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.

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.

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. 
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

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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.   

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.

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. 

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. 

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. 

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.   

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.   

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."

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