Heroes in Unlikely Places

They are older now – some hunched at the waist. Others grayer, slower. Some limping, having to sit. Not quite the Greatest Generation talking about Normandy Beach. But for many people – pretty darn close.

 

They gathered in a small bucolic spot between the Vermont Supreme Court and the Statehouse, where between 2000 and 2009, Vermont became the first state to give full marriage equality to gay and lesbian couples by vote of its elected representatives.

 

You can read the long history here.

 

https://vtdigger.org/2017/10/18/gay-marriage-marker-dedicated-statehouse-lawn/#.Wefj3IYpA_U

 

 

The Vermont General Assembly granted “civil union’’ rights to the couples in 2000. And then in 2009, the legislature granted full marriage rights, overriding a governor’s veto along the way in a harrowing political drama that none of us who were there will ever forget.

 

It has been almost 10 years since the bill passed. And it is easy to forget the drama. But this week, it all came rushing back. And after the speeches and a typical Vermont reception of cheddar cheese, these heroes went their separate ways, back to their lives.

 

No big deal, except that they changed the world.

It began when the Supreme Court ruled that the couples were being discriminated against because they couldn’t join together under the state constitution the way heterosexual couples could. In Vermont, we have a pesky line in our Constitution that guarantees its citizens “equal benefits.’’

 

The court threw it to the legislature, which began an epic debate and political journey that spread like fire to other states and then forced the hand of the U.S. Supreme Court to grant marriage equality across the country in 2015.

 

And there they were under the sun this week:

 

Bill Lippert, the state representative who chaired a key committee and made many an emotional speech as an openly gay legislator when that was a novelty and sometimes dangerous.

 

Tom Little, a former legislator who chaired the Judiciary committee in the House that invented the term “civil union.’’

 

Beth Robinson, the little known lawyer from Middlebury who took up the case, argued it before the Vermont Supreme Court and led the political effort to pass the laws. (She is now a Vermont Supreme Court Justice)

 

Gaye Symington, the former speaker of the House who did unsung political work behind the scenes to get people elected who would vote for the bill.

 

Steve Kimbell, the legendary lobbyist, now retired, who worked on the issue for Beth Robinson for more than 10 years. (Conflict Alert! My former business partner)

 

Michael Obuchowski, another former House speaker, who persuaded a nervous House to vote for the Civil Unions bill.

 

The couples who brought the original lawsuit – Stan Baker and Peter Harrigan. Lois Farnham and Holly Puterbaugh. Just regular Vermonters who believed in love and their rights.

 

Some were not there, including the late Marion Milne, my former representative, who voted for the bill, knowing she would lose her seat as a Republican in a conservative district. “I will not be silenced by prejudice and fear,’’ she said.

 

Shap Smith, another former House Speaker, who engineered the marriage equality vote and overrode the veto, was across the street in a government office, living his life as a lawyer, probably remembering that morning when he came to the Statehouse without knowing if the necessary votes were there.

 

Peter Shumlin, a former governor and state senator, who marched into my office one day and declared: “We are doing this.”

 

There was also forgiveness. Vermont’s current Republican governor Phil Scott actually opposed the civil union bill and campaigned against it. In a classy move, he says now he was wrong in that position. And in an even classier move, these heroes, mostly Democrats, recognized that the governor is the governor, and he should be a featured speaker at this ceremony.

 

These Vermonters – and hundreds of others – now have their own historic marker on the Statehouse lawn. Wow.