "It’s 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. It’s about 300 rights and benefits versus 1,000. Her bill will go a long way to educate people on what the distinctions are."

Pisaturo says he thinks "it’s wonderful that Nancy has come out. It’s 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 Hetherington’s declaration of her sexuality: "I think it’s 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 didn’t 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. She’s a progressive who supports women’s 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 work.

Kate Monteiro, president of the Rhode Island Alliance for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights, recalled Hetherington’s eloquent speech on the House floor during the debate over repealing the state’s 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."

Hetherington’s daughter Carol, a veterinarian’s 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 wasn’t the one issue of being gay. I talked about Carol and Steve’s 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 it’s like to be disabled and living as second-class citizens: "I learned to say to heck with other people’s views and we’re going to live our own lives."

She’ll 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. I’m 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 [had]."

Monteiro says Hetherington illustrates the gay community’s diversity, which she sees as being a plus. She "comes from a different perspective for these folks. She’s 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 she’s 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 don’t 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 society."

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 constituents."

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? There’s 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 Hetherington’s actions, but emphasize that it’s up to them to decide if and when to reveal their sexuality.

"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 wouldn’t be surprised if Nancy’s coming out doesn’t 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. It’s buying into the shame thing when we buy into the coming-out process in such a way. [Declaring one’s 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 doesn’t require special preparation."

Pisaturo sees Hetherington’s image as an average mainstream legislator as an example to closeted lawmakers: "I’m hoping our other gay colleagues will see that it’s not a big deal anymore."

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