Sen. Nesselbush’s Big Legislative Adventure

Published in the Pawtucket Times, April 26, 2013 

            As a young student at BrownUniversity in the early 80s, Donna Nesselbush discovered she was a lesbian.  However, it never occurred to this College coed that 30 years later, she would be a Rhode Island Senator fighting “tooth and nail” for marriage equality, and issue she calls “the greatest civil rights issue of our time.”  Nesselbush has advocated for marriage equality alongside many local businesses and some of the state’s top political officials, in addition to Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, as well as some Catholics, too, hoping to change Rhode Island’s marriage law to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry.  

             Throughout the legislative session Rev. Thomas J. Tobin, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, issued statements calling on Rhode Island lawmakers to stand firm against changing the traditional definition of the word, “marriage.”  Before the Senate Judiciary vote, he urged them to “stand strong in resisting this immoral and unnecessary proposition” and to “defend marriage and family as traditionally defined.”   Throughout the legislative debate the National Organization for Marriage Rhode Island, would also stand by the side of the Catholic Church calling for the rejection of the same-sex marriage legislative proposals being considered by the Rhode Island General Assembly.  

 A Long-time Waiting

              For almost 20 years, state lawmakers had grappled with the religiously charged issue of same-sex marriage.  Nesselbush attended many of the legislative hearings to testify in support of allowing same-sex marriage, and other times just to watch, only to see bills “held for further study.”  As a Senator, Nesselbush now clearly understands that legislative code phrase to mean the bill is being “put out to legislative pasture,” or killed, she says.

             During last year’s legislative session, Nesselbush watched as the House, eyed the conservatively-leaning Senate. House pragmatists pushed Speaker Gordon Fox to endorse civil union legislation rather than push for full-marriage equality. Much to the dismay of Fox, the first openly gay Speaker of the House, his members exhorted “Why ask House members to make a difficult vote if the Senate was all but certain to take no action?”

              “The House chamber came to a very pragmatic, political and painful conclusion that passing the civil union bill was better than nothing,” said the Pawtucket senator.

             In 2010, being a new Senator, Nesselbush learned the legislative procedural ropes, and more importantly the fine art of vote counting in order to walk a political tight rope.  She scrambled to count votes to ensure that the civil unions legislation would pass in order to extend much needed rights to gay people, but she wanted to “take the high road,” voting against this less than desirable vehicle, “and standing for the proposition that separate is never equal; gay and lesbian couples deserve full marriage equality,” said Nesselbush.

 Taking the Torch

             Although the marriage equity bill was ultimately shot down in 2010, in 2013 Nesselbush was asked to carry the torch from former Senator Rhoda Perry to champion Senate passage of a marriage equality bill.  For over 15 years the former Providence Senator, advocating many liberal causes, had pushed for passage without success. Senator Sue Sosnowski of South Kingston, a long time civil rights advocate, the second co-sponsor on the marriage equality legislation, stepped aside and asked Nesselbush, the only openly gay Senator, to take the lead.  Senate Majority Whip, Maryellen Goodwin, of Providence, helped massage the customary seniority system to give Nesselbush the thumbs up to become the lead sponsor. “I’m forever grateful to Senators Goodwin and Sosnowski for entrusting me with this important civil rights legislation.

 Legislative History in the Making   

             Last Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 7-4 vote passed Nesselbush’s same sex marriage bill along with the House companion measure (H 5015B).  The legislative proposal, which would take effect Aug.1, removes gender-specific language from the section of the general laws that governs eligibility for marriage.  It inserts language that allows any person to marry any other person.


            Furthermore, it contains a provision that allows couples who have entered into civil unions in Rhode Island since they were established in July 2011, to convert those unions into marriages by applying to the clerk in the municipality where it was recorded to have it recorded as a marriage, without having to apply for anything else or pay a fee.  If they would prefer, they would be eligible to apply for a marriage license and have the marriage solemnized.

             Bowing to the powerful Catholic lobby, the bill contains language reiterating the constitutionally guaranteed freedom for religious institutions to set their own guidelines for marriage eligibility within their faith, and stipulates that under no circumstances will clergy or others authorized to perform marriages be obligated by law to officiate at any particular civil marriage or religious rite of marriage.

             One day after the vote of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the full Senate passed the marriage equality bills on Wednesday, April 24, 2013.  Both bills, because they were amended by the Senate, still have to clear an additional House vote before they can be sent to the governor. The full House vote is tentatively scheduled for Thursday, May 2, following a likely Judiciary Committee vote on Tuesday. 

             When Governor Lincoln D. Chafee signs the same-sex marriage bills into law, Rhode Island joins its New England neighbors and becomes the 10th state in the nation to enact marriage equality.  Nesselbush says, “I have never been prouder to be a Senator, and I have never been prouder of the full Senate Chamber.”

             The intensely public debate on the marriage equity issue has put real faces to this religiously-charged issue, notes Nesselbush. Now, it seems that “everyone knows someone who is gay, and the conversation now almost always begins or ends with, “yes, I know, so and so, who is gay and has a great partner.” 


Personal Journey

             Looking back, Nesselbush remembers her devote Catholic parents giving her a strong religious upbringing, as well as this religious tradition being reinforced at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, the school she attended for eight years.

             But her strong religious faith would be tested during her undergraduate years at Brown when she came out and accepted that she was gay.  “To thine own self be true; you cannot change innately who you are.”

             “My sexuality was the single biggest reason I did not return to my family in Buffalo, New York after graduating from BrownUniversity,” says Nesselbush.  Like many others, Nesselbush would choose not to share this realization upon first meeting people, but only when a friendship “reached a depth” of  honesty and respect.

                   Accepting her sexual orientation but afraid back then of her family’s reaction, Nesselbush decided not to return to her very Catholic family in New YorkState.  She quietly left her the Catholic Church of her childhood because of its position on the gay issue.  “I love my church too much to cause it or my family any shame or pain,” she said.

             While not regularly attending Catholic Church services, her religious upbringing and Catholic education “set the foundation of my life and the standard for service to others,” admits Nesselbush, noting that “Catholicism simply imbues my bones and runs in my blood.” I am still a very religious person who believes strongly in the love of God and the power of prayer; Christ is still central to my life.”

             According to Nesselbush, her parents and 3 siblings, her extended family and classmates, friends, and “even my Portuguese friends who immigrated to the OceanState from the old country,” have all found  ways to love and accept her, even though the “gay” concept was initially very foreign to them. “Today, says Nesselbush, it’s not even an issue.”

 Finding the One…

              Nesselbush also serves as the Chief Judge of the City of Pawtucket and is a partner at the law firm of Marasco & Nesselbush.  Her life partner, Kelly Carse, 53, is a coach at CrossFit Providence. They have been a couple since 2011 when various mutual friends  became matchmakers knowing that Nesselbush and Carse were single.. With their first meeting, the attraction was both mutual and instantaneous,” quipped the Pawtucket Senator.  “She was cute, funny, philanthropic, high minded, and well travelled. I loved that she had served in the Peace Corps, and she corrected my African geography on the first date!,” noted Nesselbush.

             Nesselbush has always viewed Smith Hill’s denial of same sex marriage as discrimination, enforced by legal statute  As a Municipal Court judge, she always found it oddly ironic that she was somehow qualified to officiate wedding ceremonies (which she loves to do) but she was somehow not herself qualified to marry. “Yesterday, all that changed.”

             “The love between two people is often palpable and never stronger than the moment the two are committing their lives to one another [through marriage].  With the passage of the Senate’s same-sex marriage legislation, both Nesselbush and Carse will now be able to experience this, too, like many heterosexual couples. 

             Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer covering, aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at


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