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New chair says R.I. Democratic Women’s Caucus to focus on abortion coverage bill, gender and race in schools

On Rhode Island Report podcast, the Rev. Donnie Anderson talks about her experience since coming out as transgender, and details the group’s priorities this year

The Rev. Donnie Anderson has been elected chair of the Rhode Island Democratic Women's Caucus.Megan Hall

PROVIDENCE — On the Rhode Island Report podcast, the Rev. Donnie Anderson talked about coming out as a transgender woman in 2018 and being elected as chair of the Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus last week.

Anderson served for 13 years as executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches and is now a half-time minister at the Pilgrim United Church of Christ in New Bedford, Mass. She didn’t come out as a transgender woman until she was 69 years old.

“For a long time, when I didn’t understand what it was, I just kept thinking, you know, I’ve got to keep this freaky part of me down,” Anderson said. “And then when I found out that, no, this isn’t freaky — this is just who you are.”

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While she received “some really horrible reaction,” Anderson said, “it’s important for people to realize here in the state of Rhode Island, I received so much more support than I did hate. But let’s remember, I’m well-educated and financially stable and I’m white, and that makes a huge difference. And so I thank God every night that I live in Rhode Island.”

Anderson said she served on the executive committee of the Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus for two years before becoming chair.

“Not once did any one of those women ever cause me to think that I was anything less than just somebody who ought to be there,” Anderson said. “So if anybody deserves credit for this, it’s those women, because they’re standing true to what they believe.”

The group broke away from the Rhode Island Democratic Party in 2019 amid a bitter dispute over whether the women’s caucus can endorse candidates and raise its own money.

Anderson said one of the group’s top priorities now is passage of the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, which would provide for abortion coverage in the health insurance of Medicaid recipients and state employees.

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“In 2019, we passed a law that gave people the right for choice and health regarding abortion,” she said of the Reproductive Privacy Act. “And yet at the same time, we still let stand intentional legislation that denies people who are covered by the state employee health system and people covered by Medicaid, to deny them full abortion health care. And that is something that we’re really working on.”

Anderson said the caucus also plans to weigh in on battles taking place in local school committees and libraries about matters of gender and race.

For example, the group Parents United Rhode Island is asking school committee candidates to pledge to “oppose all efforts to teach our K-12 students any divisive race based or gender based theory and any inappropriate and explicit sexual content” and to support a “RI Parents Bill of Rights.”

“When we talk about denying the existence of non-binary and transgender youth and we say to people in schools, ‘You can’t talk about it, you’ve got to ignore it,’ those students often have nowhere else to go,” Anderson said, “and they feel like it’s hopeless.”

While the attempted suicide rate in the general population is about 4 percent, it’s about 40 percent in the transgender population, and even higher among transgender youth, she said.

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“Some people are fortunate enough to be in families that are supportive and care and get their students the care that they need,” Anderson said. “But then there’s a lot of them that are out there alone. And so they have religious people telling them they’re sinful and bad. They have political people putting this out there. And now the schools can’t be there. This also gets applied to libraries.”

In September, protesters called for a library in Cranston to cancel an Independent Women’s Network event about “gender ideology in schools.” Activists want to keep books such as “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” out of libraries.

Anderson said that when she grew up in Cranston, the library did not have books about gender, but now more information is available.

“There are resources for help, but these people want to take the help away,” she said. “It’s like saying there’s someone out there drowning and someone’s ready to throw in a life preserver and they’re saying, ‘No, let’s make a rule: You can’t throw life preservers to that drowning person.’ That’s what they’re doing.”

To get the latest episode each week, follow Rhode Island Report podcast on Apple Podcasts and other podcasting platforms, or listen in the player above.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him @FitzProv.