Why Vermont's Marriage Equality Matters

Rep. Jason Lorber, D-Burlington, right, gets a hug from Stan Baker following the passage of a gay marriage bill in Montpelier, Vt., Tuesday, April 7, 2009. AP Photo/Toby Talbot

This column was written by Michael Corcoran.

Vermont may not be the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. In fact, it's not even the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in the past week--that designation belongs to Iowa, where the State Supreme Court overturned a ban on gay marriage last Friday.

But nonetheless, when the Vermont Legislature overturned a veto from Republican Gov. Jim Douglas and legalized same-sex marriage, it was indeed a historic moment. Vermont is the first state to permit gay marriage rights through a democratically elected legislature, as opposed to Massachusetts, Connecticut and Iowa, where courts ruled it unconstitutional to ban the practice. And many feel that this victory is a sign of things to come in the battle for marriage equality.

"The fact that Vermont is the first state to legalize same-sex marriage through legislation is very significant," said Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont American Civil Liberties Union. "Eventually, there will be marriage rights for everyone in the country, but it will take years of work and lots of education."

The legislation is significant, but it was not easy to pass. Despite Vermont's largely liberal citizenry, the passing of S.115 was far from certain. While there was no doubt the Vermont State Senate would be able to overturn Gov. Douglas's veto--it supported the legislation 26-4 last week--the vote was much closer in the House.

House Speaker Shap Smith needed 100 votes to overturn Douglas's veto, despite only securing 95 yea votes in the original passing of the bill. But Vermont Democrats played hardball with the opposition in their own party.

Shay Totten, a columnist for Seven Days, Vermont's alternative weekly newspaper, reported that "Democrats who oppose the bill could also face primary challenges next year--it's that important an issue for some leaders."

And in the end, the leadership was able to whip several nay voters into the yea column, and finished with the 100 votes they needed, compared with forty-nine opposed. Rep. Albert "Sonny" Audette, a Democrat who opposed the bill due to his Catholic upbringing (and actually apologized to his colleagues on the floor for doing so), simply stayed home for Tuesday's override vote.

The passing of the bill marks another chapter in what is now a decade-long debate over same-sex marriage in the state. Vermont is only nine years removed from a contentious and emotional battle over civil unions, which saw Vermont become the first state to pass equal rights--if not equal recognition--for gay couples.

Advocates at the time celebrated the passing of the civil union legislation, but not without trepidation. "So many people felt that civil unions were not enough," Gilbert said. "There was always the implication that, at some point, Vermont would move on and that there was a promise of sorts to gays, that finally got fulfilled today."

Of course, much like in 2000 when civil unions prompted a "Take Back Vermont" movement that helped oust legislators who supported civil union legislation, there was intense opposition this time around. Hundreds of same-sex marriage opponents gathered outside the State House with "Thank you, Jim" signs, praising the governor for his controversial veto.

Much of the opposition came from outside the state. Several legislators got reports of "robocalls," deceiving constituents by wrongly telling them their representatives had changed their minds on the subject. Some calls were traced back to the National Organization for Marriage, a New Jersey based nonprofit dedicated to "protect[ing] marriage and the faith communities that sustain it."

"In they end, they were a waste of money," said Rep. Tom Stevens, a Democrat and a co-sponsor of the marriage legislation. "I received more calls that were generated by the robocalls urging me to vote for marriage equality than to oppose it. There was no onslaught, because we all recognized the ham-handedness that went into them. They caused a bit of a misunderstanding for some folks who didn't listen all the way through, but in the end I'd say they backfired."

Despite the tenacious efforts by same-sex marriage opponents, in the end marriage equality proponents simply proved to be too organized to lose this time around. Further, according to local polling, the majority of Vermonters favor same-sex marriage, and the debate reflected this reality.

During a key House debate on Thursday, supporters of the bill arrived as early as 7:30 am, to secure seats for a vote that would not occur until after 9 pm. Much of the organizing was done by the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force, which bused in supporters to the State House and even fed them granola bars as they sat through dry budget discussions, waiting for the bill to reach the floor.

Several of the four openly gay legislators in Vermont gave passionate-- at times teary-eyed--speeches asking for equal rights. Rep. Jason Lorber, a Democrat from Burlington, told his colleagues on the floor that he "shouldn't have to ask my coworkers for the right to marry the person that I love."

And liberal bloggers were as passionate as ever, according to John Odum, founder of Green Mountain Daily, a popular liberal political blog in the state. "The energy around this issue has been like nothing I've seen on the blog to date. The only thing comparable was a few years back when there was a push...for an impeachment resolution against George W. Bush," Odum said.

Even local businesses organized on behalf of the bill, arguing in a letter to legislators that their "vote[s] will move Vermont forward economically," referencing a study by the Williams Institute, that projected gay marriage would "boost Vermont's economy by over $30.6 million over three years...and create approximately 700 new jobs," as a result of gays coming to the Green Mountain State to marry.

This effort repudiated the governor's repeated statements that same-sex marriage debate was " distracting" the state from its significant fiscal problems.

But now that the exhausting battle in Vermont has come to an end, marriage equality proponents are enjoying their role in an important civil rights struggle. "If there's one thing I keep hearing over and over today," Odum observed, "it is people--both online and off--telling me how proud they are to be Vermonters today."
By Michael Corcoran
Reprinted with permission from The Nation

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