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Do the right thing
A new book by a Pulitzer-winning Vermont journalist offers lessons to Massachusetts pols struggling with their response to the SJC ruling on gay marriage

Talking with David Moats

THE AUTHOR OF Civil Wars: A Battle for Gay Marriage reflects on civil unions in Vermont and the prospect of gay marriage in Massachusetts.

On how gay-rights advocates came to accept civil unions: "In writing my [Rutland Herald] editorials, I came to the same conclusion as a lot of legislators, which was that a civil union would be the pragmatic compromise. Even [openly gay state representative Bill] Lippert came to that conclusion. It was a compromise, and the advocates had to swallow hard to accept it. Even so, it seemed like a great victory ... because it required people to agree to affirm the relationships of gay and lesbian people in a way they never had before."

On how the civil-union debate changed Vermonters: "This was a great education for the state. People were exposed to issues related to homosexuality and equal rights like never before. Gay-rights advocates had spent years going around the state, talking to groups, trying to educate the public about gay marriage. But this debate went far beyond anything the advocates could have done."

On presidential hopeful Howard Dean’s handling of the civil-union debate: "Dean’s handling of this issue was politically savvy. He saw at the outset that civil unions would be the alternative that would pass and, to his credit, he stuck with it. Once he made that determination, he never wavered."

On the right’s fierce opposition: "Gay-rights issues have been a catalyst for activism within the right wing. This issue, in particular, galvanizes fundamentalists because it goes so deep.... In the first part of the last century, the fundamentalists were galvanized against issues involving science, which challenged their view of the Bible. In the latter part, it was issues related to sexual freedom and changes in the family. People have felt so threatened by that. And homosexuality is something not a lot of people understand. Homosexual behavior seems like nothing but sexual license to a lot of people. So it’s easy for the right to exploit."

On the current gay-marriage debate at the Massachusetts State House: "Maybe it’s a moment of truth for Massachusetts legislators to decide whether they’re willing to do what’s right and to risk their careers for doing it.... It all depends on why you go into politics. If you’re willing to do anything to keep office, that’s one thing. But if you’re interested in doing what’s right on behalf of citizens, sometimes you have to take risks. This is a matter of human dignity and equality. So I’d say, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ No one is hurt by extending equality to everyone."

— Kristen Lombardi

IT WAS THE day Vermont made history in the modern culture wars: December 20, 1999, when the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples are entitled to the same legal benefits as heterosexual couples. Just minutes after the court issued its decision in Baker v. Vermont, then-governor Howard Dean, his current bid for president in mind, whipped into action. He staged an impromptu press conference, where he staked out a position against gay marriage. Instead, he trumpeted an alternative, a "parallel" institution that would offer gay and lesbian couples many of the benefits and privileges of civil marriage under another name.

Pressed on his anti-gay-marriage stance, Dean reacted with his now-infamous candor. "It makes me uncomfortable," he said, "the same as anyone else."

Fast-forward nearly four years to November 18, 2003, the day the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruled on the question of gay marriage. When the SJC handed down its decision in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health — which grants same-sex couples the right to marry under the Massachusetts Constitution — the state’s elected officials showed that not much had changed in the political arena. Governor Mitt Romney wasted no time in denouncing gay marriage and pledging to amend the state constitution to ban such a prospect. Addressing reporters, he later said he’d be willing to craft a bill that would confer some legal benefits on same-sex couples, but that would end "short of marriage." Senate president Robert Travaglini took a more compassionate stance by backing a Vermont-style alternative, while House Speaker Tom Finneran kept quiet. None of the state’s top leaders embraced same-sex marriage.

While the same-sex-marriage debate has since heated up on Beacon Hill, our political leaders’ initial reactions continue to resonate with many Bay State residents, much as Dean’s retort stuck with the Vermonters chronicled in Civil Wars: A Battle for Gay Marriage (Harcourt). Written by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist David Moats, the new book offers an instructive look at how the Green Mountain State handled the momentous Baker ruling, which ordered the Vermont legislature to fashion a law conforming with it. The ensuing debate pitched the state into a fractious divide "unlike anything anyone could remember," Moats explains. Four months later, the legislature passed Vermont’s historic civil-union law, providing a mechanism for same-sex couples to receive the same state-conferred legal benefits as married heterosexual couples.

For Bay Staters, Civil Wars seems to tell a familiar tale. There are the same-sex couples who sued the state government for the right to wed, as well as the lawyers who championed their cause. There is the unparalleled high-court decision, hailed in newspaper and TV headlines nationwide. There is the elation of the gay community and its allies, juxtaposed with the condemnation of conservative and religious groups. There’s even a cameo appearance by Mary Bonauto, the civil-rights director at the Boston-based Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), who assisted lawyers in the Baker case before playing a central role in the Goodridge suit in this state.

Despite such similarities, however, Civil Wars doesn’t offer Massachusetts — especially those state legislators clinging to civil unions as a way to defuse this politically volatile issue — a real road map for the future. In light of the SJC ruling, says Moats, "The Massachusetts legislature ought to forget about the alternatives. Legislators ought to suck it up because the court has decided."

NO VERMONT journalist followed that state’s all-consuming civil-union debate more closely than Moats did. Back in 2000, as the matter made its way through the legislature, the editorial-page editor at the Rutland Herald penned a thoughtful series emphatically favoring what would become the civil-union law. His editorials exposed the flawed reasoning behind arguments against granting gay couples the same marital rights as straight couples — in particular, the idea that the courts should stay out of the political arena (a favorite among those opposing the Massachusetts SJC ruling today). Moats later won a 2001 Pulitzer Prize for his commentary; he received the award just a week after GLAD’s Bonauto filed the Goodridge lawsuit here in the Bay State.

Moats soon realized that he couldn’t put this news story behind him. After all, he says in a telephone interview from his office at the Herald, where he’s worked for 21 years, "This was a controversy that had consumed the state of Vermont like no other." So he revisited the players in the high drama, and uncovered the personal element. "It was the human dimension that I wasn’t able to capture in my editorials."

Civil Wars explores the human dimension in full. Moats brings the public battle over gay marriage to life through people like Robert Kinsey, a long-time Vermont representative whom the author saw as "a sort of Everyman." Kinsey wasn’t a central figure in the civil-union debate, yet he comes across as the epitome of everyday Vermont. He’s a farmer from the "Northeast Kingdom," a husband and a father of seven. He’s a conservative Republican who expected to oppose gay marriage. Instead, he wholeheartedly cast a vote for the next best thing — the civil-union law.

Moats’s heartfelt portrayals of the book’s protagonists speak volumes about the people behind the public debate. Like the deep sense of betrayal that overwhelms Beth Robinson, the attorney who argued the Baker case, in the aftermath of the Vermont ruling. She had grown so invested in the case that she planned her wardrobe for a year just so she could put on a presentable face when the ruling came down. And when it did, all she could do was weep. Like many in the gay community, she initially resisted the parallel institution for gay and lesbian couples. Only begrudgingly did she come to accept the civil-union law.

And then, there’s the excruciating internal struggle of the state’s only openly gay legislator, Bill Lippert. The seasoned state representative — who launched the state’s Gay Pride Parade and formed the Samara Foundation to support homosexuals — had long fought for dignity as a gay person in Vermont. But the civil-union debate became his most demanding fight. On one hand, Lippert knew the gay community was looking to him to champion same-sex marriage. On the other hand, he knew a separate-but-equal institution was the only politically feasible option.

In one of the book’s most moving passages, Lippert delivers an impassioned speech on the House floor about the civil-union bill, defending the rights of gay men and lesbians despite the fact that the measure would stop short of full equality. Moats, who was moved to tears by the speech, says it resonated for him because Lippert had "stripped it to the basics." He explains, "Lippert required people listening to look at him, and he said, ‘Who are we? We’re people who love one another.’ How basic can you get?"

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Issue Date: January 30 - February 5, 2004
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