Activists Warn Civil Union Equity Law Vulnerable

As the nation prepares to celebrate Thanksgiving, those around the table this year will include more than 500 Vermont couples and 3,000 others nationwide now joined by legal civil unions. Yet, opposition to civil union laws remains strong.

FAIRLEE, Vt. (WOMENSENEWS)-The team of Vermont lawyers who paved the way for the first statewide civil unions law in the nation warns that the landmark legislation continues to be vulnerable because of the strength of its opponents.

“We have to protect our fire wall in Vermont,” attorney Beth Robinson said Sunday as she called for vigorous rededication and political action from supporters of civil unions.

Her remarks drew cheers from participants at the National Organization for Women's Northeast Regional Strategy Summit for lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people and their allies, held at a lakeside resort in this tiny central Vermont town nestled along the New Hampshire border.

Conference co-chair Judith Beckett, head of Vermont NOW's Lesbian Rights Committee, said about 200 people from throughout the Northeast attended the weekend meeting on the theme “Moving Forward Together.” The workshops and keynote speeches were aimed at building coalitions and repairing rifts among the groups within the feminist movement.

“The atmosphere of the conference was one of great affinity and warmth,” Beckett said following the event. She spoke with one of the lesbian participants who said it had revolutionized her concept of NOW, which in the 1960s had not welcomed lesbians as members. A transgender woman wrote Beckett to say she felt comfortable and welcome, and that there was no criticism or dissension, which had been the case in other settings in the past.

The printed program for the conference included an open letter from four of the conference planners from Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New York, which called on participants to put aside any differences and pull together.

“Internally, we must work to understand and bridge the divisions within and between individuals and movements doing feminist and lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered rights work,” the letter said.

“We must continue to ask: How are our many issues connected and why is it that we are so often pulled apart right when it is important for us to pull together?” the planners wrote.

Robinson, Susan Murray and Mary Bonauto, the lawyers who brought the landmark lawsuit Baker v. State of Vermont before the Vermont Supreme Court, each received NOW's Women of Courage award. Their lawsuit on behalf of three same-sex couples resulted in the court's decision requiring the state legislature to guarantee most of the legal benefits of marriage to same-sex couples.

Landmark Civil Unions Law Still Divisive Issue in Vermont

The legislation legalizing civil unions, passed after a contentious fight in April 2000, continues to be a bitter and divisive issue in the state.

Beth Robinson, Susan Murray and Mary BonautoIn accepting their awards, Robinson and Murray paid tribute to their co-counsel Bonauto, who was unable to attend, and others whose courage contributed to the hard-fought passage of the civil unions law.

“We were three of not just dozens or hundreds, but thousands of people around Vermont who really have shown tremendous courage,” Robinson said. She praised gays, lesbians and their heterosexual allies who went beyond signing petitions to make personal sacrifices to work for the legislation.

“Tons of gay and lesbian people who were living quiet lives, many in small-town rural Vermont ... came out in their small towns and to their families and their communities, often at tremendous personal risk, to make this happen,” Robinson said.

However, she reminded those attending the meeting that the backlash that erupted during the 2000 election, accompanied by a bitter “Take Back Vermont” campaign, resulted in the defeat of enough of the supporters of civil unions that the Vermont Senate only has a two-vote “fire wall” against repeal of the legislation. More than a dozen state representatives who voted for civil unions were defeated, leaving the Vermont House with a substantial majority who oppose the law.

Further, she warned that in 2003 the state's constitution is open to amendments and there would be efforts to prohibit same-sex unions. Anti-gay marriage laws have passed in 35 states and are pending in several others.

Vermont Constitution Could Be Amended to Ban Same-Sex Unions

“We're going to have to be fighting like heck to protect that step forward in the next election. So I urge everybody to get involved in electoral politics in your home state or in Vermont,” Robinson told the crowd.

Murray praised the lawmakers who supported the law because they felt it was the right thing to do, despite personal attacks and likely defeat in the next election. She particularly applauded Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg, Vt., for his “courage and grace under fire” when he was “the focal point of a lot of hate” because he was the only openly gay member of the legislature at the time the civil unions law was passed.

Lippert introduced Robinson and Murray and said they had the vision to establish the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force, to undertake impressive grassroots organizing and to bring the Baker suit before the state Supreme Court. Lippert said more than 500 Vermont couples and 3,000 couples from across the country have entered into civil unions since the law was passed.

Other speakers at the conference addressed nationwide threats to hard-won rights of women, gays and lesbians. Rosemary Dempsey, an attorney and director of policy and government relations for the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy in Washington, D.C., said the most significant danger is the conservative group of judges who have been nominated and are waiting for confirmation to the federal bench. Also, she said it was important to put pressure on friends of women's rights, such as Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to prevent the appointment of another conservative Supreme Court justice, which would tip the balance of the court against civil rights issues.

Olga Vives, action vice president for NOW, said extreme conservative interests have reversed sexual rights laws in many states and cities and, under the leadership of President George W. Bush, these ultraconservatives have targeted the feminist movement. She urged all factions to put aside their differences and work together with allies “until justice is ours.”

Patti Reid is a partner in Reid Associates, writing and editing consultants. She formerly was an Associated Press writer, editor and staff manager in New England.

For further information visit:

National Organization for Women Northeast Regional Conference:

Vermonters for Civil Unions:

Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force: