Panel on gay marriage opens hearings
By Daniel Barlow Vermont Press Bureau | October 11,2007
JOHNSON – Ellen Hill began to cry Wednesday night as she remembered how her conservative father – who once shunned her when she came out as a lesbian – later accepted her partner into their family at their 2000 civil union.
“I could see happy tears in his eyes,” said Hill, a resident of Jeffersonville. “He said that it is not who we love or how we love, but that we love.”
Hill was just one of dozens of gay and lesbian Vermonters who testified in support of same-sex marriage before the Vermont Commission on Family Recognition and Protection during the panel’s first public hearing Wednesday night.
More than 75 people were in the auditorium at Johnson State College and a vast majority of them were in support of extending marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples. Only two people spoke out against gay marriage.
Wednesday’s meeting was the first time the commission, which was formed by the Democratic leaders of the Vermont Legislature this summer, heard directly from residents about the controversial subject they are charged to explore.
Many speakers gave emotional testimony about falling in love with their partners for the first time and the emotional agony they experience because their unions – which Vermont legalized in 2000 – are not recognized by the federal government, most other states and many institutions and businesses.
Michael Saint Joseph on Enosburg Falls compared the “separate, but equal” civil unions to segregationist policies that once had whites and blacks drinking from difference public water fountains.
He added that marriage has a social weight and understanding that civil unions don’t have.
“Marriage is the gold standard in committed relationships for adults,” Saint Joseph said. “We are reaching for that gold, and not just for us, but for our children and our grandchildren.”
Civil unions were a “brave step forward,” said Jeff Towsley of South Burlington, but married couples receive rights that are beyond what gay and lesbian couples have.
He said he was turned down by his employer, the federal post office, to extend his life insurance policy to his partner of 23 years, whom he joined into a civil union with in 2000.
“I want to go to my employer and say I don’t have a civil union anymore, I have a marriage,” Towsley said. “Now tell me why my marriage is not worth as much as my co-worker who is on his third marriage.”
The notion of extending marriage to same-sex couples as an essential civil right was a theme that was repeated throughout the testimony. Sue Morris of Marshfield recalled being active in the 1960s civil rights movement and watching Martin Luther King give his famous “I have a dream” speech.
“I want to thank you for filling in the gaps in the struggle,” she told the commission.
One of the people opposing gay marriage at Wednesday’s meeting was Brian Pearl, a social conservative from Grand Isle who has vowed to challenge Gov. James Douglas for the Republican nomination next year.
Pearl, who was the first to speak, said he worried that legalizing gay marriage would result in minors marrying older members of the same sex. He added that same-sex marriages should not be recognized because the couples cannot procreate as heterosexual couples do.
“That’s why you’ll never win,” Pearl told the commission. “Sodomy is not an acceptable way to consummate a marriage. Even if you get this law, you will not win.”
Claire LaBounty of St. Albans said she “wants to do all she can for gays and lesbians,” but as a Christian believes that marriage is a union devoted only to a husband and wife.
“We ask the commission to recognize marriage as it is now, between a man and a woman,” she said.
Tom Little, the chair of the commission and a former legislator instrumental in the passing of the civil unions bill seven years ago, said that the quality and emotion in the testimony reminded him of that debate seven years ago.
Still, he had hoped for more “supporters of the status quo” to come out. He said the commission might need to do a better job in getting the word out about future meetings. Overall though, this was a good start to the commission’s work, he added.
“I had hoped to hear more diversity in the opinions,” Little said. “I don’t think what we heard tonight is representative of how all Vermonters feel.”
The commission will next meet with legal scholars and law professors at Vermont Law School in South Royalton on Oct. 29. The second public hearing on gay marriage is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 19 at Lyndon State College.
Written testimony on gay marriage can be sent to: The Vermont Commission on Family Recognition and Protection, c/o Legislative Council, 115 State St., Montpelier, VT 05633-5301 and emailed to RDaniels@leg.state.vt.us
Contact Daniel Barlow at Daniel.Barlow@rutlandherald.com