Vermont’s Civil Wars of Ideology

Diane Fuchs

It is wonderful that several states have granted same-sex couples the right to marry. It was even more special that Vermont was able to pass the legislation without a court-ordered mandate.

Lately
friends and new acquaintances who
emigrated to Vermont in the last decade have been asking me "What
was it like back in the days of the civil union debate?" –
as if I am an elderly grandparent telling my grandkids about a bygone
war or the Great Depression.  In many
ways, the debate over civil unions was Vermont’s own civil war. 
The State was divided not by physical boundaries, but ideological ones. 
There was no negotiation, no compromising, and no indecision. 
Vermonters were either in favor of
granting gay and lesbian couples the opportunity to join together legally
or they were totally opposed to it. 

Tears of joy as the Vermont Senate votes 26-4 in favor of granting gay and lesbian couples the right to marry.

In
1999, three Vermont couples had sued the State of Vermont for the right
to marry.  Each couple had gone to its local town clerk and requested
a marriage license and each time the town clerk had
denied the couple the license, because the couple was of the same sex. 
Baker
vs. Vermont was ultimately
argued in front of the Vermont Supreme Court.  Rather than
granting or denying the couples the right to marry, the Court
gave the Legislature the responsibility of either granting marriage
to same-sex couples or devising for them some comparable
institution.   

When
the House Judiciary Committee chairman Tom Little named the legislation
"civil unions" instead of civil marriage, many of us in the gay
and ally community were deeply disappointed.  After examination,
it was clear that we were going to have to compromise.  It was
either accept civil unions or walk away from the table empty handed.   

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But
though we accepted a compromise, we weren’t content and our struggle
was not over. We started putting our hearts into the movement. 
We told our personal stories.  We tabled at state fairs. 
We volunteered to help friendly legislators with their campaigns. 
We became more and more visible, and
in the process, we let our families, friends, and neighbors know that
we are Vermonters, too.  We realized that there was nothing to be
afraid of: we just wanted to be treated with the same respect and have
the same rights as our heterosexual counterparts.

For
a non-violent clash of ideals, the debate over civil unions was brutal. 
Neighbors, friends, and family members turned against one another. 
Hateful words and actions and threats of violence were not uncommon. 
I got into the habit of checking the tires on my car to make sure they
were not slashed when I left Montpelier after public hearings. 
Driving from the liberal enclave of Burlington to my hometown of Fairlee
I would tape over my "Vermonters for Civil Unions" and rainbow bumper
stickers because I didn’t feel safe driving alone on the rural roads. 
When it came time for the Vermont House and Senate to vote on the legislation,
the atmosphere in the state had reach fever pitch. 

In
the end, our efforts paid off.  The majority of the legislature
voted in favor of granting civil unions to same-sex couples.  Then-Gov.
Howard Dean signed the bill into law behind closed doors so as to not
throw more salt on the wound.  On July 1, 2000, the civil union
law took effect.  We knew we had made history.  It wasn’t
marriage, but we got our foot in the door. 

For
many gay and lesbian Vermonters in my generation, the civil union debate
presented us with our first opportunity to experience a civil rights
struggle first-hand.  We were born years after the Stonewall riots. 
We had heard of Harvey Milk but didn’t understand why being openly
gay and being an elected official was such a big deal.  Yet
we were starting to fall in love and thinking about getting married
one day – and "one day" started being
in the not-so-distant future.  The
fight for marriage equality hit home.  We wanted to go to our friends’
weddings and catch the bouquet – even if it was only figuratively. 

What
a difference a decade makes.  In the ten years since the civil
union debate, the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force has been diligently
working toward full marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples. 
Headed by Beth Robinson, one of the lawyers who argued Baker,
the Task Force continued to educate the public and the legislature about
why civil unions fall short of marriage both
in practice and in name.  When my partner Hillary and I had our
civil union in August of 2008, we had to explain to our friends from
out-of-state what a civil union is and how it differs from a marriage. 
In Vermont, Hillary is considered my spouse and we have many of the
same rights as married heterosexual couples.  We do have to file
separate federal income tax forms and outside of Vermont there is no
guarantee that we will be allowed hospital visitation rights and the
ability to make medical decisions for one another if we cannot speak
for ourselves.   

This
time around the opposition was quieter, fewer in number, and very civil. 
At the public hearing I was even laughing and joking with the gentleman
sitting next to me from the "God’s Plan: One Woman, One Man" contingency. 
We may have opposing views on marriage, but we recognize each others’
common humanity.  I was fortunate to be able to attend the Senate
and the House votes, as well as the House vote to override the Governor’s
veto of the civil marriage legislation.  It was with great joy
that I listened to three roll calls that confirmed my right to marry
the love of my life.   

I
wonder when what we have done will sink in.  It is wonderful that
other states have granted same-sex couples the right to marry. 
It was even more special that Vermont was able to pass the legislation
without a court-ordered mandate.  This was our citizen legislature. 
Vermonters elected by Vermonters.  We told our stories.  They
listened.  We never gave up and we won’t give up until all 50
states and the federal government grant civil marriage to gay and lesbian
citizens.  As Margaret Mead famously said "Never doubt that a
small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. 
Indeed it is the only thing that ever has."

Commentary Sexuality

Black Trans Liberation Tuesday Must Become an Annual Observance

Raquel Willis

As long as trans people—many of them Black trans women—continue to be murdered, there will be a need to commemorate their lives, work to prevent more deaths, and uplift Black trans activism.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

This week marks one year since Black transgender activists in the United States organized Black Trans Liberation Tuesday. Held on Tuesday, August 25, the national day of action publicized Black trans experiences and memorialized 18 trans women, predominantly trans women of color, who had been murdered by this time last year.

In conjunction with the Black Lives Matter network, the effort built upon an earlier Trans Liberation Tuesday observance created by Bay Area organizations TGI Justice Project and Taja’s Coalition to recognize the fatal stabbing of 36-year-old trans Latina woman Taja DeJesus in February 2015.

Black Trans Liberation Tuesday should become an annual observance because transphobic violence and discrimination aren’t going to dissipate with one-off occurrences. I propose that Black Trans Liberation Tuesday fall on the fourth Tuesday of August to coincide with the first observance and also the August 24 birthday of the late Black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson.

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There is a continuing need to pay specific attention to Black transgender issues, and the larger Black community must be pushed to stand in solidarity with us. Last year, Black trans activists, the Black Lives Matter network, and GetEQUAL collaborated on a blueprint of what collective support looks like, discussions that led to Black Trans Liberation Tuesday.

“Patrisse Cullors [a co-founder of Black Lives Matter] had been in talks on ways to support Black trans women who had been organizing around various murders,” said Black Lives Matter Organizing Coordinator Elle Hearns of Washington, D.C. “At that time, Black trans folks had been experiencing erasure from the movement and a lack of support from cis people that we’d been in solidarity with who hadn’t reciprocated that support.”

This erasure speaks to a long history of Black LGBTQ activism going underrecognized in both the civil rights and early LGBTQ liberation movements. Many civil rights leaders bought into the idea that influential Black gay activist Bayard Rustin was unfit to be a leader simply because he had relationships with men, though he organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Johnson, who is often credited with kicking off the 1969 Stonewall riots with other trans and gender-nonconforming people of color, fought tirelessly for LGBTQ rights. She and other trans activists of color lived in poverty and danger (Johnson was found dead under suspicious circumstances in July 1992), while the white mainstream gay elite were able to demand acceptance from society. Just last year, Stonewall, a movie chronicling the riots, was released with a whitewashed retelling that centered a white, cisgender gay male protagonist.

The Black Lives Matter network has made an intentional effort to avoid the pitfalls of those earlier movements.

“Our movement has been intersectional in ways that help all people gain liberation whether they see it or not. It became a major element of the network vision and how it was seeing itself in the Black liberation movement,” Hearns said. “There was no way to discuss police brutality without discussing structural violence affecting Black lives, in general”—and that includes Black trans lives.

Despite a greater mainstream visibility for LGBTQ issues in general, Black LGBTQ issues have not taken the forefront in Black freedom struggles. When a Black cisgender heterosexual man is killed, his name trends on social media feeds and is in the headlines, but Black trans women don’t see the same importance placed on their lives.

According to a 2015 report by the Anti-Violence Project, a group dedicated to ending anti-LGBTQ and HIV-affected community violence, trans women of color account for 54 percent of all anti-LGBTQ homicides. Despite increased awareness, with at least 20 transgender people murdered since the beginning of this year, it seems things haven’t really changed at all since Black Trans Liberation Tuesday.

“There are many issues at hand when talking about Black trans issues, particularly in the South. There’s a lack of infrastructure and support in the nonprofit sector, but also within health care and other systems. Staffs at LGBTQ organizations are underfunded when it comes to explicitly reaching the trans community,” said Micky Bradford, the Atlanta-based regional organizer for TLC@SONG. “The space between towns can harbor isolation from each other, making it more difficult to build up community organizing, coalitions, and culture.”

The marginalization that Black trans people face comes from both the broader society and the Black community. Fighting white supremacy is a full-time job, and some activists within the Black Lives Matter movement see homophobia and transphobia as muddying the fight for Black liberation.

“I think we have a very special relationship with gender and gender violence to all Black people,” said Aaryn Lang, a New York City-based Black trans activist. “There’s a special type of trauma that Black people inflict on Black trans people because of how strict the box of gender and space of gender expression has been to move in for Black people. In the future of the movement, I see more people trusting that trans folks have a vision that’s as diverse as blackness is.”

But even within that diversity, Black trans people are often overlooked in movement spaces due to anti-Blackness in mainstream LGBTQ circles and transphobia in Black circles. Further, many Black trans people aren’t in the position to put energy into movement work because they are simply trying to survive and find basic resources. This can create a disconnect between various sections of the Black trans community.

Janetta Johnson, executive director of TGI Justice Project in San Francisco, thinks the solution is twofold: increased Black trans involvement and leadership in activism spaces, and more facilitated conversations between Black cis and trans people.

“I think a certain part of the transgender community kind of blocks all of this stuff out. We are saying we need you to come through this process and see how we can create strength in numbers. We need to bring in other trans people not involved in the movement,” she said. “We need to create a space where we can share views and strategies and experiences.”

Those conversations must be an ongoing process until the killings of Black trans women like Rae’Lynn Thomas, Dee Whigham, and Skye Mockabee stop.

“As we commemorate this year, we remember who and why we organized Black Trans Liberation Tuesday last year. It’s important we realize that Black trans lives are still being affected in ways that everyday people don’t realize,” Hearns said. “We must understand why movements exist and why people take extreme action to continuously interrupt the system that will gladly forget them.”

News Law and Policy

Pastors Fight Illinois’ Ban on ‘Gay Conversion Therapy’

Imani Gandy

Illinois is one of a handful of states that ban so-called gay conversion therapy. Lawmakers in four states—California, Oregon, Vermont, and New Jersey—along with Washington, D.C. have passed such bans.

A group of pastors filed a lawsuit last week arguing an Illinois law that bans mental health providers from engaging in so-called gay conversion therapy unconstitutionally infringes on rights to free speech and freedom of religion.

The Illinois legislature passed the Youth Mental Health Protection Act, which went into effect on January 1. The measure bans mental health providers from engaging in sexual orientation change efforts or so-called conversion therapy with a minor.

The pastors in their lawsuit argue the enactment of the law means they are “deprived of the right to further minister to those who seek their help.”

While the pastors do not qualify as mental health providers since they are neither licensed counselors nor social workers, the pastors allege that they may be liable for consumer fraud under Section 25 of the law, which states that “no person or entity” may advertise or otherwise offer “conversion therapy” services “in a manner that represents homosexuality as a mental disease, disorder, or illness.”

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The pastors’ lawsuit seeks an order from a federal court in Illinois exempting pastoral counseling from the law. The pastors believe that “the law should not apply to pastoral counseling which informs counselees that homosexuality conduct is a sin and disorder from God’s plan for humanity,” according to a press release issued by the pastors’ attorneys.

Illinois is one of a handful of states that ban gay “conversion therapy.” Lawmakers in four states—California, Oregon, Vermont, and New Jersey—along with Washington, D.C. have passed such bans. None have been struck down as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court this year declined to take up a case challenging New Jersey’s “gay conversion therapy” ban on First Amendment grounds.

The pastors say the Illinois law is different. The complaint alleges that the Illinois statute is broader than those like it in other states because the prohibitions in the law is not limited to licensed counselors, but also apply to “any person or entity in the conduct of any trade or commerce,” which they claim affects clergy.

The pastors allege that the law is not limited to counseling minors but “prohibits offering such counseling services to any person, regardless of age.”

Aside from demanding protection for their own rights, the group of pastors asked the court for an order “protecting the rights of counselees in their congregations and others to receive pastoral counseling and teaching on the matters of homosexuality.”

“We are most concerned about young people who are seeking the right to choose their own identity,” the pastors’ attorney, John W. Mauck, said in a statement.

“This is an essential human right. However, this law undermines the dignity and integrity of those who choose a different path for their lives than politicians and activists prefer,” he continued.

“Gay conversion therapy” bans have gained traction after Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teenager, committed suicide following her experience with so-called conversion therapy.

Before taking her own life, Alcorn posted on Reddit that her parents had refused her request to transition to a woman.

“The[y] would only let me see biased Christian therapists, who instead of listening to my feelings would try to change me into a straight male who loved God, and I would cry after every session because I felt like it was hopeless and there was no way I would ever become a girl,” she wrote of her experience with conversion therapy.

The American Psychological Association, along with a coalition of health advocacy groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Counseling Association, and the National Association of Social Workers, have condemned “gay conversion therapy” as potentially harmful to young people “because they present the view that the sexual orientation of lesbian, gay and bisexual youth is a mental illness or disorder, and they often frame the inability to change one’s sexual orientation as a personal and moral failure.”

The White House in 2015 took a stance against so-called conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth.

Attorneys for the State of Illinois have not yet responded to the pastors’ lawsuit.

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