Holy matrimony!

Vermont's new civil unions for gays aren't quite marriage, but sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.

By Deb Schwartz
Published April 29, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

As the civil rights movement taught us, social change never comes without great struggle -- not even in progressive Vermont, where legislators passed the country's first law granting gay and lesbian couples a form of civil unions that looks an awful lot like marriage.

But passage of the monumental law was an uphill battle, with lawmakers in the state -- better known for Ben and Jerry's and its ice cream flavors inspired by acid-addled hippies and rockers -- facing firebrand conservatives, who predicted the "moral rot" would transform the Green Mountain State into a cow-dotted Sodom, and widespread disapproval among voters they will face in November.

On Tuesday, the Vermont House of Representatives voted 79-68 to approve the Civil Unions Act, granting same-sex couples the 300-plus traditional marriage benefits controlled by the state -- including the right to make medical decisions on behalf of partners, inheritance protections and exemption from having to testify against one another.

"This is a breathtaking advance," said Mary Bonauto, co-counsel for the three same-sex couples who successfully sued the state in 1997 after being denied marriage licenses. "It's going to make an enormous difference in the lives of people on a day-to-day basis. It goes far beyond any kinds of protections we've ever seen for the families of same-sex couples."

Come July, gay couples will be able to obtain civil union licenses from town clerks, and then, just as marriages are solemnized, have a justice of the peace, clergy member or judge certify the union. After Jan. 1, couples will receive certain tax and insurance privileges from the state. And, if worse comes to worst, couples seeking to dissolve the union will have to take their case to family court, as do married couples seeking a divorce.

What Vermont's civil unions won't provide are the federal benefits that come with traditional marriage, including those associated with taxes, Social Security and immigration. Nor will they be recognized outside the state.

In enacting the legislation, lawmakers answered the mandate of the Vermont Supreme Court, which held unanimously in December that denying gay and lesbian couples the right to marry was discriminatory under the state's constitution. The ruling required state legislators to enact a law that would either permit gay couples to marry or create a parallel system that granted all the marital benefits and protections a state can provide. Faced with widespread opposition to same-sex marriage, lawmakers responded by drafting legislation for civil unions that is far broader in scope than any domestic partnership in the world.

As Paula Ettelbrick, family policy director for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, pointed out, Vermont has "separated the baggage of marriage -- the gendered, historical, cultural and religious baggage -- from the benefits and looked at what the government's obligation is. They've taken what has been a very moralized institution and made it into something civil, in political terms."

Though gay rights advocates celebrated the legislation, lawmakers on both sides of the issue were uneasy. The debate over same-sex marriages has captivated Vermont for months, stirring tempers and deeply galvanizing the state, which is better known for its bucolic landscape and "good fences make good neighbors" philosophy than acrimony. For weeks, the tiny statehouse in Montpelier was packed to overflowing as thousands of impassioned voters -- decked out in pink stickers (pro-civil unions) and white ribbons (anti) gathered to hear public testimony.

At times, angry words turned into angry actions. Several legislators reported that their cars had been vandalized, while others, tired of encountering obscene gestures, removed their legislative license plates. At times, normally civil public meetings descended into shouting matches, where lawmakers favoring the measure were booed into silence. Lawmakers were bombarded with phone calls and letters from opponents of the bill, who asserted that the elected reps were headed for fiery climes if they voted in favor of gay marriage. Likewise, opponents of the measure reported that they were unfairly labeled bigots, homophobes and traitors to their community's values.

In a recent interview on Vermont Public Television, Gov. Howard Dean called the issue "the most difficult thing I have had to deal with" in nearly nine years in office.

But beyond the predictable rhetoric that civil unions would cause irreparable damage to the state's moral fiber and lure future generations into homosexuality, something unusual happened. In an election year (all of the seats in the legislature are up for grabs in November), many lawmakers ignored the pollsters and voted their consciences. It was a politically bold and dangerous move, since Vermont polls show that only 37 percent support civil unions, with 40 percent opposing them. A mere 13 percent of Vermonters support full-fledged same-sex marriage.

"One of my motives for voting for the bill is that our court had found that there was a constitutional right that was being violated," said state Senate Majority Leader Richard McCormack, a Democrat. "That's sort of a no-brainer for a legislator -- I've taken an oath of office to uphold the constitution."

Republican state Rep. John Edwards, a retired state trooper who serves on the Vermont House Judiciary Committee, is one legislator who never bought the conservative line that gay civil unions would threaten his marriage or lead to moral anarchy. Though he voted in favor of unions, he was reluctant at first. Things were moving too quickly. "I wanted more separation between traditional marriage and what we now call civil unions. I wanted a little more definition of the differences maybe."

During public hearings, Edwards said, "Gays and lesbians and their families and neighbors made a very compelling argument that gay and lesbian people are part of the fabric of our communities. When I thought back to my youth, I was born and raised on a farm in southern Vermont, we always had in our communities the two bachelors down the road who shared a farm together. We didn't put a label on it and they may or may not have had a sexual relationship, but you thought about this and realized that all people are deserving of equal rights and protections."

And as alternatives were drawn up, Edwards said he sought the help of opponents, asking them to propose a plan that met the court's mandate. "Of course, they never did," he says.

State Sen. Mark MacDonald, a Democrat from one of Vermont's most conservative counties, had much to lose by supporting the civil unions. MacDonald's Orange County constituents initially chafed at the court's decision, at allegations that Vermont's laws were discriminatory and at the proposed remedies. "People don't like change," he says. "And they don't like being obliged to think about things they'd prefer not to. We in Vermont pride ourselves on minding our own business and respecting our neighbors' privacy. This law made us reevaluate our tolerance and, to the surprise of many of us, myself included, our lack of tolerance."

But it was more than abstract principles that finally swayed MacDonald to cast an aye vote. Even as the Senate seemed poised to approve civil unions, MacDonald was prepared to vote against it. That was until, he says, someone asked how he would explain his vote to his eighth-grade social studies students at Randolph High. "I realized I could tell them I voted against the bill so I could have an easy reelection or I could lie to them -- and I don't lie to my students."

The court's mandate for legislators to take bold action left little room for compromise. As Dean told the reporters: "I think this bill transcends what we normally think of as politics ... I am not sure there is a compromise that works for people."

The absence of a compromise led to a debate driven by what, at times, seemed like caricatured notions of left and right -- with civil union proponents dishing out clichid lines about tolerance, love, understanding and compassion and opponents invoking the Bible and the usual rhetoric about immorality and Sodom and Gomorrah.

Rep. George Schiavone, one of the bill's most outspoken opponents, claimed that legislators were "shoving this bill down the throats of our people. Our people are coughing and gagging and choking on this bill." With a nod toward November, Schiavone added that voters would "throw it up and throw us out."

Indeed, some Vermonters opposed to civil unions say they feel betrayed by their legislators, and opponents are vowing to capitalize on the discord when the election rolls around. It's also likely that religious conservatives outside Vermont will provide election-time financial support to politicians who opposed civil unions.

It's a challenge that sends shivers down the spine of lawmakers who followed the Supreme Court mandate. McCormack feels certain he did the right thing in voting yes, but he doesn't have any illusions about the coming battle. "We have the fight of our life ahead of us," he says. "It would be naive to pretend otherwise. There is a large faction of our population spitting nails over this. They're just angrier than I've ever seen people in my 11 years in office."

But McCormack won't be without support. The same activists who pressured the state to pass the gay rights measure say they, too, will turn out in force to back those who stood up for civil unions. "The latest polls are showing that people are pretty closely divided on civil unions and there were a handful of politicians who really took a risk in supporting this. We're going to be standing behind them," said Ann Bumpus, a member of the board of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force.

"We get sent here to obey the constitution and represent our constituents and sometimes that creates conflicts," McDonald says. "The last time I got drafted was to go to Vietnam and when I came home it took about a dozen years for my friends and neighbors to realize I'd done what my country wanted me to do and that I'd acquitted myself with honor. I hope this time things will move a little more quickly."

Deb Schwartz

Deb Schwartz, former senior editor at OUT, is a writer in New York.

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