Debate over offering full marriage for gays far less
vitriolic in Vermont than 2000 fight over civil unions
MONTPELIER, Vt. For many who lived through it, the memories remain painfully fresh: the hate mail, the threatening telephone messages, the tense public meetings.
This time around, the debate is noticeably more tame.
Eight years after its not-so-civil war over civil unions, Vermont now weighing whether to legalize gay marriage is enduring little of the vitriol and recrimination that surrounded its groundbreaking 2000 decision to legally recognize gay and lesbian couples.
It’s early: Lawmakers say they’re unlikely to push for a vote this year on pending legislation that would legalize gay marriage.
A state-appointed panel crisscrossing Vermont to gather public input is to report to the Legislature in April, while a new anti-gay marriage group plans forums of its own to emphasize the benefits of traditional man-woman marriage.
The absence of an impending vote may be what’s keeping things civil. But those involved have noticed a difference between then and now.
“It’s a very different tenor,” said Beth Robinson, chairwoman of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force, which supports gay marriage.
“People have had an opportunity to come to terms. Vermonters have had eight years to see the two guys next door, or the two women down the street who have a legally recognized relationship under the civil unions law,” said Robinson, who argued the case that led to civil unions.
On Dec. 20, 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to bar same-sex unions, ordering the Legislature to come up with a law accommodating them and triggering a pitched yearlong battle in which a state that prides itself on tolerance seemed to lack it.
Supporters and opponents alike from Vermont and beyond streamed into Montpelier to rally, lobby lawmakers and participate in the debate.
When the law took effect July 1, 2000, it didn’t quell the controversy, or the fallout. Civil unions, though already enacted, became a central issue at the polls that year, with 17 incumbents who voted in favor losing their seats in the aftermath.
“It was quite rancorous,” said Stephen Cable, founder of Vermont Renewal, which opposed civil unions then and opposes gay marriage now.
“I have a box of hate mail you can’t imagine. We got dried feces and used condoms in the mail. We had people stalking our vice president, who had an armed guard at her house for three weeks, 24/7,” Cable said.
Thomas Little, then chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, remembers the telephone calls.
“A lot of foul language was left on voicemails at home,” he said.
“It was like warfare,” said David Moats, author of “Civil Wars: A Battle For Gay Marriage,” a book about Vermont’s civil unions controversy. “It was a time unlike anything since the Vietnam War era, when you had the sense that the whole world around you was divided.”
In a telling statistic, an Associated Press exit poll of voters that November found the state split 49 percent to 49 percent on whether civil unions were a good idea. Four years later, the poll asked voters to choose between three options for recognition of same-sex unions: full marriage, civil unions or no recognition. Forty percent said they support marriage, 37 percent civil unions and 21 percent neither.
Other states followed Vermont’s lead. Connecticut, New Jersey and New Hampshire have endorsed civil unions and California and Washington have enacted domestic partner laws. Only Massachusetts permits gay marriage.
Last summer, the Legislature appointed an 11-member Vermont Commission on Family Recognition and Protection to explore the idea of gay marriage and hear how Vermonters feel about it. The panel, which opponents say is stacked with gay marriage supporters and have boycotted on principle, has held seven hearings and has three more scheduled.
The hearings have generated plenty of input, but no name-calling or personal attacks.
James LaPierre, a 43-year-old nurse from Burlington who has a civil union partner and two children, saw the contrast firsthand.
LaPierre, a St. Albans native, went to a 2000 meeting on civil unions intending to get up and speak. Intimidated by the atmosphere, he didn’t.
“People would stand up and go to the microphone and there was jeering and catcalling,” he said. “It was hateful, and scary,” he said.
Last month, LaPierre returned to the same Bellows Free Academy auditorium for a public hearing by the Commission on Family Recognition. This time, he got up and spoke, and says the gathering was “supportive.” But it had fewer people about 100, by his count, compared with about 500 at the 2000 event.
“Instead of a hateful, unruly, mob-like meeting, it was civil and organized. There was representation of the other side, but only two or three people,” he said.
Opponents believe the change in tone may have more to do with their boycott and the lack of impending action than acceptance of gay marriage.
“If they’d announced they were going to move on it this year and these hearings were on a bill we intend to have a vote on this year, you’d be seeing a much different scenario,” said the Rev. Craig Bensen, president of Take It To The People, which promotes traditional marriage.
Bensen, who has called on opponents to boycott the state panel’s meetings, says that the move toward gay marriage is “activist-based” and out of touch with what Vermonters want. If the state truly wanted to know how its citizens felt about gay marriage, it would hold a nonbinding referendum, he said.
But he notes that some of the “Take Back Vermont” signs which dotted the landscape of Vermont in 2000 as a symbol of opposition to civil unions can still be found.
“The “‘Take Back Vermont’ signs were extremely durable. They’re left over. The sentiment’s not left over. It’s live sentiment,” he said.
Little, who’s no longer in the Legislature but chairs the Commission on Family Recognition, acknowledges that some gay marriage opponents are staying on the sidelines for now.
“Most people don’t expect the Legislature to take any action in 2008, and opponents, therefore, are keeping their powder dry until some point in the future, when it’s more likely to become a legislative debate,” he said.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 18, 2008