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Original Essays

Love's Mandate

by David Moats
 
  1. Civil Wars: A Battle for Gay Marriage "A heartening book, and tonic for these politically polarized times." The New York Times

    "A page-turner that may have readers so engrossed in its storytelling, they forget the controversial nature of its subject matter." Nashville Scene

    "[A] gripping piece of journalistic history....Moats's account emerges as essential reading for Americans on both sides of the partisan aisle." Publishers Weekly


I seated myself in the press gallery overlooking the elegant House chamber at the State House in Montpelier. It was March 15, 2000, and it would be a day of high political drama. The Vermont House would vote that day to adopt a bill creating civil unions for gay and lesbian couples.

Ordinarily, I remained back at the office in Rutland, where I wrote editorials for the Rutland Herald. But the issue of gay marriage, or civil unions, had roiled the state for nearly three months, creating the most consuming and divisive controversy I had experienced as a journalist. From the sanctuary of my newspaper office, I had written numerous editorials in support of civil unions, but on the day of the House vote I wanted to watch it happen.

Tom Little, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, managed the debate on the floor of the House, where members took up and defeated several amendments to the civil unions bill. But everyone was waiting for the moment when Bill Lippert would speak.

Lippert, vice chairman of the Judiciary Committee, was the only openly gay member of the Vermont Legislature. He had earned the respect of many House members over the years, but the House was facing furious opposition to civil unions. That Lippert had conducted himself with dignity and restraint during those tense weeks gave his words added weight when he finally rose to speak.

It was his purpose to put a human face on the question of civil unions and gay rights. "Who are we?" he asked. "We are committed, caring, loving individuals in a time when desire for greater commitment, greater love, greater fidelity is needed in our society, and I find it so ironic that rather than being embraced and welcomed we are seen as a threat." He mentioned the terrible toll of the AIDS epidemic. "Don't tell me about what a committed relationship is and isn't. I've watched my gay brothers care for each other deeply and my lesbian sisters nurse and care. There is no love and no commitment any greater than what I've seen, what I know."

Lippert made the case for equal rights, and for many House members it was persuasive. As an observer in the press gallery, I saw his speech as a moment of clarity and truth, a high point in a complicated and bitter struggle. What followed also caught my attention. As soon as Lippert sat down, another House member rose to his feet, a conservative Republican dairy farmer from the far northeast of the state. It was Bob Kinsey who had served in the House for 30 years.

"Mr. Speaker!" he said. "I just heard the greatest speech I've heard in 30 years. And that's why I'm glad to be a friend of the member from Hinesburg, and that's why I'm glad to be on his side."

For me this was a defining moment — when the Republican dairy farmer, whose roots went deep in the Vermont soil, stood with the gay Democrat, who had come to Vermont 28 years before with beard and braided hair. I wanted to know how these two men came together at that historic moment.

My book, Civil Wars: A Battle for Gay Marriage, is in part an answer to that question. After the battle over the creation of the new law in 2000 and after the turbulent and divisive election that followed seven months later, I went back to talk to some of the participants in the story, including Lippert and Kinsey, but also including the three couples who brought the suit that led to the civil union law, their lawyers, Gov. Howard Dean, justices of the Vermont Supreme Court, numerous legislators and activists who had found themselves swept up by the fiercest controversy any of them had ever encountered.

The result was a story that contained many stories. Bill Lippert's own story became central to the book, his coming out as a gay man, his involvement back in the 1970s in the early stages of the gay rights movement, his career as a therapist and politician.

But there were others, including Susan Bellemare. She and her partner Susan Hamilton, were raising a son together. Then in 1989 Susan Hamilton died in a terrible car crash, and Susan Bellemare, grievously injured in the crash, was forced to fight her partner's parents for custody of her son. It was the kind of struggle that heterosexual partners did not have to fight, and it was an early indication to lawyer Susan Murray of why gays and lesbians needed the freedom to marry. Murray who represented Bellemare in her custody case went on to form the team that mounted the lawsuit that led to the creation of civil unions.

There was the story of Nina Beck and Stacy Jolles, one of the couples who brought the lawsuit. When Nina was being wheeled into the delivery room for their birth of their child, a nurse turned to Stacy and said, "Who are you?" It was an insult for which Stacy was prepared, and she showed the nurse the papers she had brought that allowed her into the delivery room. But it was the sort of incident that prompted Nina and Stacy to join the lawsuit that eventually gave them the right to unite as partners. When their son died from a heart problem at two years of age, his memory provided added inspiration in the fight for the rights of gay and lesbian families.

The legislative struggle to pass a civil unions bill was at the core of the story, and that struggle was a story of many stories. I met Diane Carmolli, a Democratic House member who opposed her church in working for passage of civil unions. She was an active and devout Catholic, and she received letters from other Catholics, including several nuns, thanking her for her willingness to stand up to oppose the bishop.

And I spoke with John Edwards, a former state trooper and a Republican House member, who was sure to lose his seat if he voted for civil unions. But after he sat down and consulted his conscience, he knew he could follow no other course. He and Carmolli both lost their House seats in the election that followed passage of civil unions. For members of the Vermont Legislature, passage of the civil unions bill became the education of a lifetime. Many of them had never before had to face up to issues of gay rights or to the reality of homosexuality.

But homosexuality is something people must learn about, even gays and lesbians, which is why many coming out stories are fraught with emotion. Society, too, has had to learn; and it has been a protracted education — from the militant days of Stonewall to the tragic and unending years of AIDS.

Gay marriage comes as the culmination of the steady but bitterly resisted advance of gay rights. Vermont's history with the issue mirrors the nation's long struggle. The Vermont Legislature passed a hate crimes bill in 1988, partly in reaction to the vicious beating of a gay man outside a bar in Burlington. The Legislature passed an anti-discrimination bill protecting gays and lesbians in 1992. In 1996 the Legislature passed a bill allowing for adoptions by gay and lesbian couples. All these laws met fierce resistance, presaging the battle to come over civil unions.

In passing a civil unions law, Vermonters had to learn about homosexuality in a way the general population in most places had not. Indeed, that was the intent of Chief Justice Jeffrey Amestoy, who wrote the ruling by the Vermont Supreme Court in the Baker case. The ruling gave to the Legislature the task of choosing gay marriage or a "parallel institution" — civil unions. By involving the Legislature in the decision, Amestoy succeeded in engaging the people of Vermont in a turbulent and bitter debate. It was also an extraordinary exercise in civic education about a volatile and complex issue.

Gov. Howard Dean acknowledged soon after the Baker decision was announced that the issue of gay marriage made him "uncomfortable." The state of Vermont spent an uncomfortable four months talking and learning about gay marriage as the civil unions bill worked its way toward passage in the Legislature.

During the debate in Montpelier hundreds of people stepped forward to testify about their lives, putting a human face on the issue of gay marriage, simultaneously creating discomfort and dispelling it. As ordinary Vermonters described their lives or the lives of their gay or lesbian sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, mothers fathers, Vermont learned the topic need not be so threatening. And the face of bigotry stood out more starkly against a backdrop where awareness and respect were painted in more fully.

Among the stories told by members of the Vermont Legislature was one from the childhood of Republican Bob Kinsey. He was a boy in the 1930s, and it was Halloween. A gang of kids decided to knock on the door of a local Jewish family, and when the man of the house, Sam Schneider, came to the door, the boys threw a bucket of water in his face. Kinsey was only a bystander, but more than 60 years later he felt ashamed of the incident, and he remembered Sam Schneider when confronting the bigotry experienced by gays and lesbians. He understood that accepting the humanity of one's neighbors creates a mandate for respect and equal treatment under the law. That is why he stood following the speech by Bill Lippert that day on the floor of the House and told his fellow Vermonters that he was proud to be Lippert's friend.

The story of civil unions in Vermont contains all the elements of the struggle for gay marriage being played out in Massachusetts, San Francisco, Portland, New York, and elsewhere. There is the determination of thousands of people to stand up for their rights; there is anger and religious outrage; there is a fearful appeal to tradition; there are complex unresolved constitutional questions; and there is the volatile and unpredictable political reaction. In Vermont people learned there was nothing to fear. Ultimately, one hopes that is the lesson that is learned across the land. spacer

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