Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Marriage Equality Knocking at the Door

Watching Gov. Jim Douglas during the leadup to the Legislature’s votes on gay marriage, you could almost get the feeling that -- for once in his political life -- the governor would Do the Right Thing. Perhaps despite his personal misgivings, Douglas would step aside and let freedom to marry reign in Vermont.

That naïve optimism was dashed last week, when Douglas announced that he will veto marriage equality for gay people when the bill reaches his desk.

And so in the history books, Gov. Douglas will join Gov. George Wallace at the schoolhouse door, trying vainly to turn back the tide to a time of separate and unequal.

Thankfully, Douglas and many of Vermont’s gay marriage opponents lack the bigotry that marked Wallace’s effort to block African-Americans from equal education. But Douglas’s stance is equally benighted, unfair, and out of step with the evolving ethos of our time.

History surely will judge it that way, just as it judged opposition to the first civil rights movement. That movement has in turn inspired the drive to achieve full civil rights regardless of sexual orientation.

But history’s judgment will probably come too late to achieve justice for gay people in Vermont this year.

Despite the rousing super-majority for gay marriage in the Senate – where only four of 30 senators opposed it – it will be tough to for the House to overcome Douglas’s veto this year.

I won’t recite here all the arguments for marriage equality. But a couple observations about why this has become such an important issue for America, even as we’re being told we should all be thinking about the bad economy all the time:

First, life ain’t always just about the money.

Second, as being gay becomes more acceptable in mainstream society, we’re coming to see that equal rights and status for gays affect far more of us than we ever thought.

Third, allowing gay marriage has the potential to be transformative for America. Ultimately we only benefit when equal opportunity prevails. When we embrace diverse ways of being in the world – black and white, right and left, straight and gay -- we are enriched as a society.

As I’ve said here before, I came to fervently believe in the urgency of allowing gay people to marry – and not just civilly unite over there in some kind of open-air closet – when my close friend Dan and my teenage niece Clara came out as gay.

I might have previously thought, along with Gov. Douglas, that marriage should be “just between a man and a woman.” But having once been happily married for many years, who am I to deny that same opportunity to some of the friends and family I love -- and by extension to other people who happen to be gay?

Obviusly I’m not alone in this view.

Seemingly overnight last Sunday, a crowd of more than 300 people mobilized to gather at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on the Middlebury Green in support of marriage equality.

The governor’s announcement also earned him a spirited crowd on his doorstep in Montpelier the morning after he launched his veto rocket.

Douglas’s pronouncements on gay marriage have been especially interesting. He’s recently proclaimed himself a fervent supporter of civil unions, though he hardly led the charge on that issue. For months he kept quiet on whether he would veto gay marriage. Then he declared he would in fact nix the bill, declaring it to be “a distraction” from the real issue of the economy.

You can look up that last statement in the dictionary under “disingenuous.” After saying for months that he never issued veto warnings in advance, the governor’s veto-warning-in-advance set off a political firestorm. It’s become the distraction of the day, as surely he knew it would.

When you’re governor and you can’t do anything about an economy that now has rocketed Vermont’s unemployment rate to 7 percent and rising, ignite a distraction on gay marriage. While insisting all along, of course, that the Legislature should focus on the economy, stupid -- and forget all this foolishness about equal rights.

* * *

Much of the opposition to gay marriage comes from people with religious concerns, of course.

But for decades in America, we’ve wisely carved out a huge space for marriages that are not conducted or sanctioned by a church. Should you happen to want to marry someone of the opposite sex without involving religion, you can easily get a piece of paper from the City Hall that will keep you tied and true.

Yet America has a funny view of marriage, wrapped in religiosity and the ridiculous. Which is a damn shame for an institution that so many of us hold sacred.

Americans sanction unions between straight people that are conducted by “ministers” who bought their holy credentials through an ad in the back of Rolling Stone. We honor ceremonies for male-female couples that are conducted by Elvis impersonators inside chapels in Las Vegas and, for all I know, Barre, Vt.

But heaven help you if you would prefer to marry someone of your own gender, inside a church or down at the town clerk’s office.

Fortunately, the misplaced religious barriers to gay marriage are eroding, and this is thanks in part to the satirists. As comedian Jon Stewart pointed out during a raucous show at UVM last weekend, the Bible has passages against homosexuality, and the Bible also says you shouldn’t eat shellfish. Forget gay marriage, Stewart advised. What religious conservatives should do is try to close down Red Lobster restaurants.

You know things have begun to change in Vermont when even the Burlington Free Press has done an astounding and courageous turnabout to support gay marriage, less than a decade after it opposed even civil unions.

We see transitions like that because debate about marriage equality is in part a debate about what we are as a society, and how compassionately we can live on this planet.

Why not just settle for civil unions? As writer Steve Silberman muses in the current issue of Shambhala Sun about the decision he and his longtime partner Keith made to get married:

“Certain words have alchemical power. A humble noun or verb can become a transformative mantra. Embracing the word ‘marriage’ had a subtle but profound effect on our relationship, like unlocking a door to a secret garden that only other married people know about.”

It’s time we unlocked that door for everybody.

Whether it’s this year or at some point in the future, Americans will sweep aside the governors blocking that door. We will unlock that door.

Love will find a way.

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Anonymous Julie Roads said...

What a wonderful post...got here via the Midd group on LinkedIn (class of '95) - and so glad that I did. Delighted to 'meet' you...
Julie (Fisher) Roads

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