An Incomplete Timeline of RI LGBTQ+ History
Researched and written by Matthew Lawrence, 2023.
This timeline features moments in the history of Rhode Island’s LGBTQ+ communities—legal victories and political wins, but also painful obstacles, cultural battles, and achievements by individuals with complicated legacies. These events took place across the state, from the largest city (Providence) to the smallest town (New Shoreham). Timelines can be a bit misleading because they suggest a steady forward movement, but in many cases scandals and injustices from decades ago are still being repeated today.
Rhode Island is a small but densely populated state with a recorded history of LGBTQ+ culture that dates back to at least the eighteenth century. From mill villages to beach towns, the state has been the site of protests, celebrations, and historic achievements, as well as shameful homophobia and transphobia that continues to this day. Even in a small state like Rhode Island, a whole book could easily be written about the history of its LGBTQ+ communities. Perhaps it could begin in 1776, the year that someone known as the Public Universal Friend renounced their given name and their gender, refusing to acknowledge any gendered pronouns at all.
This timeline begins in the 1940s with the opening of a bar. Bars have long been important spaces for queer people to gather together, have fun, and exist on their own terms. It continues with the death of an internationally renowned drag performer, the formation of a lesbian activist group, and the targeting of gay men by law enforcement. These themes—nightlife, drag, political organizing, and policing—recur again and again throughout history.
The timeline also focuses on the lives of some LGBTQ+ Rhode Islanders—heroes and villains, famous and forgotten. It is not meant to be an all-encompassing list. The timeline also leaves out significant figures who were born in Rhode Island but moved away as children, such as the novelist Alexander Chee, or those individuals who studied at colleges and universities in Rhode Island before moving on, such as fashion editor Andre Leon Talley, author Kate Bornstein, artist Glenn Ligon, or singer Halsey.
Language is tricky and constantly evolving. The word queer, for instance, was once used as a slur but has since been reclaimed by many (but not all) in the LGBTQ+ community. The word gay was also regularly used as a slur in the 1990s and 2000s but never went away. This timeline was written in 2023. Accounts from fifty or sixty years ago may include language that is not standard today, such as the word homosexual. It is possible that within a few years some language in this timeline will have fallen out of favor, and may even seem insulting to some. The goal is not to be offensive.
Mirabar opens in 1947 at 64 Bernon Street in Woonsocket. It is currently the oldest continually operating gay bar in Rhode Island and among the oldest in the United States, though its current Providence location is actually the bar’s seventh home. Since moving to Providence in the late 1960s, the club has been housed on Clemence Street, Eddy Street, Allens Avenue, Richmond Street, and now Elbow Street.
A number of other queer bars and clubs have existed in Woonsocket over the years, many catering to both men and women. The Palm Garden predated Mirabar, having opened in 1945, but there was also The Lincoln Inn, High Street Cafe, and Kings and Queens (all of which were owned by Rita Paux). In the 1960s there was also a queer bar called the Holiday Inn, also located on Bernon Street. Kings and Queens, the last LGBTQ+ bar in Woonsocket, closed in 2002 after 25 years.
Born in Naples, Italy and raised in Providence, Antonio Auriemma became an internationally known drag star with a career that spanned five decades. Auriemma first performed under the stage name Auriema (with one M) but by 1914 had adopted the drag persona Francis Renault. Renault was known for a lavishly expensive wardrobe, and was billed as “The Original Slave to Fashion”. Renault wore elaborate women’s clothing off-stage while touring in order to publicize these appearances, which once led to an arrest in Atlanta for cross-dressing. Other achievements include opening a speakeasy in Atlantic City (1926), surviving polio in the 1940s, and a return to solo performances at Carnegie Hall in the early 1950s, where Renault was billed as the “Last of the Red Hot Poppas”.
Founded in San Francisco in 1955, Daughters of Bilitis (pronounced bill-EE-tis) was the first lesbian civil rights organization in the United States. A young Filipina immigrant named Rose Bamberger had the idea for a private social club, an alternative to bars which were frequently raided, but the organization soon became more political, with chapters opening around the country. By 1959 there were chapters in three other large cities (New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles) as well as in Rhode Island.
Little information about the Rhode Island chapter is currently known, though Daughters of Bilitis co-founder Kay Lahusen said in a 2009 interview that the membership was quite small, with perhaps only five members.
In October 1965, Providence Police Commissioner Harry Goldstein began rounding up “male homosexuals” in downtown Providence. His stated goal was to “improve the image of downtown Providence” and “to protect persons not inclined to homosexual activity.” A Providence Journal article from October 29 mentions that police had made fifteen arrests for “soliciting for immoral purposes,” a felony. Police also watched “bars frequented by homosexuals” and patrolled Burnside Park (at the time a popular cruising area) with a police dog.
Other notable police raids took place in 1978 (at the CBC bathhouse on Weybosset Street in Providence), between 1988 and 1991 (at parks in Providence, East Providence, and South Kingstown), in 1997 (at a rest area in North Smithfield), and in 2001 at an adult movie theater in Johnston. That final raid was publicized on local news and in the Providence Journal, which published the names, addresses, and occupations of the seven men arrested. One of the men, a politically active Republican zoning officer from Connecticut, committed suicide four days later.
The Killing of Sister George was released on December 12, 1968. Directed by straight Cranston native Robert Aldrich (1918–1993), the film is about a closeted, alcoholic English soap opera actress (Beryl Reid) and her much younger lover (Susannah York). Released just months after the introduction of the movie ratings system, The Killing of Sister George was rated X for a lesbian kissing scene, meaning that no one under the age of 16 was allowed to see it. It was the actually the first X-rated film by a major Hollywood director, and one Boston theater manager was fined $1000 for screening it at all.
Aldrich was born wealthy, a descendent of Roger Williams and grandson of United States senator Nelson Wimarth Aldrich, for whom the Aldrich Mansion in Warwick is still named. Robert Aldrich was captain of the Moses Brown football and track teams, but by his early twenties he had dropped out of college and been disinherited by his father. The Providence Journal once described him as “a rotund man with horn rims, white hair, and very un-California clothing, which makes him look more like a Cranston druggist than a director of major films.” (ProJo, 2/13/77) An earlier Providence Journal story noted that “he weighs 212 pounds, not an insignificant amount of which is centered around his stomach” (3/14/65). Aldrich made over thirty films in his career, including the 1955 film noir Kiss Me Deadly and the World War II action film The Dirty Dozen, but he was also known for directing the camp horror classics Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Hush, Hush… Sweet Charlotte (1964).
William Stringfellow and Anthony Towne lived together on Block Island in a house they called Eschaton. Stringfellow was a lawyer and theologian; Towne was primarily a poet. Life on the quiet island was disrupted in December 1970 when the two were charged with harboring Father Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest and prominent anti-war activist. Berrigan had gone underground that summer after being convicted for his role in a protest against the Vietnam War. During the protest, Berrigan and eight others (known as the Catonsville Nine) used napalm to burn 372 draft cards. Eventually, FBI agents traced Berrigan to the island, where they posed as bird watchers with binoculars before arresting him. The media dubbed Stringfellow and Towne the Block Island Two; charges against them were later dropped.
Stringfellow and Towne lived together, first in New York and then on Block Island, from 1962 until Towne died in 1980. Friends knew that these men were gay, but neither spoke publicly about their sexuality. The two shared a bed, and Stringfellow’s archive features letters from Towne that reference their sex life, according to pastor and activist Bill Wylie-Kellermann. In public, however, Stringfellow implied that their relationship was strictly platonic. As someone who wrote about theology, Stringfellow’s decision to remain closeted helped his career enormously, as he was widely read by theologians who would have dismissed the religious writings of a gay man.
After Towne died, Stringfellow wrote a book about the grieving process. In it, he referred to Towne as “my sweet companion of seventeen years.” According to Wylie-Kellerman, Stringfellow “wrote of his love for Anthony Towne while insisting, through rhetorical indirectness, that their partnership not be reduced to or subsumed under sexuality.”
The Dorrwar Bookstore opened in 1972 at 224 Thayer Street in Providence. Named for a rebellion that took place in the 1840s, the store was described in the Providence Journal as a “radical bookstore with socialist, leftist, feminist, gay lib, and kid lib literature along with general works. A real alternative bookstore, it offers some small press titles not readily available elsewhere.” Within ten years the store moved to 107 ½ Hope Street, a building that has since been demolished, and by the early nineties was in its third and final location at 312 Wickenden Street, which most recently was the site of the Duck and Bunny restaurant before that building too was demolished
In 1988, a more overtly “lesbian and gay” bookstore called Visions and Voices opened in the Ajay Land building at 255 Harris Avenue.
Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) was founded in California by Reverend Troy Perry in 1968. A welcoming Christian ministry specifically for gay and lesbian people, the church quickly spread nationally, and a Providence chapter was founded in 1973 by pastor Arthur Cazeault. Reverend Joseph Gilbert was appointed pastor in November of the following year, after leading several MCC congregations on the west coast. Before joining the ministry, Gilbert had spent two years in federal prison for sending a love letter to another man through the mail. Though the letter was not sexually explicit it was nevertheless deemed obscene. Gilbert continued to be politically active while in Providence, organizing a 1975 midnight prayer on the steps of the federal building. In 1977 he moved to Florida to organize against prominent anti-gay activist Anita Bryant, and Reverend Marge Ragona became pastor. The MCC has not been active in Providence for decades, though a Boston chapter still exists.
About 70 protesters took part in Providence’s first Pride march, intentionally timed just one week before the nationwide July 4 Bicentennial celebrations.
Local Bicentennial Committee organizers refused meeting space for the group of community members hosting the Congress of People with Gay Concerns. Calling themselves Toward a Gayer Bicentennial Committee, the group sued the official Bicentennial Committee and won the right to assemble at the Old State House, where about 30 people met in June 1976 to discuss civil rights concerns. The parade itself also required a legal injunction in order to happen. Mayor Buddy Cianci denied a parade permit to organizers, who then filed suit in district court for the right to march in downtown Providence that day. Ultimately a group of about 70 people (known as 76ers) marched through Kennedy Plaza with signs and kazoos. After the event, Police Chief Walter McQueeney called the demonstration “a disgrace”.
One marcher was Providence College mathematics professor Hubert Kennedy, who earlier that year had outed himself in the college’s student newspaper. “I think the times are really changing,” he wrote in The Cowl. In the Pride march, Kennedy and one man from Connecticut marched together with a banner identifying them as the Gay Academic Union of New England. Kennedy later wrote that the Providence event was one of only two official events nationwide that marked both Pride and the Bicentennial.
Later Pride parades included a Bag Brigade, where people who were not yet out marched with paper bags on their heads, and a stroller parade for LGBTQ+ parents. In 2001 event organizers moved the parade to the evening, creating one of the country’s only nighttime Pride parades.
In a fifteen-page feature in the magazine Playboy, electronic music pioneer Wendy Carlos publicly outed herself as a woman for the first time, having legally changed her name on Valentine’s Day 1979.
Born and raised in Pawtucket, Carlos graduated from St. Rafael Academy and Brown University before moving to New York in the 1960s. Her debut album Switched-On Bach was a runaway success in 1969, remaining at number one on Billboard’s Classical Music Chart for three full years despite Carlos’ intense fear of public performance. For her lone concert at the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, Carlos wore a wig and fake sideburns to present as a man. The experience was so terrifying that she never performed publicly again. Nevertheless, Switched-On Bach won three Grammy Awards for its inventive synthesizer interpretations of music by 18th-century composer Johann Sebastian Bach.
Carlos later composed the score to Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange but disappeared from the public for most of the 1970s, having undergone gender reassignment surgery and fearing how she might be perceived. When famous musicians like Stevie Wonder came to her studio, she let them use her synthesizers but refused to see them personally. After the Playboy interview, she re-entered public life again for a period, working with Kubrick again for his 1980 film The Shining and in 1987 working with Weird Al Yankovic on the children’s album Peter and the Wolf / Carnival of the Animals Part II.
Carlos has reluctantly become an icon for many members of the trans community. The website them, for instance, titled a 2019 story Gen(d)erations: Wendy Carlos’ Life and Work Show the Beauty (and Trauma) of Being Openly Trans. Extremely reclusive, Carlos (now in her eighties) most recently denounced an otherwise well-received 2020 biography about her by musicologist Amanda Sewell.
In 1979, 17-year old high school senior Paul Guilbert attempted to buy his friend Ed Miskevich a ticket to the Cumberland High School prom. Miskevich was a student at Brown whom Guilbert had met while attending Metropolitan Community Church. The school refused.
The following year Aaron Fricke, another Cumberland High School student, sued principal Richard Lynch for refusing him the right to bring another young man to the prom. Fricke was already 18 years old and therefore had legal rights that Guilbert had not. Raymond Pettine, Chief Judge of the US District Court for the District of Rhode Island, ruled that Fricke was indeed within his rights, and that free speech doctrine protects student rights to attend proms with any date of their choice. On May 30, 1980, amid heightened security, Fricke and his date attended the prom.
In 1995 queer publisher Alyson Publications released Fricke’s memoir Reflections of a Rock Lobster: A Story of Growing Up Gay.
The official newsletter of the RI Gay Task Force (RIGTF), gay and lesbian newsletter Options was first released in 1982. In the six page issue, editor Jos Fayette said that Options
“wants to make the homosexual community aware of their options as gay men and women in Rhode Island. And it’s only because we live, work, love and play in this state that there are such a large number of options available to us… Membership and participation in RIGTF can, and will, demonstrate to you as gay men and women that you don’t have to live in a ghetto that has been created and fostered by imposed stereotypes. We do have options open to us. It’s true that we all live in a society which has allowed – and created – specifically gay oriented styles and activities. BUT, we all live in an area which happily allows us the options of not living a purely gay-oriented lifestyle/existence. We have the option of integrating our sexual orientation into the mainstream of life around us together with the option of sensitizing and educating those people with whom we live and work to the very specific needs and awarenesses inherent in our sexual preference.”
Though plagued almost from the beginning by financial troubles—within its first year the editors threatened to shutter the magazine—Options has now been distributed for free for over forty years.
Other local publications for the LGBTQ+ community have included Get and Divine Providence, two magazines from the 2000s.
The January 1983 issue of Options makes reference to “11 known AIDS cases in Boston and one in Providence.” On August 3, a woman with AIDS-like symptoms died at Rhode Island hospital but doctors were unable to confirm that it was AIDS. (It is unclear whether she was the case referenced in the Options story.) The first confirmed AIDS death in Rhode Island happened on September 10, 1983; the victim was a woman in her late 20s. Shortly after, Loreto “Larry” Manfredi became the second confirmed AIDS death in the state. On December 4, the Providence Journal profiled Manfredi’s mother in a story called “A Death in the Family: Seeing her son die was hard enough; the stigma of AIDS made it worse.” At the time four groups were considered at high risk for AIDS: Haitians, homosexuals, hemophiliacs, and heroin users. Since these groups were and still are stigmatized, many people felt that victims brought the disease on themselves.
In 1985 the writer James Baldwin spoke at the First Baptist Church in America, on Benefit Street in Providence. Rhode Island College professor Daniel Scott wrote in 2005 that this event “sparked a series of encounters with Black gay scholars, writers, and artists (visitors and residents) that continues to this day.” According to Scott, a 1987 visit to Rhode Island by activist and writer Joseph Beam “raised the consciousness of the local gay and lesbian community that Black gay experiences were different from the experiences of white gay men and lesbians.” From 1990 to 1996 a local group called B-Five afforded local Black gay men and lesbians space to socialize and build alliances.
In 1990, local activists became increasingly concerned about how LGBTQ+ people were treated in the media and led protests of WJAR (Channel 10) over homophobic news coverage. In June 1991, the RI Alliance for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights gathered outside of four local media outlets to protest negative coverage (or, in one case, no coverage at all).
- The Providence Journal neglected to cover the 1991 Pride Parade, despite it drawing roughly 1,200 people that year. The newspaper later apologized and admitted that the parade deserved coverage, but claimed that because of budget cuts the paper only had two reporters to cover the state that day.
- WSBE (Channel 36) was one of several PBS affiliates that opted not to air Marlon Riggs’ film Tongues Untied, a poetic documentary about the Black gay experience. The station’s general manager told the Journal that the film, which she had not yet seen, was “not for a Channel 36 audience”. After the protest, she watched the film and decided that it was indeed worth screening, albeit late at night when the station was normally off the air.
- WPRI (Channel 12) was protested for two homophobic investigative reports aired in May 1991. Murder at the Rawhide Bar (originally titled Lesbian Love Triangle) “made lame attempts to connect lesbian love interests with the murder of a New Bedford man by his wife,” according to Options, while Closet Encounters was a superficial look at men having sex at roadside rest stops.
- KIX 106 (now Hot 106) was also the site of protests. In early June 1991, a morning show listener called the station and told DJ Kid Valentine that her boyfriend had left her for another man. Kid Valentine asked the woman for the ex-boyfriend’s phone number and then he repeated it over the air seven times, encouraging other listeners to call the man. The station later refused to apologize.
Bi-specific resources are often hard to find, as bisexual erasure is a pervasive force. For instance, a 1992 discussion about a proposed Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Providence resulted with rejection of the word Bisexual from the group’s name, since organizers felt that “Lesbian & Gay” already includes bisexuals. However, three early online mailing lists based at Brown University connected bisexual people across the country and around the world. Though the exact date is hard to place, the earliest reference currently online seems to be from January 1992, though it is quite possible that the list was created in late 1991 or even earlier.
The Brown University Listserv hosts three of the first known messaging groups for bisexual communities: BISEXU-L (Bisexual discussion) described itself as a “[m]ailing list for discussion of issues of bisexuality. Cordial and civilized exchange of relevant ideas, opinions and experiences between members of all orientations is encouraged - we do not discriminate on the basis of orientation, religion, gender, race, etc. This list is not intended in the spirit of separatism from any other lists devoted to lesbian, gay and bisexual issues but as an additional resource for discussion of bisexual concerns in particular; by the same token, the existence of Bisexu-L should not imply in any way that other discussion lists are no longer appropriate forums for discussion of bisexuality.” Other listservs were BIFEM-L (Bisexual women and feminists), a mailing list for “bi woman and bi-friendly women”. This group posted 80-100 messages per day in 1995. There was also BIACT-L, a separate list for Bisexual activists.
Dallas Coors (1917-1996) was a banker, heir to a brewing fortune, and a founding director of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Fund. He also spent summers in Newport. In 1950, Coors married Sophia Petrovna Wolkonski, granddaughter of composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. The marriage did not last and Wolnoski remarried in 1953.
Coors came out as gay in 1992 at the age of 75. He then became the lone Republican who helped finance the HRC. According to Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney 2013 book Out For Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America, Coors was “a banker, with a banker’s personality, a man of inherited wealth from a family of notoriously conservative politics, a traditionalist and a bit of a snob. But he had money, a name famously synonymous with resistance to gay rights, and he was Republican…. Coors became the token Republican on the board–proof of the Campaign Fund’s claim that it was not a partisan organization.”
Notably, LGBT activists across the country began boycotting the Coors brand in 1973 due to the company’s notoriously discriminatory hiring practices. Women, Black, and Latinx groups at the time were already boycotting the company. Dallas Coors died in 1996.
Enacted in 1896, Rhode Island statute 11-10-1 stated:
"Every person who shall be convicted of the abominable and detestable crime against nature, either with mankind or with any beast, shall be imprisoned not exceeding 20 years nor less than seven years."
One of the strictest anti-sodomy laws in the nation—only Georgia and Michigan had stricter penalties—the statute technically banned all oral and anal sex, even among straight consenting adults in their own homes. In practice, the law was disproportionately used against men having sex with other men although, as late as 1995, a man was convicted under the sodomy statute and given ten years of probation for engaging in oral and anal sex with a woman. The law was finally repealed in 1998, after a Coalition of Privacy was formed with activists and religious leaders. In 2003 the Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas invalidated all anti-sodomy laws at the state level.
In the 1990s and into the 2000s, Rhode Island Pride mounted an annual art exhibition featuring work from members of the local queer community. The upstairs gallery at alternative arts space AS220 seemed like a logical host for the 1999 exhibition, since AS220’s mission states that exhibits are “Unjuried and Uncensored”. However, a sexually explicit watercolor by the performer Princess Pearl was removed from the gallery by Pride officials and only returned after a public outcry. According to a letter in Options, eventually the piece (titled Self-portrait) “was hung in the gallery’s bathroom behind a velvet curtain with a sign that it might be offensive to some.” Days later, AS220 changed its formal policy for group exhibitions, stating that curators could only solicit work for group shows if ALL work submitted is accepted.
This was not the first censorship incident related to the annual Pride exhibit. A 1996 collage piece by Collin Clay-Chace was removed from that year’s exhibit by Gina Bartolomucci, owner of the queer bar Deville’s, after customers complained about the image featuring the face of Bill Clinton pasted over a cutout of a naked man performing a sexual act.
“The Scheming Nudist Comes Out Victorious,” a Washington Post headline declared when Newport resident Richard Hatch, an openly gay 39-year old corporate trainer, won the first season of the reality series Survivor. The Chicago Tribune called the season finale “a landmark television event” which was watched live by 51.7 million people, marking the show as a massive success and kicking off a television decade dominated by competitive reality series. Filmed in Borneo in early 2000, Survivor featured contestants who learned early in the season that Hatch was gay. After the second episode, the New York Post claimed that “Survivor has dethroned Will & Grace as the funniest show on TV about homosexuality.”
After winning the million dollar prize, Hatch later appeared on Celebrity Apprentice and The Biggest Loser. He also served a total of 60 months in prison for tax evasion. For his Machiavellian conniving, TV Guide placed Hatch on its list of The 60 Nastiest Villains of All Time.
In 1995, Rhode Island passed a comprehensive law protecting people from discrimination based on their sexual orientation (or perceived sexual orientation) with regard to employment, housing, credit, and public accommodations. Until this law passed, it was legally acceptable for employers to fire workers for being openly gay or lesbian, or even for seeming to be gay or lesbian (whether they actually were or not).
In 2001, Rhode Island changed the language of the law to include protections related to “gender identity or expression,” protecting the rights of transgender people as well as those perceived to be transgender. According to the New York Times:
The state has become the second in the country to ban discrimination against transsexuals, cross-dressers and others who cross sex boundaries. The law, which became effective without the governor's signature, prohibits discrimination based on ''gender identity or expression'' in housing, employment and credit. Gay rights advocates say the law will ensure that a worker cannot be fired for having ''sex reassignment'' surgery.
At the time Minnesota was the only other state in the country with similar protections for trans people. Nationally, LGBTQ+ people were unprotected until the Supreme Court decision Bostock vs. Clayton County in 2020.
Openly gay candidate David Cicilline, a four-time State Representative from the East Side, was elected mayor of Providence, receiving 52% of the vote in a four-way Democratic primary and then 84% of the vote in a four-way general election. (Notably, his seat in the state legislature was taken by Gordon Fox, who is also gay.)
After Cicilline’s inauguration, Providence became the largest American city with an openly gay mayor—a title the city held for six years—and Providence was also the only US state capital with an openly queer mayor. After serving two terms, Cicilline was elected to the House of Representatives in 2010. By 2023, he was the longest serving of 11 queer representatives in the House, though he announced in February 2023 that he would step down from his role at the end of the legislative session.
On Christmas morning 2003, the body of 22-year old Roy Weber was found by police on Shipyard Street in Providence. Weber was one of many men with addiction issues who performed sex work with other men in order to finance his habit. Weber’s murder still remains unsolved.
Five years later, Rich Holcomb and James Waterman founded Project Weber, the first organization in the country designed specifically to help male sex workers. According to a study Holcomb and Waterman conducted in 2009, a majority of these sex workers used drugs and many were homeless. Now known as Project Weber / Renew, the organization provides peer-led harm reduction and recovery supports services, “empowering people who engage in drug use and/or sex work to make healthier and safer choices in their own lives”.
Brown University’s John Hay Library presented Black Lavender: An Exhibit of Writings by Black Gay Men, drawing from the personal collection of curator Robb Dimmick. The exhibition featured books and periodicals dating back to the late 19th century and included work by James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Essex Hemphill as well as more recent work by local authors.
In 2009, Rites and Reason Theatre produced the inaugural Black Lavender Experience: Theatre and Conversations Sparked By the Work of Queer Playwrights, a weekend-long festival founded by Rites and Reason artistic director Elmo Terry-Morgan that still runs today.
On January 3, Representative Art Handy and Senator Donna Nesselbush introduced bills to legalize same-sex marriage in Rhode Island. Buoyed by the organization Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI), the bills passed in May, making Rhode Island the final state in New England and tenth state nationally to recognize same-sex marriage. Marriage equality legislation had been introduced in Rhode Island every year since 1997 but previously had never passed. Neighboring Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage in 2003 and Connecticut followed in 2008.
On August 1, the law went into effect. Two years later, the Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage nationally.
Richmond native Billy Gilman released his first single “One Voice” in 2000 at the age of eleven, making him the youngest singer to ever have a top 40 country hit. Gilman also received a Grammy nomination that year for Best Male Country Vocal Performance, eventually selling over two million copies of his debut album. In 2014, the 26-year old Gilman released a video to fans just hours after fellow country singer Ty Herndon publicly came out as gay.
"It's difficult for me to make this video, not because I'm ashamed of being a gay male artist or a gay artist or a gay person. But it's pretty silly to know that I'm ashamed of doing this knowing that because I'm in a genre and industry that is ashamed of me for being me."
Despite deeply rooted conservatism in mainstream country music, 2014 was a watershed year for queer representation, with two openly queer songwriters winning the Country Music Association Award for Song of the Year, having co-written Kacey Musgraves’ uplifting “Follow Your Arrow.” Two years later, Gilman competed on reality series The Voice, placing second.
Dead Ringer, a group exhibit curated by Elizabeth Duffy at Bristol Art Museum, was canceled and then reinstated after museum board members objected to artwork by Bristol resident Bradley Wester. Wester’s works included found photographs of British soldiers engaged in hazing rituals, altered with Wester’s digitally collaged disco balls.
It was one of several controversial events that took place in early June 2019, as the Rogers Free Library (also in Bristol) canceled a planned Drag Story Hour scheduled to kick off Pride month. After a public outcry, the Story Hour proceeded, but the cancellation prompted several other organizations to schedule Drag Story Hours. That same week, protesters in Providence responded to tweets from Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin, who wrote that Pride events “promote a culture and encourage activities that are contrary to Catholic faith and morals and are especially harmful to children.” (The bishop had previously stepped away from Twitter for six months, calling the platform “an occasion for sin” in 2018.)