The House Speaker for Rhode Island has abandoned efforts to bring marriage equality to the state this year.

Gordon Fox, who is gay, says he will instead push for civil unions because a gay marriage bill does not have enough support to pass.

He said he still personally supports marriage equality but civil unions are “the best we can do right now”.

Gay rights campaigners were deeply disappointed at his decision and urged him to rethink it.

Mr Fox, a Democrat, said: “This is the best we can do right now. Full marriage will happen. I’m born and bred in Rhode Island. When I do get married it will be in my home state.”

Gay marriage bills have failed in Rhode Island repeatedly in recent years. The latest bill was greeted with more hope, as new governor Lincoln Chafee promised he would sign it if it reached his desk.

Mr Chafee said yesterday: “I think [gay marriage is] inevitable. But it doesn’t look like we had the votes this year.”

Marriage Equality Rhode Island said it was “extremely disappointed” at Mr Fox’s decision.

Martha Holt, chair of the group’s board of directors, said: “Civil unions are a compromise for no one. Advocates both for and against marriage equality have clearly expressed their opposition to the half measure of civil unions.

“We are extremely disappointed in the lack of leadership at the State House and we would urge Speaker Fox to rethink sponsoring legislation that would create a second class of citizens.”

Five states – Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire and Vermont – and the District of Columbia – currently allow gay couples to marry.

Recent national polls have found that just over half of the population support marriage equality.

The latest, by CNN, found that 51 per cent of the 824 adults surveyed said gay couples should be allowed to wed.