In Gay Union Vote, Vermont Keeps Mind of Its Own

Updated: Aug 26

But not all residents like state's latest way of showing independence


Carolyn Lochhead

April 27, 2000


2000-04-27 Montpelier, Vt. -- Vermont may be one of the last places in America that still looks like a place. It is authentic New England, a Disneyland without Disney. Church steeples rise from town squares. Villages dot valleys, strung together by winding roads and country stores with screened doors. Citizens gather at town meetings.


All in all, it seems an unlikely place for a social revolution.


But in the space of the last four months, Vermont pitched itself headlong into one of the most controversial issues in America, wrestling in full-throated debate, citizen by citizen, over the role of homosexuals in society. And this week, it was Vermont that emerged at the vanguard of social change in America, granting gays and lesbians every right of marriage in a new form of social contract -- the civil union.


To be sure, a lot of Vermonters are not happy about this. Many have vowed to throw out their legislators who voted for the civil union bill -- including their governor, Howard Dean, who signed it into law yesterday -- and replace them come November.


Yet even so, people in Vermont are not all that surprised.


"There's always got to be a first in Vermont," said Robert Fusco, chatting at a country store in Middlesex, population 5,000. He personally doesn't believe in gay marriage because, "It just isn't right. It's not the way Adam and Eve meant it." Nonetheless, he shrugged, "Vermont is a very liberal state."


Vermont's "firsts" and its liberalism go hand in hand -- and they go way back, well before San Francisco was San Francisco. There are more than 300 years of them, a long history of a ferocious defense of personal freedom that never hesitated to defy conventional thinking.


Photo by Carolyn Lochhead


Vermont was a free Republic when the other colonies were still fighting for independence. Vermont was the first state after the original 13 to join the Union. It was the first to abolish property qualifications for voting, and the first to call for direct election of its governor. Vermont was the first state to abolish slavery. It was the first state to elect a woman lieutenant governor. And it is the only state that has a Socialist representative in Congress.


Vermont's hero of the American Revolution was Ethan Allen, who declared in 1781 that he was "resolutely determined to defend the independence of Vermont -- and rather than fail, will retire with the hardy Green Mountain Boys into the desolate caverns of the mountains and wage war with Human Nature at large."


Is it any surprise that Vermont is now the first to grant the closest thing to gay marriage short of marriage itself?


"Why Vermont? Why not?" asked Lois Farnham, one of the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case that in December ruled unconstitutional the state's denial of marital benefits and privileges to gays, opening the debate that led Vermont this week to create homosexual civil unions.


"I'm a Vermonter," Farnham said. "I'm proud of the fact that I was born here. My family's here and has been for generations. Vermont is very independent. It's a live-and-let- live society." Farnham said she filed suit because, simply, "Somebody's got to be first."


Many Vermonters think their state is in fact waging Ethan Allen's "war with Human Nature" by adopting the equivalent of gay marriage. "God's plan is one woman and one man," declared Elaine Hoadley of Waterbury. Homosexuality, she said, "is not acceptable or normal behavior. I feel it's something in the genes when they were born that went wrong."


And many believe that actual gay marriage, in name as well as substance, is headed their way fast.


"The next step is gay marriage," said Tina, a 30-something native who would only give her first name. "I know in those small towns, Chelsea, Washington, Cambridge, those people are old school, and to them it's sick -- a lot of people just won't talk about it. The older people especially -- people like my father -- are really having a hard time with this."


But others, like George Spontak of Montpelier, said Vermont's action "made me so proud. Vermont is a very special place, it's very free and open and very tolerant. I'm totally proud to be a Vermonter."


And so the Vermont legislature plowed ahead. As the debate over homosexuality raged inside the statehouse chamber on Tuesday, the engraved marble plaques in the halls outside, quoting Vermont's storied history of independence and liberty, took on a freshly poignant meaning:


"Born of a resistance to arbitrary power -- her first voice a declaration of equal rights of man -- how could her people be other than haters of slavery -- how can they do less than sympathize with every human being and every community which asserts the rights of all men to blessings like their own?"


Vermont acted again to extend its blessings to "every community," including gays and lesbians, based on the "common benefits" clause of its constitution that predates the 14th Amendment's "equal protection" clause of the U.S. constitution by nearly a century.


Its citizens, whether they agree or disagree with the action, are not surprised that their picturesque rural state that appears rooted in the 19th century is again at the vanguard of a revolution.


"We're just restating that we all have our rights made inalienable under the Constitution," said Pamela Brady, stopping at the Montpelier post office. "I think we are setting a precedent for the rest of the country, and soon other states will follow in our footsteps."


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