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2009-04-08

In Historic Vote, Vermont Legislature Legalizes Gay Marriage

Guests

Beth Robinson, Lawyer and board chair of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force and Action Committee.

Rep. Bill Lippert, Vermont state legislator, chair of Vermont House Judiciary Committee, and longtime gay rights activist.

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The Vermont legislature made history Tuesday by becoming the first in the nation to vote in favor of gay marriage. Vermont lawmakers had voted for a same-sex marriage bill last week, but it was short of a veto-overriding majority, and Governor Jim Douglas vetoed the bill Monday. But on Tuesday, enough House members switched sides to override the veto and voted 100-to-49 to make gay marriage legal. House Speaker Shap Smith announced the final tally to resounding applause. We speak with Vermont state legislator Bill Lippert and Beth Robinson, an attorney who has led the struggle to legalize gay marriage for years. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Vermont legislature made history on Tuesday by becoming the first in the nation to vote in favor of gay marriage. Vermont lawmakers had voted for a same-sex marriage bill last week, but it was short of a veto-overriding majority, and Governor Jim Douglas vetoed the bill on Monday. But on Tuesday, enough House members switched sides to override the veto and voted 100-to-49 to make gay marriage legal.

House Speaker Shap Smith announced the final tally to resounding applause.

    REP. SHAP SMITH: Please listen to the results of your vote: those voting yes, a hundred; those voting no, forty-nine. Hundred needed to pass, you have voted to override the veto. The House will come to order.

AMY GOODMAN: Vermont is now the fourth state in the country to recognize gay marriage. Massachusetts, Connecticut and, as of last week, Iowa, achieved this through court rulings. Vermont is the first to do so through legislative action. In 2000, Vermont was the first state to adopt civil unions for same-sex couples.

I’m joined now by two guests in Burlington, Vermont. Beth Robinson is a lawyer and board chair of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force and Action Committee. Bill Lippert is a Vermont state legislator, the chair of the Vermont House Judiciary Committee, a longtime gay rights activist. They’ve been at the forefront of the struggle to legalize gay marriage in Vermont.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Well, let’s start with Bill Lippert. How did you feel yesterday in the legislature in Vermont when this history-making override took place?

REP. BILL LIPPERT: Well, it was — I was ecstatic and, frankly, moved to tears. The vote was so close, and the chamber was filled with so many supporters, and some opponents, but it was just a moment of real joy and great emotion to have finally achieved marriage equality in Vermont after all the years of working toward this.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how the struggle began in the state legislature. I mean, it’s interesting. Vermont was the first to approve civil unions, and yet that seems passé now.

REP. BILL LIPPERT: How quickly civil unions became the conservative alternative to full marriage equality. As a number of us have said in 2000, creating civil unions, in my view, was bold and courageous when we weren’t able to achieve full marriage equality. There simply weren’t the votes. There simply, in my view, hadn’t been yet enough opportunity to have the conversation with enough Vermonters. I think the civil unions changed the landscape of our country by creating the first legal recognition for gay and lesbian couples in the country.

But I’ll credit Beth and the Vermont Freedom to Marry group for really carrying forward the message, the ongoing message, for Vermont over the past ten years. And we in the legislature continued to work toward this achievement, but it was really the grassroots movement of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force and others who continued the conversation all throughout the state.

And that was demonstrated by the fact that when we went to introduce the marriage equality bill in the House this year, I think we had fifty-nine co-sponsors, which was an extraordinary achievement, given that in 2000, in an amendment to try to enact full marriage, I believe there were twenty-two votes on the floor in 2000. So, going from twenty-two votes to fifty-nine co-sponsors was a dramatic achievement. And even the passage of the bill, with 95-to-52, way, way more than a majority in the House, was — you know, was tremendous. Of course, the override was the best.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill, what does marriage provide that civil unions don’t provide?

REP. BILL LIPPERT: Well, clearly, marriage provides access to the institution of marriage, which has deep, deep meaning. And again, Beth has articulated this so many times, and I feel, some ways, like an echo of what I’ve heard Beth articulate. But it’s really true, that for couples who are in a civil union, nevertheless, having access to the institution of marriage really brings the sense of full equality. In addition, there are tangible legal benefits in some circumstances, but also the access to the possibility of all the federal benefits, which really are not accessible until we have marriage and can then challenge the federal government’s failure to provide those benefits.

AMY GOODMAN: Beth Robinson, as you sit next to Bill Lippert, you were yesterday in the legislature in Vermont. Talk about the whole movement that you really have been a leader of over these years, how it began, and how it culminated in yesterday’s vote.

BETH ROBINSON: You know, we founded an organization called Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force in 1995, and at the time it really was designed to kind of lay the groundwork for a lawsuit. I’m an attorney, and along with my law partner Susan Murray and Mary Bonauto from Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, we were planning to bring a marriage case in Vermont, which we did in 1997. So the organizing was really to try to do some education and political work around that.

The Baker case resulted in kind of a mixed decision, because the court recognized that our laws were unconstitutional, but it stopped short of addressing this ultimate question of whether we have a legally protected right to be married and instead said that, at a minimum, we have a legally protected right to all the tangible bundle of benefits that come with marriage, and it kind of set aside for a later day this ultimate question.

So, in 2000, when we ended up with a civil union law, which was obviously monumental at the time, I think a lot of us felt proud and joyful but also a sense of unfinished business and a sense that we had moved the country forward, but at the same time we had been complicit in introducing this notion of a separate track. And then we celebrated it at the time. And I think, for some of us, that that always felt a little bit — we were ambivalent about that and felt that we needed to keep moving forward and move beyond that, and I think it served a purpose in 2000, but it had come to outlive its usefulness.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Beth, explain what happened this weekend. I mean, Bill was just explaining that, yes, it was a major victory last week when the House, the Vermont House, joined with the Senate in voting for gay marriage, but the governor had made clear in the midst of the vote, which did seem unusual, that he was going to veto it. You still had to now get five votes of — even though you were at ninety-five, you had to make your way to a hundred. How did you accomplish this over the weekend to override the governor’s veto? And how significant is this, what, the first time in nineteen years that a Vermont governor had a vote overridden?

BETH ROBINSON: Well, fortunately — actually, we only needed three votes, because the first vote was 95-to-52, but there was a rep who was absent who came the next day, so we had ninety-six reps who had voted, and we knew the Speaker would be an affirmative vote. So it wasn’t quite as challenging.

But the fact is that override vote is a different vote. It’s a slightly different dynamic. You’re not being asked to vote on the merits of the underlying question. There’s a different significance. And I think for a number of the representatives, especially in the wake of the Iowa decision, I think it really drove home the inevitability of full equality for same-sex couples, and people realized that if the veto were sustained, gay and lesbian Vermonters weren’t going to go away, and we weren’t going to stop asking to be treated equally. And to the extent that folks felt that this was a valuable conversation but were anxious to move on and move forward and put it behind us, I think the urge to closure was a real factor that helped bring some people over on the override.

AMY GOODMAN: How did Prop 8 in California affect this vote? And explain what Proposition 8 was.

BETH ROBINSON: You know, I think Proposition 8, where the voters in California overturned the Supreme Court’s decision allowing same-sex couples to marry in California, was a real wake-up call to us here in Vermont, and I think it really helped motivate our people in the field. And I don’t just mean sort of the hardcore, you know, usual suspects. I think there was a ripple through kind of mainstream, not-as-political America to see for the first time, certainly in my lifetime, civil rights moving backwards, people having rights and losing them. And I think it really shook us out of the temptation to complacency and, I think, led to greater sense of urgency to our work here in Vermont, because we felt, and I still feel, that the path to undoing Prop 8 really ran right through Vermont. And we’re hopeful that in addition to providing equal rights for gay and lesbian and bisexual, transgender Vermonters right here at home, we’re hopeful that we’ve done our part to try to shift the tide back in the right direction on a national basis.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Lippert, you were once the only openly gay House rep in Vermont. Now you are among a number. How did that change things for you and for the Vermont legislature? In a moment, after break, we’re going to talk to a twelve-year-old girl who testified on behalf of her lesbian parents, saying — talking about what a difference it would make if they could marry. But it’s the personal experience of gay reps speaking on the floor of the House, I think, that clearly made a huge difference to your colleagues, whether they’re straight or gay, whether they were for gay marriage or not.

REP. BILL LIPPERT: Yes. In 2000, I was the only openly gay member of the General Assembly, and for a while it seemed like that was part of my name. After having had the opportunity really to speak and put a face in the debate of our gay community and to talk about the truth of our gay community and the goodness of our gay community, that was hugely important for me. I was also the vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee at that time in 2000.

But in 2009, to have four other colleagues who have run for office, a number of them, frankly, motivated through the freedom to marry movement, to have them be colleagues working on the Healthcare Committee, working on the Ways and Means Committee, working on the — a prior colleague working on the Natural Resources Committee as the chair, it really broadens the face of our community for colleagues, as well as for the public. And the powerful testimony, the powerful statements on the floor during the debate, were emotional and, I think, deeply touched many of our colleagues.

I had the opportunity to be the chair of the Judiciary Committee and have a different role this time in presenting the bill and defending the bill on the floor. It was wonderful to share the spotlight, if you will, of our community in the body of the legislature with my colleagues who are also gay and lesbian.

AMY GOODMAN: And Bill O’Reilly of Fox, what role did he play? Can you talk about his attacks on you, Bill Lippert?

REP. BILL LIPPERT: Well, his attacks were prompted in part by work that I’ve done over the years around sex offender issues, as well. But frankly, I felt that I was further targeted as a gay legislator, an openly gay legislator. I don’t really think his role — he played a role in the victory we’re celebrating today, to be quite honest, other than that when I was sponsoring a transgender nondiscrimination bill, which our community also strongly supported, he took the occasion to use that as an avenue of attack on me personally because of my advocacy around some sex offender issues, as well. I think he just demonstrated what a demagogue he is, quite frankly. And I think many of my colleagues came — rallied to my support. But I think the — I don’t really think he’s played a role in this achievement we have today. I think it’s really the result of the grassroots effort across Vermont by Freedom to Marry and the ten-year conversation, the more-than-ten-year conversation, the fifteen-year conversation, that Vermonters have had about the importance of full marriage equality for Vermonters and for all gay and lesbian couples.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Bill Lippert, can you talk about what this vote means for gay marriage overall in this country? And Beth, maybe you also can chime in here.

REP. BILL LIPPERT: I think, as Beth indicated earlier, I feel strongly that we have given a new impetus to the movement to full equality, marriage equality. I’ll just share personally that my brother and his partner of twenty-five years went to California last summer to get married. I would have loved to have them come to Vermont to be married. And I think so many couples all across the country are looking to what we’re doing here in Vermont right now. It’s offering inspiration and hope and possibility and new drive to find marriage equality in other parts of the country, as well. I’m hearing from friends, and gay friends as well as straight friends, all across the country how inspired they are, and that touches me, and it makes our work even that more meaningful.

BETH ROBINSON: I think it’s also significant to have done this through the legislative process. I think courts are important, and I absolutely think it’s appropriate that we go to courts to vindicate our constitutional rights, but I think where we can engage in the legislative process, there’s value in doing that. And Vermont is a place where we can do that. And I hope that this gives more energy to the efforts in Maine and New Hampshire and Rhode Island and New York and New Jersey and some other places that are looking at the legislative avenues here.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Bill Lippert, Vermont state legislator, chair of the Vermont House Judiciary Committee, longtime gay rights activist; also Beth Robinson. Beth Robinson has been working on this issue for years, a lawyer and board chair of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force and Action Committee. When we come back from break, we’ll be joined by a twelve-year-old girl who testified before the Vermont legislature and affected many. Stay with us.

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