Updated: Mar 22, 2021
It is sad news to report our dear friend and community member John Gaffney passed away Easter morning of heart failure. Many LGBT community members will remember the key role John played in the LGBT Civil Rights movement in RI in the late 1970s. He attended his first meeting of Gay Community Services in Providence in the fall of 1977. He had relocated from Cambridge to begin work at the Providence Human Relations Commission (PHRC) and brought with him a copy of a newly written comprehensive anti-discrimination ordinance. The ordinance, which became the official ordinance creating the PHRC, included protection based on "sexual preference." This would be one of the first LGBT civil rights initiatives attempted after Anita Bryant's Dade County “Save the Children” anti-gay rights campaign.
The inclusion of a controversial gay rights provision brought visibility to the Providence Comprehensive Civil Rights ordinance that helped to ensure its passage. LGBT community activists mobilized support on behalf of all minorities gaining protection. Strong opposition made it front page news. Testimony delivered at Providence City Hall introduced the LGBT community as a political and cultural group demanding recognition. While the "sexual preference" clause was dropped prior to the ordinances passage, reintroduction in subsequent years would ultimately be successful in part due to loyal partnerships created during the 1978 campaign.
John was seriously injured in an automobile accident on the night of the Gay Pride celebration in June of 1978 on his way home from the fundraiser he had organized for the newly established National Gay Task Force. The car he was riding in was hit by a drunk driver. John recovered despite the severity of his injuries, but from then on relied on a wheelchair due to paraplegia. After a period of rehabilitation John returned to full employment. He became an expert consultant on the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. In this capacity, he traveled extensively helping communities throughout the country improve access to transportation systems.
Returning to RI in retirement with his partner Bill of forty years, they found a home in downtown Providence. Soon after the Supreme Court decision of 2015, he and Bill were the first Gay couple to be married under the care of the Friends Meeting at the Quaker Meeting House in Providence. Despite health challenges, John stayed involved with community activities. He rejoined the Providence Human Relations Commission and was appointed to the RIPTA Board as an advisor on disability issues. John tirelessly led advocacy for funding to repair the wheelchair lift in Providence City Hall so that all residents could access city services. One member of the PHRC summed up, “John was a true warrior for equality and equity in the city. He will be missed.”
John attended Quaker Meeting regularly serving on the Ministry and Council Committee. A memorial service will be held in time for friends to gather in remembrance. John’s generous, compassionate, and courageous spirit will be greatly missed by all who knew him, and most especially by Dale William (Bill) Brown, his devoted husband and life companion.
Written by Cathy Gorman with input from the Providence Human Relations Commission