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We must not forget that this was a battle

With its civil unions legislation, Vermont was on the vanguard of the marriage equality movement

Leslie Sullivan Sachs was in the thick of the civil unions debate at Vermont Law School, where she worked at the time as alumni director and editor of the alumni magazine.


Something I never thought I would see in my lifetime has me glued to the Internet. I can’t stop reading and watching, crying and laughing. The United States Supreme Court said yes to gay marriage. Love has prevailed.

Despite being raised Catholic, I never caught homophobia. Maybe it’s because I grew up surrounded by family friends who wore long dresses (priests and seminarians), and by classical musicians who, in the bubble of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, didn’t need to hide their love for one another.

Maybe it’s because two of my closest friends in high school, Peter and Ruth, were gay (though not out). Maybe it’s because when I came of age sexually, in the ’70s, I was a full-fledged flower child: peace, love, and do your own thing, brothers and sisters.

In 1999, I celebrated Vermont’s role in the struggle for love. Our state Supreme Court ruled in Baker v. State that “government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community, not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single person, family, or set of persons, who are only part of that community.”

* * *

The justices put the ball in the legislature’s court, which led to the civil union law the next year and gay marriage in 2009.

We must not forget that this was a battle.

Two days after the Baker decision, a dozen members of the Legislature called for an impeachment of the Vermont Supreme Court for “usurping federal authority.”

Constitutional amendments declaring marriage between a man and a woman and voiding the Baker decision were put forward (and were defeated).

More money flowed into Montpelier than had ever been spent in state history on a political campaign or issue.

The Statehouse was inundated by religious zealots. Randall Terry, founder of the anti-abortion group “Operation Rescue” moved to Montpelier, opened an office, registered to vote, and roamed the halls.

Even opponents of same-sex marriage asked him to leave. If there was any state-wide consensus on this issue, it was “Let Vermonters decide this amongst ourselves, in our own way.”

A fairly conservative member of the Judiciary Committee said that if it were not an election year, the vote would be 11–0 for marriage. A legislator told me, “How close can we get it to the symbolism of marriage and not lose votes? Can we put the word ‘spouse’ in there at all? Do we use the M word at all? If we do, we probably lose a few more votes.”

After civil unions became law there was a backlash: five Republican legislators and a Democrat lost their seats. The “Take Back Vermont” property-rights movement was taken off life support to feed the flames of dissent.

But within a few years the backlash burned out. Vermont had not been overtaken by depravity. Civil unions were good for tourism. And if your neighbors came out of the closet as partners, not cousins who shared a house? Well, one had been a volunteer firefighter for decades and the other coached the local softball team, so whatever.

* * *

Nothing comparable before or since captured the hearts and minds of Vermonters like the debate over civil unions in 1999 and 2000 (and I write that as a veteran of the movement to shut down Vermont Yankee, another biggie).

After the Baker Supreme Court ruling, the topic was everywhere, in daily conversation, in the national and local media. Vermonters we knew personally appeared on television, spoke on the radio, stared back at us from the cover of The New York Times.

At Vermont Law School, alumni were on the Judiciary Committee and in the legislative counsel’s office. Faculty gave expert testimony on constitutional issues on the “separate but equal” doctrine, the separation of church and state, and what other states had tried.

I wrote an article on the law school’s roles, based on 20 pages of interviews. I then went to work for one of the most active advocates of civil unions and gay marriage, Professor Greg Johnson. It was exhilarating, nerve-racking, and intellectually challenging.

* * *

Legal strategy, argument, and research are necessary, and they are what move courts and frame laws that will last. But I believe it was the personal testimony by Vermonters that moved our legislature to act as it did.

Approximately 1,000 people came each night, filling every available space: the House Chamber, rooms downstairs, and the hallways.

Everyone complied with the chair’s request for no clapping or cheering. Only Vermont residents were allowed to testify at the two nights of public hearings in 2000. For six hours, personal stories were shared. The Bible was quoted. Ordinary people came out of the closet.

Personal lives were capsulized into two intense minutes. They spoke of love, of faith, of tradition, of fear, of struggle. The testimony was riveting — and it was polarized, equally divided between those in favor of same-sex civil unions, and those against it.

My children and I listened to the hearings in full on Vermont Public Radio. My then-10-year-old son summed it up: “Two people love each other. That’s all that should matter.”

That is what our citizen legislature heard, too.

And now, we must be prepared for the backlash. But love will endure. Love is all that matters.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #312 (Wednesday, July 1, 2015). This story appeared on page D1.

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