Vermont's Lessons On Gay Marriage

May 17, 2004

IN THE SPRING of 2000, Vermont became the first state in the union not only to recognize same-sex partnerships, but to make sure that every single right outlined in the Vermont Constitution and Vermont laws applied equally to heterosexual and homosexual Vermonters. Every right but one. Gay and lesbian Vermonters do not have the right to call their unions marriage. The fallout was the least civil public debate in the state in over a century, since the "wets" and "dries" battled in the middle of the 1800s. Death threats were made, epithets were used, not only on the streets and in the general stores but on the floors of both the Senate and the House, as the bill was being debated. Otherwise respectable church leaders railed against homosexuals and not so respectable ones organized political action committees vowing to oust any legislator who voted for the bill. Five Republican members of the House lost their seats in primaries. In the general election, Democrats lost control of the House for the first time in 14 years, as the Republicans piled up nearly a 20-vote majority. My own race, for a sixth term, was the most difficult in my career.

Four years later, we wonder what the fuss was all about. Civil unions were never an issue in Vermont in the 2002 election and will not be this fall. The intensity of anger and hate has disappeared, replaced by an understanding that equal rights for groups previously denied them has no negative effect on those of us who have always enjoyed those rights. My marriage has not become weaker.

In fact, the gay and lesbian community has had to undergo a significant adjustment. Couples who have been together for many years have had to reexamine their commitments not only in the light of the full legal rights that married couples enjoy, but in light of the full legal responsibilities that also bind married couples. Same-sex couples in Vermont pay the marriage penalty when filing taxes, and are entitled to equal division of property under Vermont law if they split up. The state and other major employers no longer recognize domestic partnerships for health and other benefits since those benefits are available for those in civil unions or those in marriages, no longer for those of either sexual orientation who are simply living together. Although a majority of Vermonters opposed the bill when I signed it, that is no longer true today.

Is there a lesson here for Massachusetts? Perhaps. The Commonwealth will not collapse today, and the prognosis, based on Vermont's experience, is good.

Just as the civil rights movement and subsequent integration began the process of removing painful stereotypes held by whites about African-Americans, so does the open declaration and subsequent demand for equal rights begin to remove stereotypes about the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered community. Here are some facts about gay and lesbian Americans.

* Like straight Americans, gay and lesbian Americans are far more concerned about family matters such as jobs, education, and health care than they are about sexual matters.

* Gay Americans are patriotic, serve in the armed forces, and die in the service of their country. One of the most extraordinary people I met when I was running for President was an 80-year-old gay veteran who had served on the beach in Normandy during D-day.

* From a medical point of view, there is a strong genetic component to being gay or lesbian. Despite the protestations of the right wing, there is virtually no scientific evidence that sexual orientation can be changed, although we know that throughout history, sexuality both gay and straight can be repressed, often with disastrous results.

While it is true that the Bible (largely the Old Testament) condemns homosexuality in a few places, it equally condemns eating shellfish. Jesus never mentions homosexuality. The bottom line is this: America is grappling with the discarding of old stereotypes about a group of people who have been part of our country since America has been a country. This is a painful process. Massachusetts hopefully will not have as hard a time as Vermont did, but the struggle is a real one, and will be painful for institutions as well as individuals. All Americans are diminished when we allow stereotyping to dismiss the worth of fellow Americans. All Americans are stronger, and the nation is stronger, when we judge people by who they are, not what they are.

Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont, is the founder of Democracy for America, a grassroots organization to support and train political candidates., The Boston Globe

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