A More Perfect Union?
Two Seven Days staffers weigh the pros and cons of another gay marriage debate in Vermont
It’s been almost nine years since then-Gov. Howard Dean signed into law H.847, the controversial bill establishing civil unions in Vermont and granting same-sex couples the same legal rights and responsibilities afforded to married couples. Since then, more than 8700 gay and lesbian couples have entered into Vermont civil unions, which are now recognized by many Western countries, though not by most U.S. states or the federal government.
At the time of its passage, Vermont’s civil-union compromise was sometimes touted as a model for other states. But even then, many Vermonters saw it as a Faustian bargain, as unjust and discriminatory as the “separate but equal” rationale for racial segregation; few remember that the first line of the act defines marriage as “a union between a man and a woman.”
Since then, other states have adopted far more inclusive language, granting same-sex couples the same legal right to marry as male-female couples. In recent months, particularly after the passage of California’s Prop. 8 banned same-sex marriages in that state, there’s been much talk of revisiting Vermont’s gay marriage debate and finishing the work that was started a decade ago.
Clearly, today’s political and economic climate is different from that of 2000. On the one hand, it’s a time of innovation. The United States is about to inaugurate its first African-American chief executive, the culmination of one of its longest, most expensive and most contested presidential campaigns — one that was literally defined by the idea of “change.”
On the other hand, the public, the media and governments at all levels are squarely focused on other daunting problems: global warming, energy insecurity, spiraling health-care costs, ballooning deficits and the worst global economic downturn since the Great Depression. In short, it’s also a time of retrenchment. There’s much to do and limited time and money to do it.
Arguments for and against gay marriage are already showing up on editorial pages throughout the state. But in an effort to provide a more intimate and unusual overview of the issue, Seven Days listens in on a conversation between two of its staffers who are directly affected by the debate. Creative Director Don Eggert and Online Editor Cathy Resmer consider whether now is an opportune time to revisit this issue in Vermont. While Eggert asserts that there’s never been a better time to capitalize on the national momentum for change, Resmer argues that more urgent issues need to be addressed first.
The two are friends and have much in common. Both are gay and in committed relationships. Both have been politically active for years in Vermont’s LGBT community, though they are not full-time activists. And while neither was directly involved in the original campaign to enact civil unions, both supported it — and support the concept of gay marriage on principle.
Eggert, 32, moved to Vermont in 1994 to attend Middlebury College. He came out in his freshman year and immediately got involved in campus politics. At the time, Eggert says he wasn’t very interested in the gay-marriage issue, as he was more cynical about marriage in general — his own parents divorced after 27 years. Instead, he worked to create RU12?, the Burlington-based community center for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Vermonters.
“We didn’t feel a need to do the same thing that straight people do,” Eggert remembers. “We were trying to be a little more radical, and advocating for [gay] marriage didn’t seem radical at the time. It felt very mainstream.”
Resmer, 33, attended Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, a staunchly conservative Southern college. She also came out in college and was active in a gay support group on campus, which met in secret.
“The climate on our campus was very toxic,” Resmer recalls. “At one point, The Princeton Review named W&L the second-most homophobic campus in the country.”
After graduation, Resmer moved to Burlington, where she got involved in Outright Vermont, going around to public schools and speaking about her experiences coming out as a lesbian. She landed her first writing gig with Out in the Mountains, the now-defunct LGBT publication, where she met Eggert, who was then the paper’s art director. She later worked with Eggert to establish RU12?
In May 2000, Resmer was hired as a dorm counselor at Rock Point School in Burlington. Though she and her live-in partner, Ann-Elise Johnson, hadn’t planned to get civil unioned — at the time, they were in their mid-twenties and had been together just two years — Resmer asked her new boss if romantic partners could live together in the dorm. They could, provided they were married or in a civil union. For Resmer and her partner, the decision was largely based on simple economics: They couldn’t afford two apartments, and getting a civil union saved them $10,000 a year.
On the night of their civil union in August 2000, Resmer’s father, a conservative Catholic, took her aside and said, “I wouldn’t have voted for civil unions, but I’m glad you are happy.” While her parents weren’t entirely comfortable with the idea at the time, they now speak about that party as “Cathy’s wedding” and have come to see her union as a marriage, just like any other. Resmer fully expects that one day the State of Vermont will do the same. But for her, it’s not a high priority.
SEVEN DAYS: Shortly after Vermont adopted civil unions, many in the gay community made a point of referring to them as “civil unions” and not “marriages.” Was this because they were seen as an intermediate step?
DON EGGERT: I think people felt the need to keep saying the words “civil union”, so that people would start accepting it socially, among gays and straights, like, “This is what we’re calling it, and let’s just go with it.” We still hadn’t yet figured out what to call a civil union divorce. No one really wanted to discuss that. There was a whole new vocabulary [required]. If we’re going to live with this compromise, let’s start owning the word.
CATHY RESMER: Part of it, too, frankly, is it’s not a marriage. And it’s important for me to draw that distinction with my relatives, because I don’t think they understand how much privilege comes with getting married. We have all the same rights and benefits in the state of Vermont that married couples do. But federally, it’s a different story. On my federal tax returns, I still check “single.” Ann-Elise is not eligible for my Social Security money if I were to die. There are a whole host of federal benefits we would get if we were married that we do not get because we are civil unioned.
SD: So, why not support changing the law as quickly as possible?
CR: Do I support gay marriage? Yes, absolutely. I want to be married, and I deserve that same right that you and everyone else who is straight has. But I don’t want to be a political football anymore, me or my family. Though I wasn’t directly involved in the gay-marriage fight, you couldn’t not be involved in it as a gay person in Vermont. Everywhere you went . . . people asked your opinion. But also, people proclaimed their opinions.
SD: How would it change things for you if the gay-marriage debate arose again?
CR: Right now, I can look around my street in Winooski where we live, and none of my elderly Catholic neighbors has signs up opposing gay marriage, and I don’t have any signs up supporting gay marriage. And we all get along great. We shovel each other’s driveways and we pitch in on neighborhood-watch activities and we suffer together and commiserate when our taxes go up and whatnot. I have my rights; they have their beliefs. We’re agreeing not to talk about this issue that we disagree on. And I’m OK with that. I don’t want to go through what we went through in 1999 and 2000 with the civil-union debate again, because there are so many issues that require us to come together right now to solve really big problems. I don’t want to divide us needlessly.
SD: Don, is that a fair criticism?
DE: I tried to stay out of the debate the first time around, and I know exactly what Cathy is talking about. I was lucky to be living in Burlington and not experiencing what people in rural areas were, with the huge “Take Back Vermont” signs. But I definitely felt unsafe at the time. No one said anything to me personally, but you kept hearing stories . . . It’d be in the press a lot. It went from being exciting to nerve-wracking, and you did feel like a political football, where your life was very exposed.
SD: That would still be a risk, wouldn’t it?
DE: I certainly don’t want that to happen again, and I don’t believe it will. Maybe I’m being really optimistic. Since civil unions have passed . . . there was the initial bad time of the entire state being up in arms about it. Then it dissipated. The sky didn’t fall, and years passed and all these other states are trying to do what we did, and Massachusetts did . . . I just don’t feel like there’s a compelling reason not to have it changed to gay marriage.
SD: Whether Vermont calls them civil unions or gay marriages, once you leave the state you’re still single, and whatever rights you have go away. What would change for you?
DE: For me specifically, nothing short-term, because I’m not civil unioned and I don’t know when or if I’ll get civil unioned or married. But I’d like to have the right to do so. When I go home and talk about civil unions to my family in Syracuse and say, “I went to a civil union party,” they really don’t understand what I’m talking about. I have to explain what it is. It’s so much easier to just say, “I went to a wedding.” I’ve started doing that, straight or gay . . . I don’t really ever say “civil union.” So, to see it on forms and in debates . . . it’s this separate-but-equal thing. I don’t understand why there has to be this whole separate institution designed for me when everyone else can just get married.
SD: Do you think it would be as easy as changing the words “civil union” to “marriage”?
DE: I would hope that can happen. I feel like it means a lot for people who live here to just take that one last step and say, “Really, we are all equal. We don’t have to have this separate designation.” And for Vermont to join Massachusetts and other states that are going to pass [gay marriage]. We’re never going to get the federal benefits . . . until many states do this. And in some states, it’s going to take forever, or a really long time, because they have to change their constitutions.
SD: If you’re skeptical about marriage in general, why is it important for you to say that you can “marry”?
DE: It’s a choice issue, like any other choice issue. Being able to have the right to do it is different than actually agreeing with it or wanting to do it. I can say I’m pro-choice, but I don’t think I’ll ever get an abortion or get a woman pregnant. But I hope that my sister or mother or friend will have that choice . . . As I get older and have roots in the community, I know more and more people who want to get married, who are raising kids and doing all the things that people do who want to stay together. And to not be able to get married is kind of a slap in the face.
CR: He’s fighting for my right to get married!
DE: I just don’t buy the “not now” argument . . . From what the polls say, people in Vermont are pro-gay marriage and have come around since civil unions were created. And I personally feel like it’s a good time now because there’s so much momentum around change, and having Barack Obama elected president, regardless of how he feels about civil unions or gay marriage, has gotten a lot of people motivated and activated. There’s been a lot of apathy in the last eight years, both locally and nationally, and I feel like now there’s an opportunity to finish the job at a time when everything is on the upswing. Of course, I’m not ignoring the dire economic situation, but politically, I feel like it’s an opportune moment. I know the people who are working on this issue . . . and I’m confident they’ve done the hard work. It’s been a long time, and we’ve been patient.
SD: Cathy, why should gay and lesbian couples wait? Why not capitalize on this historic moment?
CR: Maybe I’m on the wrong side of history . . . I believe that opinions have changed in Vermont, but I don’t feel as though they’ve changed as much as gay-marriage proponents would lead you to believe. I hope that everyone proves me wrong and that they have, in fact, changed. But my gut feeling is that they haven’t. I am reluctant to support an effort that is largely symbolic. What would happen in Vermont is really not going to change my rights or anyone else’s rights in civil unions. It’s a semantic change. It’s an important one, but ultimately a symbolic change. And I am reluctant to reopen these wounds and spend political capital pushing this at a time when we have so many pressing issues to confront.
SD: Could reviving this issue right now backfire, especially if people feel that every minute the legislature spends on it is one not spent on more urgent business?
CR: I think it is a distraction and, more importantly, it’s a distraction of the public. It’s not so much the legislature that’s being distracted. It’s their constituents who are being distracted by an issue that’s been dormant all these years and makes them suddenly speak out . . . You have a limited amount of time and energy to get people to focus on issues, and if we’re going to do that, I want them to focus on issues that are more meaningful to me and my family and people I know in Vermont, such as making sure we all have health care. I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t push for marriage. We should . . . If we didn’t have civil unions right now, I’d be pushing for marriage. But because we have civil unions and we have those rights, I do not feel discriminated against by the State of Vermont.
DE: I would agree that the change we’re asking for is a symbolic change. But in some ways, I think that makes it easier to pass. Maybe I’m being too naïve or optimistic, but it’s sort of like we forgot to cross that T. Let’s just say it’s done and move on.
CR: It didn’t feel like that at the time. To many people, it was this really hard-fought compromise that they can live with and we can live with. It gives us our rights, and it gives them whatever peace of mind they need to have.
DE: So everybody wins?
CR: No. Everybody loses a little bit. That was the deal. That’s what compromise is. Nobody got exactly what they wanted. And I feel that that’s what’s letting us live . . . in this relative harmony in our state. It’s not that the tide has suddenly shifted so that 90 percent of Vermonters believe we should have gay marriage. It’s that we’ve managed to strike a compromise that we can all live with. Real change takes time. It takes a lot of time. And I don’t believe that we’re going to have the kind of majority that we should have to push for marriage for a while yet.
DE: But I don’t know what would be a good time. What would bring it up? If all the states around us had gay marriage and we still had this antiquated Vermont phrasing? I think Vermonters can handle it. I think by now they at least know somebody who has a civil union in their community, and they probably know those people are good people and their relationship looks a lot like theirs. I hear about debates in other states, where the extreme religious right has a stronghold, and I just don’t see that here.
SD: And it wouldn’t cost a dime.
DE: Some people say it would benefit us from a tourism standpoint, and people will come here to get married the way they did when we got civil unions. This last election was a kick in the pants for me . . . I have friends in California, and . . . I think a lot of people assumed [Prop. 8] would fail, and gay marriages would continue to happen in California as they had for months. And this was a big wake-up call for them and the rest of us: You can’t assume everything is going to be fine. I just feel like I’ve been complacent for a while and my life has been relatively comfortable . . . I’m not going to campaign in California or move to a state that’s having this battle and try to help them. I’m going to do what I can here.
SD: What about the loss of “political capital” Cathy speaks of?
DE: A lot of legislators lost their jobs after the last initial vote eight years ago, and many of them got it back after a term. And I’m sure that’s going through their heads right now . . . From my perspective, I don’t think Douglas has done a lot as governor, and when issues like this come up, people want to hear what his opinion is. I don’t know what he’ll do, but if he makes the wrong decision, people are going to hold him accountable, and it could mean him losing his governorship, if it ruffles the feathers of Vermonters who are pro-equality.
CR: I don’t think that’ll happen, and I think he’d veto [gay] marriage. And I think he’ll still get elected. Fifty-five percent of Vermonters voted for him in this election, and I don’t think enough of them are going to abandon him over this.
SD: It’s interesting that the LGBT community wants to use a word that has such a checkered history — one that evolved from an institution where women were conveyed as property and used for forging political alliances to today’s notion of demonstrating eternal love.
DE: If there were a better word, I’d go for it. But it’s the word that means something to most people. It’s not going to make marriage better to have gay people getting married. I’m not saying that. And I’m not saying it’s going to help everyone to have the option to get married. But the way our legal structure is about getting married and getting divorced and dealing with kids and property, it’s just part of being a citizen.
SD: Cathy, shouldn’t Vermont keep pushing this issue ahead to help other states, and eventually the federal government, adopt gay marriage?
CR: It’s got to happen in those individual states. They have to have the same fight we had. It’s something they have to go through to get to the place where we are now. We already went through that fight. We already did that hard work. We got to a certain point, and I want the rest of the country to focus on other people doing it and let us focus on other issues.
DE: I’m sure people around the country are using Vermont and Massachusetts as examples of [how] everything is OK.
CR: As well they should, because it is. So why do we need to change it?
DE: Because we don’t want other states arguing for civil unions. We want them arguing for marriage, so they don’t have to go through what we’re going through right now and have this debate twice. Let them use us as an example and say, “They wish they’d called it gay marriage from the beginning.”
CR: I agree with you. And I want all these other states to do that, so it’s shorter and painless when we finally do say, “Yeah, let’s change it to marriage.” Vermont doesn’t need to lead the way. We already did that. It’s OK with me if we’re, like, the 15th state to add gay marriage, versus the second or third . . . Now that I have two kids, when I think about who my allies are, I feel like I’m more allied with families with young children than I am with LGBT activists.
SD: That’s not surprising, considering where you are in your life.
CR: Which is not to say that LGBT issues are not important to me. They are. But if I’m looking at a list of priorities of things I’d like to see changed in this state, the one at the top is not gay marriage. It’s the budget deficit, access to health care, global warming, energy independence. There are 15 things in front of “changing my civil union to marriage” . . . My blood does not boil when I think about this issue. I want it to change, and I have no doubt in my mind that it will change and that one day we will have gay marriage in Vermont. But I just don’t feel that same sense of urgency.
DE: But anti-gay marriage inititives are still being used nationally . . . to make people take sides and get into this ignorant, tumultuous debate. I want the gay marriage debate to be over! I want it to be law, and, if everyone could just get married, we couldn’t be used as a political football to lose presidential elections. It’s become this abortion issue that makes people and states take sides and moves parties to bring up or not bring up this issue.
SD: Do you think it’s not going to go away as an issue until Vermont stops calling them civil unions?
DE: It’s not going to go away here. People have already invested lots of time, money and effort into finishing the job. We’re just one part of the whole national movement. People aren’t going to like to hear that, but it’s true. I’d like to move on to other debates. Although I appreciate how Vermonters put Vermont first when it comes to politics and social change, ever since California passed Prop. 8, I feel like we can’t discount how passing gay marriage in our little state can have a positive impact on the national debate.
CR: I totally agree with you that any time gay marriage comes up, it forces people to take sides. That’s why I don’t want to bring it up again here. I want people to continue living in this détente, because I believe the longer we live this way, the easier it’ll be to make the switch. I think part of it is generational . . . most of the people who opposed civil unions are older. The younger people are for gay marriage. I agree, there’s a point at which we stop waiting. I just don’t think we’ve reached that point yet.