Vermont: the canary in the coalmine?

By Will Baker

In 1777 Vermont became the first state in the Union to abolish slavery. And on April 26, 2000, Vermont again led the way by enacting new legislation, which extends sweeping civil rights to its gay and lesbian residents in a manner similar to no other state. I have carefully observed this debate, and now that the bill has been signed into law, and the smoke is beginning to clear, I feel compelled to comment on what I have witnessed. For background on this story I can refer you to an essay that I wrote last year entitled: "A Question of Civil Rights." My mother taught me not to "chew my cabbage twice," therefore I will not restate that which I have already written. But feel free to click on the preceding link for information regarding how events have unfolded up to this point.

The past several months have not been easy ones for the Green Mountain State. While the rest of the country has been preoccupied with the Elian Gonzalez situation, a sometimes quiet, but oftentimes contentious discussion has been taking place here regarding the very nature of marriage--and what the relationship might be between the extension of civil rights to our gay and lesbian neighbors and to the institution in question. But to Vermont's credit, for the most part, this debate has been a civil one. Yet we have had our moments. A town meeting, which took place in Bennington a few weeks ago, comes to mind. There, for a brief moment, open hostility was on display and mean speech could be heard. But thank God that this very important question was being considered in Vermont. For I truly believe that, had it occurred elsewhere, a very unfortunate situation might have developed.

Vermont is full of polite people and Vermonters are known for direct speech. And these facts served us well as events transpired. Folks on all sides of the question were given their right to free and open speech, and they availed themselves of this liberty freely. The result is a law that, no doubt all of us will observe, but which a surprising number of folks, maybe even the majority, have problems with. To be sure there are many folks who feel, as I do, that it is to our credit as Vermonters that this action was taken. However there are a significant number of folks who feel that the whole situation smacks of unpleasant compromise. The Religious Right, not surprisingly, views this new law as an attack on conventional morality. And many in the gay and lesbian community decry it, saying that it falls well short of the mark. Even one of the women whose suit precipitated the legislation has said that, since the new civil-arrangement that she and her partner will be entitled to as of the first of July is not called marriage, she may sue again.

And as far as the politicians are concerned, the issue has been a real "hot potato." For instance, Governor Howard Dean, who on many past occasions has made a spectacle of bill signing ceremonies, chose to sign this one into law behind closed doors. Other than his staff, no one was allowed to be present. Some say that he did this out of political expediency, so that he could avoid images harmful to his fall campaign for re-election. But to be fair, since he was an ardent supporter of the bill, and given the charged political climate,  the Governor claims that he did this to avoid giving the impression that he was "declaring victory." And I have personally spoken with Representatives of the Vermont House who say that, because of the backlash that they expect due to their votes on the matter, they will not be running for re-election. It will be interesting to see if elected "heads" will really "roll" over the matter.

I said above that it seems to me that it is to Vermont's credit that we have passed this law. And I suppose that the uncertainty, to some degree or other that we all feel, is the price that we must pay for doing the right thing. I also believe that our trepidation might be due to our fear that we may become polarized. And no matter her or his political persuasion or sexual orientation, no Vermonter wants that. As an aside, I find it ironic that our very fear over disunity might help to unify us while we confront this divisive situation. And how fortunate we are that disunity runs contrary to our self-identity as Vermonters. I also suspect that, in displaying a fear of the unknown; we all may be simply "reverting to type" en masse. But it is what it is. We are only human after all.

During the past several months, many of us, myself included, thought that the Vermont Legislature intended to create a law, which mirrored Hawaii's controversial Domestic Partnership Act. But many were surprised when the final version of the Bill went well beyond this by providing gays and lesbians with an opportunity for a marital arrangement in every respect, but name only. And to my mind this was an excellent and brave compromise. And I salute the lawmakers on all sides of the issue. Yes, in 1777 Vermont became the first state in the Union to outlaw slavery. But it took from 1777 to 1863 (and a civil war) to settle the matter. Perhaps the rest of the country should be keeping an eye on sleepy little Vermont. Is it possible that, once again we might be the canary in the coal mine?



 (Essay Collection)