Social justice tied up in gay rights
My friends Sandi and Bobbi have shared more than 40 years of committed union, relishing life's joys together, and supporting one another through its challenges. They work hard at their jobs, take care of their family and contribute to their community. Yet our laws still deny them the full dignity, respect and protections of legal marriage. This state of affairs not only undermines families, it raises issues of basic justice under our laws.
Marriage has always been a critical focus of the work of civil rights. In the 19th and 20th centuries, we dramatically transformed our marriage laws, from stripping a married woman of her ability to sign contracts or own property to treating her as a legal equal to her husband. This evolution in marriage was an essential part of a broader social movement toward fairness for women.
In the later 20th century, we again changed our marriage laws in momentous ways by eliminating race-based restrictions in marriage. Advocates for racial equality worked hard to eliminate the ban on interracial marriage — not because interracial couples were lining up in droves to marry and not primarily in order to ensure that such couples got health insurance or other benefits — but because they understood the power of our marriage laws to perpetuate and reinforce racial division.
The defining civil rights struggle of this generation involves gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans who live in cities and towns throughout the country, engage in all walks of life, worship in a range of churches, and form families, both with and without children, that are central to our identity and purpose. Once again, questions about the assumptions and regulations surrounding our marriage laws are back on the table. It makes sense. Marriage is a central institution in our society; we know from history that you can't ignore the government's regulation of marriage if you're serious about advancing legal fairness and social justice.
Recognizing the importance of this conversation, House Speaker Gaye Symington and Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin have formed a blue ribbon commission to ask, among other things, whether there's a good reason to keep separate legal structures for same-sex couples and heterosexual couples in Vermont. They should be commended. By creating a forum to air the debate, and appointing a diverse collection of respected listeners, these leaders have given all of us an opportunity to engage in this vital back-and-forth in a civil, respectful setting.
Some have argued that we shouldn't have this discussion because it may be divisive. For many of us, what's divisive is laws that put families formed by same-sex couples in a separate category from families formed by heterosexual couples. The commission process won't create division; it will respond to the fissures that exist in our laws to help heal the division.
That's not to say that the conversation will be easy. The quest for social justice has never been painless, and the institution of marriage is meaningful to people on all sides of the debate. The same factors that make it hard to talk about changes to our marriage laws highlight the importance of those changes.
That said, the world has changed considerably since passage of our civil union law in 2000. The vast majority of Vermonters now understand that extending legal protections to gay and lesbian couples makes some families stronger and more secure, while hurting nobody. By all indications, this go-round will be far less acrimonious than the last chapter.
Some have faulted Symington and Shumlin for considering this topic at a time when Vermont faces so many other challenges. But these leaders didn't invent the issue: It's undeniably here. The commission was a response to feedback from the many Vermonters who want to see fairness and protections for same-sex couples alongside other bread-and-butter issues on the leadership's list of priorities.
And they have not put the matter at the top of their legislative agenda. The commission they've formed is primarily a citizen panel. Its work will occur outside of the Statehouse. Given the commission's mandate and timing, it's very unlikely that the Legislature will pass a marriage bill in 2008. Rather than diverting the Legislature from its top priorities this session, these leaders have found a way to foster grassroots discussion of an important issue that will inevitably find its way back to the statehouse, while keeping the Legislature focused primarily on other challenges facing this state including energy policy, affordable housing, health care and education.
Some people have asked why this conversation is necessary. Isn't the civil union law enough? For those of us who support full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender citizens, the civil union law was never an end point. It represented a wrenching compromise between justice on the one hand, and no legal security at all on the other. It provided a means of delivering some protections to same-sex couples, while stopping short of affording genuine equality under the law. It offered us an opportunity to demonstrate to ambivalent Vermonters that their fears about recognizing and supporting our families weren't well founded, while still leaving our families far more vulnerable to life's tragedies and challenges than our heterosexual counterparts.
The civil union law made sense in 2000 as a matter of politics. It's never made sense as a matter of fairness. Vermont has extended some legal rights to same-sex couples; the time is ripe to extend equal rights to gay and lesbian Vermonters.
Beth Robinson is co-counsel to the plaintiffs in Baker v. State, the same-sex marriage case decided by the Vermont Supreme Court in 1999, and chairwoman of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force.