Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Reflections on Marriage Equality in Vermont

My Letter to the Editor that appeared in the April 27, 2009 issue of the Addison County Independent:

After the bill giving gay couples the right to marry in Vermont passed recently, despite his veto, Governor Douglas said, “This is not a time for congratulations; it’s a time for moving on.” I disagree. It is a time for congratulations. And, while it is also time to move on to other matters, it’s worth taking note of our legislators’ achievement.

When I was growing up in Vermont in the 1960s and 70s, I never dreamed that my hometown newspaper would one day carry a story affirming my right to marry the man I love. From an early age, I knew that I was gay—or rather, I understood that I was different. I had no reference for what being gay meant, no role models to show me the kind of life a gay adult could lead. When I finally found references to homosexuality—by sneaking peeks at Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* *but Were Afraid to Ask, for instance—I could only imagine a future of loneliness and shame. Love and marriage weren’t even on my radar screen.

Fast forward to 2000, when Vermont became the first state in the US to legalize civil unions, allowing gay couples some of the rights and protections taken for granted by straight couples. By this time, there were gay characters on TV, in movies and in books. A few celebrities began coming out. And, for the first time, a young person in Vermont could grow up knowing that not only was it possible to have a loving, committed relationship with a person of the same sex, but that relationship could be recognized by the state.

Yet, the recognition wasn’t equal. As far as we had come, the simple right to civil marriage was still withheld from gay people. It remained an impossible dream. The message was clear: we will give you selected rights and benefits, but you are still less than, still other.

Now, because of the actions of our legislators, a young gay person in Vermont will know from an early age that he or she can form a family and that family will be treated no differently than any other family under state law. One day, a young gay person will take the right to marry as a given, just as a young straight person always has. By then, it won’t be called gay marriage. It will simply be called marriage.

Throughout this legislative session, Governor Douglas called the marriage bill a “distraction.” He said marriage should be restricted to a man and a woman without bothering to fully articulate why. Instead, he chose to trivialize the issue and imply it wasn’t worth his or the legislature’s time. He never acknowledged the bill’s deeper meaning for either its supporters or its opponents.

Fortunately, our legislature, unlike our governor, recognized that marriage equality is not only about benefits and protections, as important as those things are. They understood that the question of whether gay couples should have equal access to marriage is the civil rights issue of our time. S.115 became the most discussed bill this session not because it was a distraction, but because it mattered. Marriage matters. The fact that Vermont is the first state to successfully grant gay couples the right to marry through the legislative process, rather than by a court order, matters.

While Governor Douglas failed to see the significance of what happened in Vermont, people from across the country and across the world rightly viewed our legislature’s action as a huge step forward towards marriage equality in the US. We join Canada and Massachusetts and Connecticut and Iowa in lighting the path to a future where all gay kids can grow up unashamed.

Let’s, as Governor Douglas says, move on. But, let’s first congratulate our legislature for seeing this bill in broad human terms and for once again making Vermont a civil rights leader.

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