Activists living in Rhode Island have been at the national forefront of social justice and equity movements for LGBTQ+communities. Following what many view as the initiation of the equality movement after the Stonewall Rebellion against police brutality in 1969 and lesser-known Compton Cafeteria Riots in San Francisco in 1966, activists in Rhode Island began organizing more explicitly around issues of sexual orientation. Upon being denied access to the Old State House for a symposium called “Congress of Gay Concerns” and denied entry to march in the 1976 Rhode Island bicentennial parade, in 1976, the activists led the first Pride Parade. After much resistance from the chief of police, the ACLU forced the hand of the city to give the organizers a parade permit. Billy Mencer Ackerly, a “76er”, recalled that as those in the parade entered the sunlight, they began to sing,

You thought that you were the only one, but there’s millions like you when all is said and done. So walk with Pride, hold up your head, living in the closet is at long last dead. Come out wherever you are. Freedom is here, there’s no reason to fear. Come out, come out wherever you are and walk in the sunshine again, my friend. The closet is no place to live and die. Smiling is in, there’s no reason to cry. Meet your brothers and sisters and all join hands, and claim your rightful place in this great land. Come out, come out wherever you are. Freedom is here, there’s no reason to fear. Come out, come out wherever you are and walk in the sunshine again, my friend. Life is too short to live a lie, so look the world right in the eye. Love is too beautiful to lock inside. Love whomever you want and love with Pride. Come out, come out wherever you are. Freedom is here, there’s no reason to fear. Come out, come out wherever you are and walk in the sunshine again, my friend.

From the first Pride Parade on, activism around gender and sexual identity began to flourish. Over the years, a rich array of LGBTQ+ activism has shaped the political and social landscape of the state. While some groups have focused on reform, others have focused on transforming society at its roots. An early example of organized activism includes the Rhode Island Chapter of ACT UP which began in 1978 and was a strong force in the fight against the AIDS Crisis. Activists in Rhode Island led the country in the passing of several bills, but at times these bills were pushed through at the expense of transgender and people of color in the state. The Rhode Island Alliance of Lesbian for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights, established in 1983, played a major role in early civil rights wins on the level of the legislature and policy. From 1984 to 1995, the Alliance fought to pass an LGB Civil Rights Bill. While they succeeded in passing the bill in 1995, they agreed to cut out gender identity and expression from that bill behind closed doors to get it through. Gender expression and identity was added through a quiet campaign in 2001.

This type of organizing and its pitfalls has built the foundation of the mainstream LGBTQ+ movement nationally and locally. In 2008, many Rhode Island activists gathered under the banner Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI). Along with a broad coalition of lawyers, clergy, and representatives, they won the right to marry in the state.

So there really was an overwhelming feeling like yes, we needed to support this. It turns out, we were the one and only Council of Churches in America that took a position on marriage equality. And I think Rhode Island should be proud of that…The only board that had the courage to take make that decision was that was that board. And, and it changed us. I mean, we became a different organization that day, we really did. And I will tell you, there are still people who have not forgiven me for being the executive during that.

— Dr. Rev. Donnie Anderson

The right to marry was a major boon to LGBTQ+ people’s ability to access equal rights under the law to heterosexual counterparts. Rhode Island passed this legislation two years before the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges requiring states to allow and recognize same-sex marriages. This movement, while vital to many protections for couples and families, also took up a lot of energy and diverted attention from issues particularly around organizing concerning transgender safety and wellbeing as well as the safety and wellbeing of communities of color from state-sanctioned violence. The landscape of LGBTQ+ politics since marriage equality has both built upon MERI’s foundation and regained traction in intersectional justice movements. Areas at the forefront of LGBTQ+ activism in Rhode Island today include the effort to defund the police to respond to higher rates of policing among LGBTQ+ communities and communities of color, particularly trans women of color and to reinvest in public services and infrastructure to support the safety and wellbeing of these communities, and cultural and political shifts to uplift and support the health and lives of gender non-binary and transgender people.


  1. Billy Mencer Ackerly, interview by Madeline Montgomery, May 7, 2020, transcript, LGBTQ Oral History Collection, Provi-dence Public Library of Providence, Rhode Island.
  2. Ibid.