Out for good
By KEVIN O’CONNOR
Staff Writer | April 27,2008
Photo by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
Bennett Law is founder of the Gay & Lesbian Fund of Vermont.
As a gay man, Bennett Law can list several personal milestones: "coming out" in 1982, meeting his boyfriend in 1997, joining in a civil union in 2002. Then came the day in 2005 when, driving on a local road, he eyed a ragged but still readable "Take Back Vermont" sign hung by gay-rights opponents almost a decade ago.
"I never really understood those," the 49-year-old Bethel resident says, "but I got the sense there were people who felt that something had been taken away from them, that the gay and lesbian community in Vermont always wants something."
He cites the call for a hate crimes law, adopted by the Legislature in 1990. For legal recognition of same-sex partnerships, adopted in 2000. For anti-discrimination protection for transgender people, adopted last year.
"I think of those things as civil rights, but I sensed that some people felt the gay and lesbian community always asked for or demanded things. They didn't share my understanding of the extent to which the community really gives back."
Law, a vice president at National Life Group in Montpelier, sees the proof when he scans the names of contributors in playbills and nonprofit annual reports statewide.
"Knowing a lot of very active and involved gay and lesbian people, I thought Vermont would come to a standstill if they weren't participating. So the issue was how to draw attention to what our community already is doing. What's the most efficient, effective way to do that?"
That's when he thought up the Gay & Lesbian Fund of Vermont.
No, it's not another nonprofit with a pricey office and staff duplicating the work of too many other struggling organizations. Instead, Law simply asked friends and acquaintances who donate to charity to let him add a cover letter saying the money came from someone who's gay, lesbian or an ally.
Since its start two springs ago, the fund has spread the word through more than $33,000 in contributions to more than 130 nonprofits. This year it hopes to add its name to another $50,000 in charitable giving.
The fund is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation. But its founder, sharing his personal story, can generate just as much interest.
Testing the waters
Law grew up in Foxborough, Mass., home of football's New England Patriots. His father led both the local American Legion and Masonic Lodge. So imagine waking up one day and realizing your sexuality is foreign to your family and 90 percent of the townsfolk around you.
"Most people don't understand that the very hardest person to come out to is yourself," Law says. "I had all those clichéd fears, uncertainties and anxieties about what kind of life am I going to have if I'm gay?"
Law says his sexuality isn't a choice, but settling in the Green Mountains was. His parents didn't attend college, so he had to figure out how and where to apply. Vermont seemed unlikely after the chilly reception his family received during its one and only visit — an overnight camping trip to Plymouth's Coolidge State Park.
"In August," he recalls, "and it went below freezing. We were completely unprepared. My father thought we were all going to freeze to death."
So what made him warm up to the University of Vermont?
"Pictures of Lake Champlain," he says with a laugh. "UVM sent me pictures of Lake Champlain."
Law enrolled in UVM's College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences in 1976. After going on for a graduate degree in actuarial science at the University of Nebraska, he returned to Vermont in 1982 to work at National Life.
Today's he's vice president of policy forms and general services, heading a department of about 70 people. But starting his career, he didn't feel as firmly positioned. Although he had come to terms with his sexuality, he didn't tell anyone at work. Then in 1994 he heard that an arson fire had ravaged the Burlington headquarters of Vermont CARES, the AIDS service organization for 10 of the state's 14 counties.
Law wrote a check for $1,000. He then asked National Life's spokesman if the company would match it.
Brian Vachon, the now retired communications chief, remembers what happened next.
"I didn't know Bennett very well then," Vachon says, "but with that level of commitment, of course we said yes."
For Law, it was a baptismal moment.
"Coming out at the office was something I was unsure about. I was testing the waters, and I was able to passionately advocate for something that was related to the gay community."
The community, in turn, took notice.
'My aha moment'
Directors at Vermont CARES didn't know Law, but they soon called to thank him. Later they asked him to join them. Later they asked him to lead them.
Emboldened, Law went on to serve as chairman of the board of Mountain Pride Media (former publishers of Out in the Mountains newspaper), an adviser to the Vermont Unity Project gay and lesbian grant program, a director of his Granite Hills Credit Union and a trustee at Randolph's Gifford Medical Center. He since has moved on to the boards of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force and Action Committee.
Somehow amid it all he found time to meet his partner, Tom Bivins, executive chef at Montpelier's New England Culinary Institute. The two, joining in a civil union in 2002, honeymooned by visiting seemingly every Roman Catholic shrine in Italy. Penning an Out in the Mountains feature headlined "Bennett & Tom's Excellent Adventure," the insurance executive revealed a more relaxed, irreverent side.
"They only seem to have Italian food in Italy," Law wrote. "Don't the Italians ever eat Chinese?"
Back home, the two settled into a home in Bethel. Law liked the fact it's an easy half-hour drive from the state's capital. But years after the supposed last words of the 2000 civil union debate, he didn't understand why he kept commuting past "Take Back Vermont" signs.
"I started thinking, ‘I wonder if people understand how central gays and lesbians are to the fabric of the whole state?'"
Weeding in his backyard one day in 2005, he dug further into the question. He saw how a lack of knowledge leads to misperceptions, fear and hatred. Yet because that leads many gays and lesbians to stay quiet, "the impact that my community is having on the quality of life in the state is often invisible."
What to do?
"People don't really need to do anything differently — all we need to change is the awareness of what's already happening. I thought somebody should do something about this. My ‘aha' moment was, ‘That somebody could be me.'"
And so Law dreamed up the fund. People could still make personal contributions to their favorite charities. They'd simply send him the organization's name and address, include a check made out to the fund and let him add a cover letter noting the gay and lesbian connection before he sent the money to its recipient.
The idea was simple. Making it work legally wasn't.
A public face
Law learned he'd have to form a government-approved nonprofit organization. That brought a long list of requirements. To start, he'd have to register a name with the Vermont secretary of state.
That brought another long list. People who aren't "straight" wear many different labels: Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning — how do you fit them all into a title without everyone else tuning out?
Law decided on the Gay & Lesbian Fund of Vermont and the tagline, "Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Vermonters and their allies contributing to a better world." He then spent a year filling out all the required state and federal paperwork, finding friends to serve on a volunteer board and forging a set of bylaws.
The fund is most striking, however, for what it lacks: An office, endowment, phone or paid staff.
Instead, a Web site — www.glfundvt.org — informs donors how to give through check or credit card (a $5 surcharge covers processing and postage). Law then adds a personalized letter ("Please acknowledge this gift in any annual report or other donor listing as received from the Gay & Lesbian Fund of Vermont," it concludes) before sending on the contribution.
Such simplicity comes with a few disclaimers. Law must spend an average of two hours each weekend on paperwork. And contributors can't give to political causes — only federally approved 501(c)3 nonprofits. But people can — and do — give to most everything else.
"The Gay & Lesbian Fund of Vermont is pleased to make the enclosed donation of $50 to the Rutland County Humane Society," Law wrote in one recent cover letter. "Thank you for your feral cat assistance program and the safe haven you provide for homeless pets, the pet adoption, spaying and neutering assistance you provide, the dog obedience training you offer, and your commitment to the humane treatment of animals."
Law has sent similar letters to the Vermont Land Trust, the American Cancer Society, Doctors Without Borders and more than 100 other local, state, national and international charities.
Although the fund allows donors to give anonymously, most want their names included with their contributions. Interest in putting a public face on the issue is so high, the fund also organizes an "Out for Good" volunteer program that has aided public broadcasting pledge drives, Habitat for Humanity building projects and Vermont Special Olympics' annual "Penguin Plunge."
That last fund-raiser requires participants to dive into picture-perfect Lake Champlain — in February. Remembering Coolidge State Park in August, Law has yet to try it. But his group's participation "reinforces the fact our community is everywhere and we're involved in everything."
'This is a surprise'
Some gay activists push their message with megaphone chants of "We're Here, We're Queer, Get Used to It!" Law is a quieter presence.
"I've never been the spray-painting activist kind of guy. I don't think there's any question about whether we exist. My impetus is, are we seen as a positive force?"
His peers view Law as one. Susan Murray, a Ferrisburgh lawyer who helped argue the court case that led to civil unions, sits on the fund's board. She appreciates not only its mission but also the man behind it.
"It is a delight to serve with Bennett," Murray says. "He's thoughtful, inclusive and open to suggestions, but he's also very focused and dedicated to the cause."
The fund, for its part, has received unanimously favorable feedback from donors and recipients. Law points to a letter of thanks from the White River Valley Ambulance.
"I think the initial response from beneficiaries sometimes is, ‘Oh, this is a surprise, the Gay & Lesbian Fund supporting the ambulance service?' But the smaller, the more localized the nonprofit, the more likely I am to get a really nice call. Friends of the New Haven Community Library, the Charlotte Food Shelf — they've been very appreciative."
His neighbors in Bethel are supportive, too. Political scientists consider the small Windsor County town a bellwether because its voting results in the past five elections have matched Vermont totals more closely than any other municipality in the state. Other than seeing a stray "Take Back Vermont" sign, Law hasn't faced any blatant discrimination. After his civil union, locals even threw a party.
Then again, one older couple didn't attend. They could accept two men living together but felt a legal connection was "too much." On another occasion, Law wrote a letter to a local weekly noting everyone on his road could say they had a gay neighbor. In the next issue, someone responded: "No, we don't."
That's where the fund aims to generate dollars and sense. Law recalls coming out to one fellow resident.
"She said to me, ‘Where is the gay and lesbian community?' I said, ‘Here, standing right beside you.' Some people have a sense we're geographically or economically isolated. This makes them understand we're participating all over the state."
And in every neighborhood.
"If I look at my personal motivations and really be honest, there's a key desire for acceptance here, isn't there? I want all Vermonters to recognize the positive contributions of the gay and lesbian community. But I guess that's because I want me to be accepted here."
And that ultimately makes him no different than anyone else.
Contact Kevin O'Connor at firstname.lastname@example.org.