“The Absolute Nature of Your Soul”: Remembering Vermont’s First Epic Victory in the Battle for Gay Marriage
The Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with a Single Step -Lao Tzu
As befitting our newfound banana republic practice of promulgating policy via tweet, July of 2017 may well be best remembered for the decision by President Trump, on the alleged advice of “his” generals, to expel all transgender serving members from the military. Not to be outdone, on the same day the Justice Department filed a brief in a civil case arguing that federal nondiscrimination law does not protect the LGBTQ community. If the policies themselves were unexpected, the animating force behind them was not. We are surrounded daily by the signs of backlash against the advance of progressive culturalism. That candidate Donald Trump promised to “fight for” the LGBTQ community proved to be as ephemeral a promise as his wedding vows.
Just over two years have passed since the Supreme Court decision of Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark decision affirming gay marital rights. While Obergefell feels like a lifetime ago already, remembered in the technicolor of a far-off past faded to black under a red-hued trucker hat, the soil from which it grew remains fertile. In this time of malaise and backlash, it is not the retrenchment, but the beginnings, not the potential plunge but the success of the long climb up that demands our focus. We should think not the July of 2017, but the July of twenty years past: 1997. As we sit in the maelstrom of national backlash, perhaps we should recall that mighty oaks start as acorns, and once grown, are much harder to fell.
A forgotten anniversary has passed in silence. On July 22, 1997, in Burlington Vermont, three same-sex couples began a lawsuit against the state of Vermont that changed the course of American history forever. They were, as their attorney’s rudimentary website pronounced, “ordinary people leading ordinary lives.” Yet these ordinary people, in the simple act of refusing to accept the status quo, collectively ignited and drove forward the most powerful single force a republic has to offer: an idea whose time has come. In recalling the past we can glean both lessons and inspiration in the twists and turns of progress and defiance, in moments of drama and success, of backlash and courage which marked Vermont’s turbulent saga toward the first sustained victory in the climb up the mountain of equality. Come: let us remember.
We have walked along a path of righteousness in such a rush of deliverance that we forget just how quickly the wheels of justice have spun. In July, 1997, Ellen DeGeneres was not the beloved recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom: she was a “controversial” actress who had just recently caused a stir with her public announcement, the subject of praise and death threats alike. AIDS, the Rorschach response of many to homosexuality, killed 400,000 Americans in 1997, or approximately the same as the number of Americans who died in the entirety of World War II. In 1996 Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, erecting a high barrier against the demon of gay marriage, itself as likely to journey to mid-90s America as actual demons. Mainstream liberal America’s view of gay marriage was best exemplified by Democratic Rep Sonny Bono, spoken during DOMA’s debate to fellow House Judiciary Committee members on June 11, 1996: “I’m not homophobic. I’m not a bigot. I’m not pandering. I like Barney [Frank]. I love my daughter. I can’t simply handle it yet. I can’t look at my son and tell him it’s all right.”
Gay marriage, and the equality for which it was representative, was a fleeting figment of a seemingly stillborn dream. The only two states where court decisions had not laughed it away as a malignancy on the American family — Hawaii and Alaska — had amended their state constitutions to ensure that such decisions were one-off errors erased from the blackboard of time. Being gay was not only maligned: it could also be deadly. After revealing that he was attracted to an acquaintance on the Jenny Jones show in 1995, Scott Amedure was fatally shot. Three years later, Matthew Shepherd became a grim national symbol when the lithe and friendly college student was pistol-whipped and crucified on a fence in Wyoming, his face a mask of coagulated blood broken only by the tear marks cutting down through his cheeks.
It was in this foreboding environment that a trio of lawyers, all female, all gay, the eldest not yet 40, called a press conference in late July, 1997 announcing a lawsuit on behalf of three same-sex couples against the State of Vermont. They sought relief both simple and revolutionary: a declaratory judgment that the denial of marriage license violated Vermont’s constitution. Mainstream media paid them little mind, a decision seemingly vindicated by the December, 1997 decision of a Vermont trial court to reject the claims entirely. Undaunted, Susan Murray and Beth Robinson, law partners at a small Vermont firm, and Mary Bonauto, a Boston-based litigator, appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court.
The Court was a wildcard. It had, in 1993, ruled that a woman could adopt her lesbian partner’s natural children, but marriage was a frontier never crossed by any State Supreme Court. The influential Chief Justice, Jeff Amestoy, was a lifelong Republican who had served as Vermont’s Attorney General for so long that he was jokingly called the “Eternal General.” Yet Vermont was an amalgamation of old-line Yankee conservatism and recent, more liberal arrivals, and the Court reflected the practical, conservative but open-minded spirit that had built the state, and indeed, the nation. Amestoy himself, an elfin-faced 53 with a shock of white hair, was widely known as a low-key pragmatist. Oral argument in November, 1998 debuted the rival arguments that would become repetitively familiar a decade later: Robinson forcefully compared gay marriage to interracial marriage, the prior generation’s familial anathema, while the state defended the marital exclusion by reference to the state’s interest in promoting the link between procreation and child rearing. The yin and yang of inclusion and defiance, exclusion and yearning played out in the Montpelier courtroom, the tiny city of just 8,000 mustering dozens of spectators, which the New York times dutifully reported was “the biggest hubbub at the court in recent memory.”
If the media had largely ignored the lawsuit, it suddenly roused itself to a frenzy on December 20, 1999 when the Court handed down its decision in Baker v. State. The 4–1 decision, authored by Amestoy was a master study in judicial creativity. Prior decisions on gay marriage were couched as civil rights cases. Yet most courts, and certainly the public at large, did not yet accept gays as an insular minority. Sex was a choice, and gays had made it: that separated them from racial minorities in the eyes of the many. The Baker court began its opinion by accepting the majoritarian viewpoint, denying that the plaintiffs were entitled to a marriage license, and seemingly ending the crusade. Yet if the great silent majority was disdainful of gay pretentions to the heirs to civil rights cases, it had recognized the havoc AIDS played on gay communities. Even those who could not see gay couples as equals viewed the physical and mental toll of the gay plague with poignant sympathy. The Vermont court could not cure AIDS. But it could lessen some of the financial and social burdens of partners barred from hospital visitation, successorship of home ownership and financial assets, and other hallmarks of committed coupledom by finding some method of formalizing gay relationships. In the Common Benefits Clause of the Vermont Constitution, which provides “[t]hat government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community, and not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single person, family or set of persons, who are a part only of that community,” Amestoy found his hook. In that general precept laid down in the tumult of Revolutionary War Vermont, Amestoy grounded his decision that marriage was but an amalgamation of legal and economic rights. Because he did not hold that gays were persecuted class, the plaintiffs had no rights to the term “marriage”, but they were by two-hundred year old Constitutional mandate entitled to the common benefit of rights endemic to the institution. Despite the clear overtones of civil rights law, Amestoy perceived that a decision granting marital rights would set off a firestorm likely to provoke the referendum of constitutional amendment which befell Hawaii and Alaska. He therefore defined marriage as but a combination of state-granted legal blessings. Despite the stirring language affirming marriage as a recognition of “our common humanity,” Baker was a civil rights case masquerading as a constitutional finding on economics.
Yet Amestoy came to a problem in holding that marriage was not required, but the benefits were, for there was no quasi-marriage available in Vermont law: in the Vermont of 1999, you were either married, or you were not. Therefore, the Court held that the legislative branch must determine what, precisely, the remedy would be.
Courts finding a harm but imposing no remedy was unprecedented; the dissenter, Justice Denise Johnson, said as much and demanded that marriage be granted to the plaintiffs. But Amestoy’s long history in government served him well. One of the most potent arrows fired by the anti-marriage argument was that judicial overreach usurped a uniquely political argument, one best left to the people via the legislative branch. Moderates on the fence could conceal their distaste of gay rights behind a veil of process-based disagreement. Amestoy lanced that boil by expressly making the legislature the means of redress. Even those who would not like the result could not plausibly say their voices were not heard through their elected representatives.
And heard they would be. The dissent warned that punting to the legislature condemned the plaintiffs, and by proxy the entire gay community, “to an uncertain fate in the political cauldron.” Given the uproar over Baker, the cauldron began to burn white-hot almost immediately, both within Vermont and for the nation now watching the high drama begin. What Governor Howard Dean later called “the least civil public debate in the state in over a century” had begun.
The Vermont legislature, like the national, was comprised of a House of Representatives and a Senate, both slimly held by the Democrats. The Court’s dictate to take up perhaps the most hot button culture war issue in America brought dramatically increased public exposure and scrutiny to its members, themselves part-time citizen-legislators who almost universally had regular jobs at home. One assumes that the legislators had no desire to have this hot potato tossed into their laps at any time, let alone in a year in which each and every legislative seat was up for election. The divergence between public opinion, duties of conscience and electoral self-preservation hung above all to come.
If the Court was a wild card, the legislature was an unruly mess of some 200 Vermonters of varying sympathy with the plaintiffs’ case. While a generally progressive state, Vermont had a long history of social conservatism as well, particularly focused on the Catholic strongholds in the northeast of the state. The debate could turn poisonously rancorous. Earlier in the decade, as Vermont deliberated legislation prohibiting discrimination against gays, Sen. Francis Howrigan rose in opposition and stated only one sentence before sitting down: “I don’t see,”declared Howrigan, “why we have to be concerned about a bunch of disease-spreading cornholers.” Howrigan was gone, but his sentiments survived.
The legislature could well have determined not to take up Amestoy’s direction, and indeed, some wanted to simply refuse to catch the football the Court had tossed them. Others chose a diametrically opposite response: to push for a Constitutional amendment enshrining marriage as between a man and a woman, and thus, as in Hawaii and Alaska, overturning the Court permanently. Even the backers of addressing the issue in the legislature were somewhat squeamish. Governor Dean, while praising the decision, declared himself “uncomfortable” with gay marriage and that only a domestic partnership status of some indeterminate kind would be acceptable to him. Asked about the difference, he displayed the semantic gymnastics soon to become commonplace, stating that domestic partnership wouldn’t be, in the historically loaded phrase, “separate but equal,” but rather “different but equal.” If there were a distinction, it existed largely in the contours of Dean’s mind. No matter: For gays and their allies, “different” was second-class citizenship; for opponents, it was the “equal” that was flatly unacceptable.
Yet the center held: sufficient legislative leadership existed to at least consider the Baker decision in the 2000 session and try to resolve the seemingly irreconcilable. The Judicial Committee of the House was tasked with responding to Baker, placing enormous responsibility in the hands of its Chairman, Tom Little, and its Vice Chairman, Bill Lippert. On paper, they were a mismatched duo incompatible with the task at hand. Little was a Republican from prosperous Shelburne, Vermont, a married father of three whose opinions on sexuality — “I’ve always had a difficult time talking about any kind of sexuality,” he said in an interview at the time — were consistent with his strong religious faith. Little was a chancellor of the Episcopalian Church, an attorney, and a 7th generation son of longtime Vermont Republican politicians. Lippert, meanwhile, was a liberal Democrat with no roots in Vermont other than his own, having moved to the state as a young adult. More importantly, and providentially, he was the only member of the nearly 200 strong Vermont legislature who lived as an openly gay man, and had been an instrumental and visible leader of Vermont’s small gay community. There was no obvious reason why Little and Lippert could, or would, work together on the legislature’s response to Baker in a thoughtful, bipartisan manner. And yet, that is precisely what happened.
Little had a reputation for integrity, and he leveraged every inch of it to compel an orderly understanding, debate, and conclusion to the matter. In the two months that followed, he pursued a relentlessly middle course of fairness and inclusiveness, bringing both opponents and supporters of the question at hand to the statehouse for testimony, and ensuring his fellow Judicial committee legislators withheld public comment until all of the information was collected. Under Little’s calm direction, the Vermont legislature became the most well-informed public servants on the concept and history of marriage in America. Lippert, meanwhile, faced intense pressure to support marriage, as opposed to what was now being called “civil unions.” The reasoned politician and the gay leader striving for full equality were equal parts of his existence, and both were set in conflict with each other. Marriage, and marriage alone, was equality. But marriage was politically unattainable, as it lacked the votes: civil unions, marriage in all but name, was at least possible. Lippert resolved, not without serious mental discomfort, to seize the here and now, and lend his considerable support to Little’s quest to draw a civil union bill, the first of its kind in the United States.
The debate burned white-hot. As Little’s committee drafted the bill, letters to the editors concerning the issue increased in intensity and tempo, each side drawing further from each other in angry, black and white prose. Hundreds of Vermonters braved snowy conditions to voice their hopes, fears, and ambitions directly to the Judicial Committee in Montpelier’s statehouse. National commentators weighed in: Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer called Baker “worse than terrorism” Even a seasoned advocate like Susan Murray could not control tears in testifying in the House as to the tide of hatred condemning not only gay marriage, but gays themselves. Calls for a constitutional amendment swamped the statehouse. House Bill 479, with 59 sponsors, was introduced to ban same-sex unions, Baker be damned. Twelve legislators signed on to a bill to impeach the entire Supreme Court. Take it to the People, a lobbying group formed in response to Baker, organized an amalgamation of religious leaders and anti-gay marriage citizens to request a referendum they felt confident they’d win. Marches in the chilly winter opposing same-sex marriage become as commonplace in Montpelier as homemade maple syrup.
On the anti-union side, no one burned hotter than Rep. Nancy Sheltra. Cheekily described as “the high priestess of Vermont’s Statehouse Taliban” by a Vermont independent newspaper, Sheltra was the living embodiment of the religious right in all its bombast and contradictions, a ferocious warrior for the sanctity of traditional marriage who was herself divorced, a legislator nominally obsessed with the safety of the people, who herself believed wearing seatbelts displayed insufficient faith in the Lord’s will. Sheltra believed that any concession to gay couples was a step into the abyss, and placed the entirely of her efforts in thwarting Little’s bill. She invited anti-abortion radical Randall Terry — later famous for demanding that birth control pills be criminalized — to Vermont, where his unblinking stare of intimidation and messianic statements that judgment day was upon Vermont quickly alienated members of the legislature.
Little calmly shepherded the civil union bill through the tossing seas of Vermont’s riled politics. Deeply committed to respect for the state’s institutions, he was not dissuaded even by the bloodbath of community votes at Vermont Town meetings in March. Of the 50 towns which voted on the issue, only 10 supported civil unions, and none supported gay marriage. While not binding on the legislature, it was an ominous signal of potential electoral backlash to come. The Judicial Committee, however, had been emboldened by hearing the stories of hundreds of Vermont residents who descended on the statehouse to tell their stories, many outing themselves to stunned friends and neighbors. They spoke in the full flavor of people affirming their inherent dignity: some fearful, some angry, all willing to take an irrevocable step in the hopes of fulfilling a suddenly sacred aim. John Edwards, a retired state trooper and Republican member of the Judicial Committee had hoped to avoid Baker entirely. After listening to the emotional testimony of his neighbors, Edwards had a change of heart, saying that listening to the stories “demystifies who they are, what they stand for, and how valuable they are to our communities.”
In the end, Little’s proposed civil union bill granted gay couples virtually all of the rights of marriage, just under a different name. On March 15, 2000, the entire House debated and voted on the bill, as the Judicial Committee, all of Vermont, and perhaps much of the nation watched in fevered anticipation. There was no early indication if the bill had sufficient votes to pass, and as the day started, the opponents were within a few votes of killing it entirely. The debate featured the usual back and forth of electoral politics, punctuated only, perhaps by a vicious speech by Sheltra declaring that civil unions were legalizing sodomy and promoting AIDS. 8 hours in, Little, feared defeat and approached Lippert with a simple request: “Bill, you need to speak.”
Lippert had dreaded this moment, but he seized it with impassioned aplomb. All day, members had spoken of the abstract, constitutional principles and biblical command. Now Lippert, his voice cracking at times, put a human face on the debate:
There remains afoot in Vermont prejudice against gay men and lesbians. In the last two and a half months I have seen and I have heard, I have been called names in this chamber, in this building, the likes of which I have never experienced in my life- my personal life or my political life...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. Our relationships deserve every protection that our bill would grant…Let us move forward putting into law a bill that will set aside traditional marriage in order to meet the needs of those who somehow feel threatened, but will find a way through this thicket and will grant rights, will give a message to our community that it is time to take another piece of the hatred and the discrimination and the prejudice and remove it, and at the same time give an affirmation to our community about what it means to have full inclusivity, to embrace our neighbors, to affirm committed loving relationships, and to affirm our common humanity.
It remains one of the great unknown speeches in American history, and it had an outsized effect. Numerous representatives later stated that Lippert’s speech was crucial to their vote. Emboldened by his passion, Rep. Mary Mazzariello revealed that she had two lesbian daughters, and reminded the delegates that it was not just gay people whose lives were affected by the actions contemplated: “Their pain and their inability to fit the mold has been our pain, too.” At the end of 17 hours of debate, the House — but not before rejecting an amendment offered by Sheltra that would have required HIV tests to any couple seeking a civil union- by 76–69, passed the bill. The House speaker slammed his gavel so hard in response to the roar of approval that the mallet head flew off into the front row of legislators. Some legislators risked more than their seats: William Fyfe, an 84 year old Republican, postponed surgery to vote for the bill, earning the thanks, and an offer of a hug from a grateful Lippert. “Yeah, I don’t give a shit” came the nonplussed reply, after which Fyfe broke down and said through quiet sobs that he voted for the bill because of Lippert’s friendship, and the cruelties he recalled inflicted on a lesbian couple who were once his neighbors. In a state whose entire population did not exceed that of Washington D.C., a human face often replaced the abstract, with hearteningly human results. The Senate passed the bill a month later, and Dean signed it, quietly and without fanfare, on April 26, 2000. The crusade for legality had been won. The crusade for acceptance, however, had not.
Civil Unions became lawful in Vermont on July 1, 2000. Despite some town clerks refusing to grant them — shades of Kim Davis 15 years later — the actual impact was muted: just a few thousand couples availed themselves of the option in the first year. Yet the political fallout was immense. Randall Terry left the state, and was soon, in rich irony, confronted with his own son’s emergence from the closet, but Sheltra remained, and she immediately began whipping up the furor of Vermont natives to oust those legislators who had dared vote for Little’s bill. The electoral season became not just a referendum on civil unions, but a proxy battle between a changing America and a more pastoral population looking back in sadness rather than forward in hope. Gay civil unions became the avatars of a cultural shift that left many disgusted not only at the couples themselves but at the government that had enabled them. That summer and fall, as gay couples journeyed to the Green Mountain state to bathe in the brave new world of acceptance, they were confronted with thousands of examples of mute rejection. Signs proclaiming “Take Back Vermont” sprouted all over the state, on roadsides and red-hued barns, like wildflowers. From whom it should be taken back was neither said nor needed to be. The small size of Vermont which had put a human face on the debate now boomeranged against the perceived transgressors in intensely personal terms. Neighbors spurned neighbors, angry words flew in churches, schools, and restaurants, and friendships were ended. One legislator, Republican Rep. Marion Milne, found her seat challenged in the primary by a close personal friend, Sylvia Kennedy, enraged over Milne’s yes vote. While Milne was taken aback by the anti-gay slurs hurled at her 13 year old grandson while he canvassed for her, Kennedy was unrepentant: “I just feel that voting her conscience was uncalled for,” she explained.
Some Vermonters agreed. In September, 5 Republican lawmakers who had voted for the civil union bills lost their primaries, Milne included. Milne thus became the lone legislator to be the Vermont Women’s Caucus Legislator of the Year in the year in which she was primaried into retirement. For legislators now in the fights of their life came the dawning realization that July 1 wasn’t just a date in which a new law passed: for many, it was in Rep. Henry Gray’s words of inappropriate historical appropriation, a day that ‘shall live in infamy.’ The fall saw the war of words continue unabated, in increasingly martial terms. The Rev. Craig Benson, perhaps the most formidable opponent of civil unions, called the issue that “hottest thing that’s hit the state of Vermont since the Civil War.” The New York Times called the vandalism which struck the rival signs displayed as a “low level guerilla war.”
Evan the popular Dean, a four-term governor, found himself in political hot water. He had easily crushed his rival, Republican Ruth Dwyer, in the 1998 elections, but Dwyer showed new strength in 2000 after she aligned herself explicitly with Take Back Vermont. Dwyer was an odd vessel for cultural backlash, a candidate in the first state to outlaw slavery who proclaimed Robert E. Lee her political hero, a demagogue who railed against transplants, yet was herself was a native Ohionan who arrived in Vermont in 1976, bringing with her a boa constrictor and a Reagan bumper sticker. Yet as a tribune for those feeling left behind by the vertigo of social change, she had plainly struck a chord. Her description of the yawning Vermont divide presaged the later national schism: she represented, as she said, the “mind your own business” people against the “new people who make the rules for others and don’t listen.” Take Back Vermont supporters were clear that civil unions were the headline example but the underlying fury was broader. A Dwyer supporter stated that ‘’The liberals have come into our state and they’re intelligent but they have no hearts, they don’t care about working people,” a sentiment that may well have come straight out of the 2016 election season. If America today has split at the seams, some of the first tears were seen in Vermont.
The debate could be surreal at times. A Dwyer supporter confronted Dean angrily, yelling that “you people are forcing us to teach tolerance and diversity.” The governor replied “What’s wrong with that?” Yet he was so unnerved by the angry voices now heard throughout the state that he began wearing a bulletproof vest at campaign events. The rival signs covering Vermont- Take Back Vermont and Keep Vermont Civil- were emblematic of the national culture war, and the partisans knew it: one angry spokesman said that “the phrase Take Back Vermont may well become Take Back America.” It wasn’t quite Make American Great Again, but the echoes of the cavernous rupture which ran through the tea party and exploded in 2016 were present in millennium-era Vermont.
Civil unions did not in the end cost Dean his job, but it did cost his Democratic Party control of Vermont’s legislature. The House, previously 77–67 Democrat, flipped to 82–63 Republican. Among the losers were Edwards, the Republican who defied his constituents to do what he felt was right, and Mazzariello, whose stand on behalf of her daughters had gone unrewarded by voters. Yet the debate which consumed so much of the headspace of the green mountain state sputtered to an ignominious conclusion. Voters, whatever message they had sent, were not obsessed with civil unions, and were content to accept the result rather than reopen the wounds. Sheltra managed to shepherd a repeal vote through the newly Republican House in 2001, but it died in the Senate. Gay relationships, as it turned out, did not turn Burlington into a bucolic version of a gay bacchanalia. It simply recognized what already de facto existed among domestic partners. Civil unions, having been born in the rancor of a hair’s breath vote, had survived when the banality of the result became readily apparent to a state willing to simply move on.
For three long years, little Vermont stood alone: no other state mandated civil unions, let alone gay marriage. But the overwhelming quiet spoke loudly: Vermont remained the same state it had been before civil unions, just, perhaps a little fairer and a little more cognizant of the underlying pervasive animosity. Â Yet for all the rancor, the successful union of political and legal acumen in the Green Mountain State had accomplished a beachhead in the American consciousness that steadily expanded over the next decade. Gay marriage is such an accomplished fact in 2017 that even the most determined opponent has tacitly conceded defeat. Its success, perhaps the lone one among the great lurch right of the past two decades, was made possible by the early, unsure steps taken in Vermont.
What can we learn from Vermont’s saga? Only this: nothing was preordained. At a dozen different points, the march to victory was made possible by both the structural and the personal. The combined wisdom, perseverance, and efforts of men and women beginning with the plaintiffs themselves and continuing through their tenacious advocates Murray, Bonnuto and Robinson, and the pathbreaking efforts of Amestoy, Little, Lippert, and Dean, achieved something unknown in 2000 America. Each had difficult decisions to make, and each made those decisions in the heat of the moment to cut through a tendentious footpath of thickets and thorns. Each, in their own way, exercised the leadership of the brave and passionate, braced themselves to their duties, and grappled forthrightly, honestly, and urgently with an issue arousing the ardor of different cross-cleaving constituencies. In pursuing the art of the possible, their combined efforts set the stage for the impossible. They may not have realized it in the moment, but history will remember them, and remember them well.
Millenia ago, Thucydidies observed that the secret to happiness is freedom, and the secret to freedom is courage. Courage, indeed, was the first of the critical aspects without which Vermont’s march towards the freedom of equal treatment could not have begun. The plaintiffs had the courage to out themselves into a hostile world on that sunny Vermont day twenty years past. The justices of the Vermont Supreme Court sowed the wind with their courageous and original decision in Baker. Men like Little and Lippert showed the courage of working together in spite of personal feelings or expectation of political caucuses. The legislators who rallied to the cause in the teeth of evidence that support for a despised minority could cost them their very jobs evidenced the courage of the political servant prizing the servant’s heart above electoral gain. Some lost their political lives doing so: speaking of Edwards a decade later, Lippert said poignantly that “John and those who lost are my heroes, to this day.” If there is only one lesson to recall, it is this: there is no progress without struggle, and there is no struggle without courage.
Vermont needed more than courage. It needed serious, intelligent, open-minded politicians of the kind currently deeply lacking in America. One of Little’s most portentous decisions was to delay any bill until a plethora of experts and ordinary citizens had testified about the institution of marriage and its place in American life. The legislators who wrote and supported the civil union bill were lead by informed reason, not excited passion. The citizens of Vermont, as well, took the process seriously. Some opposed the bill, some supported it, but the vast majority were willing to engage directly with their representatives to voice their hopes, fears, and beliefs. Democracy is ailing, but an example of its healthy, beating heart existed not long ago in Vermont.
The people’s representatives were able to grapple with the issue forthrightly in part because of their closeness to their constituents as opposed to viewing the issue through the patina cast by lobbyists. Given Vermont’s size and overwhelmingly rural population, the total amount spent on the various campaigns totaled only $500,000 or so, a mere pittance of what would be spent on larger stage. The light spending permitted more direct testimony, more personal appeals, and less, in the modern parlance, “fake news.” Lobbyists and their well-heeled clients did not rule the day in Vermont: people did. When humanity speaks, humane policies are the result.
Women were pivotal. 35 out of 44 women legislators in the House of Representatives voted for Little’s bill. Without them, the vote would have been decisive against civil unions, as just 41 of 101 men voted for it. Bipartisanship, that paean to a lost era, was critical. 15 Democrats voted against the bill, which would have doomed it but for the 14 Republicans who voted for it. Speaking in August, 2000, Little himself said that “someone at the left or right end of the spectrum probably would not have been able to put it all together.” Working shoulder to shoulder as members of committees, Republicans and Democrats learned to trust each other as colleagues, not opponents, men and women bound by common purpose even if not by common belief. Working together built trust, and trust was vital to the process. Choosing to deny the legitimacy of the opposition was an option in 2000 no less than it is now, and some did fall victim to its siren song. Enough, however, agreed to work together to make a difference.
In the end though, none of the Vermont saga would have occurred without a belief that a wrong could be righted by working within the system. Trusting in the sinews of American democracy, believing that their countrymen would, if prompted, accept their common humanity, the most vital and necessary actors in this great drama were simply ordinary people hoping for a better, fairer existence. As we survey the landscape twenty long years later let us always recall that the tidal wave of nationwide social change began not with august pronouncements from above, but rather with the ripples created far at sea by the lonely actions of outliers unwilling to accept the conventional and reasonable.