State Of The 'Union'

After 17 years together, Patricia Peard and Alice Brock didn't think they needed a ceremony to prove their love. But when they heard last summer that Vermont had just become the first state in the country to grant gays and lesbians marriagelike "civil unions," the two couldn't resist the lure of making their bond official. Peard and Brock planned a pilgrimage from their Maine home. Steering their station wagon along Vermont's winding roads one August afternoon, the two chatted excitedly. Just across the state line, however, they began to spot the signs--homemade placards with black and white lettering: take back Vermont. Peard didn't know exactly what they meant, but she knew it wasn't good. "I know these are against us," she told Brock. "I can just tell."

Though they didn't know it at the time, Peard and Brock had driven headlong into a gay-rights controversy that has roiled Vermont since the civil-unions law passed earlier this year. To the rest of the country, it was no surprise that lefty Vermont--home of Ben & Jerry's, the alternative-rock band Phish and socialist Congressman Bernie Sanders--would take the first tentative step toward gay marriage. But inside the state, it has been a far different story. Never popular to begin with, civil unions have now sharply divided Vermonters into two camps. Across the state, 5,000 take back Vermont signs hang on barns and line the roads. Gay activists have responded with a slogan of their own: "Take Vermont Forward." "It's pitted friends against friends," says Marion Spooner, who recently planted an anti-gay-union placard next to her roadside ad for pure maple syrup. "It's just like the North-and-South war." In some towns, officials have refused to fill out the paperwork or perform the ceremony. The civil-unions clash has consumed Vermonters, filling the airwaves and op-ed pages, and all boiling down to a single, emotional question: are you for them, or against them?

Leo Valliere, for one, is firmly against. A furniture maker from the granite town of Barre, he was disgusted by the civil-unions law. "We swung way to the left in Vermont," he says. "Now we want to swing back." Like many "woodchucks," as rural Vermonters call themselves, Valliere despises the image of Vermont as a playground for sandal-wearing "flatlanders" from out of state. He worries the state will become a new gay mecca, better known for civil unions than for its sharp cheddar. The nationwide response to the law has only confirmed Valliere's fears. It has prompted an influx of gay couples who want to get hitched. Out-of-staters have accounted for 600 of the 800 civil unions in Vermont since July.

Yet for many Vermonters, the civil-union law is just the latest in a string of indignities. They grumble that politicians now favor arriviste hikers and skiers over farmers and loggers, imposing new environmental rules that restrict how they use their land and which trees they can chop. On top of all that, says Neal Laybourne, a pastor who helped organize the sign campaign, the pro-gay law was a step too far. "It's not just this issue," he says, insisting that the protesters aren't homophobic. "If we were anti-gay, we'd be trying to pass anti-sodomy laws or kick them out of the state." Fed up, Valliere is running for a seat in the state legislature. His top priority: repealing the civil-union law.

The backlash surprised Vermont politicians. Last winter, the state Supreme Court ordered the legislature to grant gays and lesbians the same rights as heterosexuals. Otherwise, the justices hinted, they might legalize gay marriage. Worried pols came up with a weaker--and they thought less controversial--compromise: civil unions, which offer all the state-given rights of marriage like inheritance and next-of-kin status, but avoid the loaded M word. "I thought it would be easier for the state to digest," says Republican Tom Little, who helped draft the law. Instead, Vermonters were furious. Polls showed that more than half of the voters opposed civil unions. Now it's payback time. Five Republican representatives targeted by anti-gay-union activists were defeated in the September primary. One was Marion Milne, a 65-year-old grandmother of seven. She voted for the measure despite opposition from the folks back home and was trounced in the primary by a onetime friend. She's now running in the general election as an independent. Even Democratic Gov. Howard Dean has seen his popularity plummet since he signed the bill. The Yankee pol could be unseated by Ruth Dwyer, a Republican who names Robert E. Lee as the person she admires most--and who vows to repeal the law.

Plenty of gay and lesbian Vermonters would be happy to do just that--and replace it with a law allowing them to marry like heterosexuals. Chris Tebbetts and his partner, Jonathan Radigan, had mixed feelings when they decided to get "unionized" this summer. They weren't sure how to celebrate what wasn't quite a wedding. "It was like, 'Woo-hoo, we're on the back of the bus'," says Radigan. But after they picked up their license from the town clerk, they were surprisingly moved when a justice of the peace performed the brief ceremony in their living room. "I feel like we planned a brunch and a trip, and wound up having a wedding and honeymoon," Tebbetts says. They might have found a champion in state auditor Ed Flanagan, the first openly gay candidate for the U.S. Senate. Though Flanagan had hoped to run on economic issues and health care, he's been bombarded with questions about civil unions, and is trailing in the polls. If it weren't for the controversy, he laments, "my sexual orientation would be a distinctly second issue, if an issue at all."

So far, no other state has followed Vermont's lead in sanctioning same-sex unions. The next legal battle could come when gay couples from outside Vermont take their civil unions home and demand that their states honor them, too. "It's not like you grab the civil union and try to run into court," says the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund's Evan Wolfson. But "at some point, there will be a crisis that will result in litigation."

But for "newlyweds" Patricia Peard and Alice Brock, civil unions are more about love than lawsuits. When they arrived in Corinth for their union, they were stunned to find that theofficial granting the license--a total stranger--was thrilled to see them. His wife insisted they hold the ceremony on her deck and surprised them with wine and hors d'oeuvres afterward. Driving home to Maine, they once again passed the take back Vermont signs. But this time, the slogan didn't seem nearly so ominous. Clutching their new civil-union certificate, the women were taking back a bit of Vermont for themselves.

State Of The 'Union' | News