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Gay Rights Law Starts Civil War in Vermont / A state divided expects leaders to feel the heat

Oct. 30, 2000

Vermont -- Step off a plane in Vermont, and the visceral backlash against the state's groundbreaking civil union law granting gays and lesbians the legal rights of marriage is already palpable.

"Coward Dean" reads the lighted sign atop a taxi waiting outside the Burlington airport, a reference to Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the Democrat who signed the civil union measure into law last spring.

"We're on the verge of losing the governor, the Senate and the House," conceded Lisa Turner, political director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the party's arm that oversees statehouse races.

"We're in the fight of our lives up here for civil rights for all Vermonters," agreed Peter Shumlin, Democratic president pro tem of the Vermont Senate and one of the chief backers of the civil union law.

Polls in this tiny rural state of church-steepled hamlets are scarce and unreliable, and no one can safely predict what will happen on election day.

But there is no question that the civil union law, enacted in April, is issue No. 1. From the "Take Back Vermont" bumper stickers to the lawn signs for Republican gubernatorial challenger Ruth Dwyer, it is clear that nearly every race from the governorship on down has become a referendum on civil unions.

"What's basically happening is that a four-term governor who's running for his fifth consecutive term is in trouble because of this issue," said Garrison Nelson, a political scientist at the University of Vermont.

"Vermont does not vote out governors," Nelson said. "That's one of the things we do not do. Since we instituted the two-year term 130 years ago, only one elected governor has been voted out. So you can see how mammoth this issue has become. He's in trouble. There's no question about it."

Hailed by supporters as a pathbreaking milestone in civil rights, civil unions have profoundly divided Vermont and lit a fire under former nonvoters who believe their political leaders took the state one giant step too far.

Stop people on the street, ask what they think about civil unions and whether they're going to vote, and more often than not, anger and resentment bubbles freely to the surface.

"You're damned right I'm going to vote," said Mark, a small businessman in St. Albans, who, like many, refused to give his last name, given the emotional heat around the issue. "I've never registered to vote before. I'm registering this year."

Stephen Kenyon, a Burlington cab driver, said he has never voted before, but he too is now registered.

"They pushed it too fast," Kenyon said. "They didn't really listen to people. It made people upset and they're still upset."

Dave, another St. Albans resident, echoed the sentiment.


"It got rammed down our throats, and people don't like the way it was done," he said. "When you poll 60 towns in the state of Vermont and 60 towns vote it down, what does that say?" referring to town meetings that were held before the law was approved.

Overhearing the conversation, other passers-by joined in, complaining that they are the subject of ridicule in other states.

"I went down to New Jersey and Delaware last summer and people saw my plates, and, boy, did I get criticized," said Nancy Hammel of St. Albans. "They notice that you're from Vermont. I said, 'No, man, I did not vote for that. The politicians did what they wanted.' "

Another common complaint is that the law is unfair to unmarried heterosexual couples who live together but get none of the legal benefits of marriage the law confers on gays.

Many contend they hold nothing against gays and lesbians, frequently saying what people do "behind closed doors" is their own business, but that gays have no right to foist their lifestyles on others.

And many feel homosexuality, not to mention gay marriage, is just plain wrong. "I think it's pretty sick," said Darlene Fowler of St. Albans. "It's not the way God meant it to be, which is one man and one woman bearing children." Asked if she's going to vote, she said, "Oh yeah."

Whether such sentiments reflect the majority will not be known until Nov. 7. Many Vermonters embrace the civil unions law, and are deeply proud that their state led the nation on the issue.

"Don't be alarmed by all these Dwyer signs," said another resident, who again refused to give her name, saying as a small business owner she must appear neutral on politics. "We're just a quiet group of people. The people who are threatened are the ones who are the loudest."

She told of talking to a truck driver friend who complained that Vermont truckers have become a laughingstock out on the road. She said she put her arm around his son and said, "You love your son. What if he was gay? Would your love for him be any less? He was speechless."


Steven Phillips, of Burlington, said he is "all for it," but "this is not San Francisco or L.A. It's very mixed here."

Indeed, Vermont's enactment of civil unions -- and the public backlash that has followed -- reflects the profound cultural division in a rural state that for three decades has shifted steadily leftward, thanks in part to an influx of urban refugees from New England states.

Its largest city, Burlington, is an eastern version of Berkeley, a Birkenstocked, coffee-shopped college town where incense wafts through the downtown pedestrian mall. Burlington voters send the country's only Socialist representative, Bernie Sanders, to Congress.

But outside Burlington, the state is a rural throwback of small towns, maple syrup and autumn leaves, governed by town meetings and flavored with a fierce "don't tread on me" independent streak.

Many native Vermonters are far more socially conservative than their Burlington brethren, and many resent the influx of northeastern liberals who have steered the state leftward.

"What scares people here is the huge influx of people moving here," said Phillips, noting that Vermont's entire population is 590,000, just over two-thirds the size of San Francisco. "Fifth-generation Vermonters are not into change."

Nelson, the political science professor, notes that of the more than 800 civil unions that have been granted since the law took effect July 1, more than 70 percent of them have been out-of-state couples.

"That enhances the sense of conservative Vermonters that Vermont is being used as a vehicle to push the national gay agenda," Nelson said. "And that fuels some of the anger among conservative Vermonters who say, 'Take back Vermont,' the implication being take it back from you people who came into the state (and) transformed it."


Even before civil unions, many Vermonters were upset by a property tax law called Act 60 that forces more prosperous Vermont towns to subsidize schools in poorer ones. To them, civil unions represent the final straw in a steady move to thwart local independence.

Moreover, the Democratic Party in Vermont has historically been dominated by Catholics -- French Catholics in the north, near Quebec, and Irish and a smattering of Italians in the south -- who make up 25 to 30 percent of the state's population.

"The Democratic Party had a major Catholic base, but the party did not become competitive until transplants came into Vermont in '60s and '70s and thereby gave the Democratic Party an edge," Nelson said. "But these Catholic Democrats are social conservatives. They are the core of the party and the Catholic church in the state has been very much opposed to civil unions."

Ironically, he added, Vermont's Republican Party is among the country's most socially liberal, and many of the state Republicans have stood with civil unions, including Senator Jim Jeffords, who is expected to coast to victory over his opponent, Ed Flanagan, who also happens to be the first openly gay Senate nominee from a major party.

"So now the Democratic Party is in danger of losing a key core constituency while picking up, interestingly enough, the votes and support of the socially liberal Republicans," Nelson said.

Indeed, the legislature's approval of civil unions followed just such a split, with many liberal Republicans voting for the law -- and some of those losing their primary races as a consequence -- and many Democrats voting against it.

Should Dwyer defeat Dean, she is expected to move swiftly to try to repeal the civil unions law. How easy that will be is another question, given that the Supreme Court mandated that gays are entitled to the same legal benefits as heterosexuals.


But there is no question among many voters that repeal of civil unions is the object of this election. "We're going to clean house," said a gas station worker in South Burlington.

Shumlin said he has no regrets. "It's like any civil rights debate," he said. "It's no different than being in Selma during the segregation battle. The first ones out of the gate sometimes get mowed down."

"We haven't lost yet," Shumlin added. "We're still fighting. I still think we have a chance to survive and it's conceivable we'll win."

Dave of St. Albans takes another view: "Gov. Dean said maybe we didn't understand it. Well maybe Gov. Dean, you didn't understand the answer. What part of 'no' didn't you understand?"

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead


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