Gay marriage debate comes to Williston

By Tim Simard
Observer staff

Should Vermont change the civil union law and allow gay marriage? Local residents voiced their opinions on the matter when the debate came to Williston on Monday night for a two-hour public forum.

The Vermont Commission of Family Recognition and Protection, a state committee studying Vermonters' reactions to changes in the current civil union law, wrapped up its four-month, eight-stop tour through the state at the Williston Central School auditorium.

About 100 people, many of them gay and lesbian couples from around the Champlain Valley, attended the event, with more than 40 people voicing their opinions. The overwhelming majority spoke in favor of changing Vermont's civil union law to allow gay marriage. Speakers ranged from gay couples to heterosexual couples, from parents of gay individuals to a child from a gay household and from preachers to justices of the peace.

Only three individuals spoke out against changing the law, though commission chairman Tom Little, an attorney and former legislator, admitted some opposition groups have boycotted the proceedings because they feel the commission was unfairly set up.

Supporters spoke about how civil unions fall short when it comes to the financial and legal benefits of marriage, never mind the issue of equality.

"It's time to end the distinction. It's time to end this discrimination," said Maggi Hayes of Williston.

About the commission

The Vermont Commission of Family Recognition and Protection was created in July 2007 by Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, D-Windham County and Speaker of the House Gaye Symington, D-Jericho to gauge the public's reaction to gay marriage and civil unions.

In 2000, Vermont became the first state in the country to allow same-sex couples a civil union. Since then, more than 1,200 Vermont couples have joined in civil union, with more than 8,000 couples from other states and countries coming to Vermont to do the same.

Little, who was chairman of the House Judicial Committee during the civil union debate in 2000, said the commission hoped to study three topics during its statewide tour: First, are civil unions doing what they're supposed to do? Second, why is there a separate legal precedent for same-sex unions? Third, what's the current perspective on marriage?

Little said the hearings, which have been held in Johnson, Bennington, St. Albans and points in between, have seen public sentiment mostly in favor of gay marriage, though that could be a result of the opposition's boycott.

"We only see two, maybe three (opponents of civil unions and equal marriage rights) a meeting," Little said.

On the support side, Robyn Maguire, field director for the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force, said she's been encouraging same-sex couples to attend and give public statements. According to Maguire, the Task Force has been leading the fight for equal marriage. She believes that the current unions fall short of equality.

Civil unions do not provide social security survivor benefits. Also, states that do not recognize civil unions will not recognize a Vermont union. This can pose problems if a medical emergency arises.

"The intangible benefit of marriage is very valuable," Maguire said. "Marriage is universally understood."

The public speaks

After an hour-long informational meeting about the civil union and equal marriage debate, Little opened the proceedings to public comments. Some read statements and others spoke briefly without written aid.

Williston resident Carol Tandy spoke about getting a civil union in 2001 to her partner, Martha, on their 30th anniversary of being a couple. She brought up their concern about the lack of social security survivor benefits and next of kin status in states that don't recognize Vermont civil unions.

Tandy said some days it feels "ridiculous" and "preposterous" that some believe a gay couple wouldn't want the added benefits of marriage.

"Why wouldn't we want our full service rights as well?" she asked the commission. "It's now 2008. How long do we have to wait for our right to marry?"

Rev. Joan O'Gorman, of   Williston Federated Church, spoke about the first time she performed civil unions for gay couples. She said same-sex couples are happy to join in union, but want more.

"Each and every instance, these couples have desired the right to be married," O'Gorman said. "The legislature is in a good position now to allow same gender marriage."

John Grimm of Burlington said he and his wife of 10 years believe the right to marry is an equality issue.

"We can't believe we're still talking about this issue," Grimm said. "Separate is not equal."

Mike Armstrong of Essex Junction compared the freedom of marriage debate to the civil rights issues of the past. He believes that people will look back at this time period 40 years from now and be shocked that we discriminated in such a way.

"(President) Eisenhower had to force (Alabama Gov.) George Wallace to integrate schools," Armstrong said. "I don't think we want to put ourselves in the George Wallace category."

There were a few dissenting opinions as well. Phil Ronco said he believes the country is based on "biblical foundations" and that "homosexuality is immoral" as seen through church teachings.

Ronco added, "Those of us who are against gay marriage are also against the bullying and harassing of the gay community."

Charles Simon of Williston prefaced his statement by saying he was the "bump in the road" at the meeting. He argued for the traditional family structure and said this issue was "really about the children."

Jennifer Bradford of Hinesburg spoke after Simon, countering that her children were "thriving" in her same-sex household.

Looking ahead

With the hearings now complete, Little said the committee must compile the public opinions and submit the findings to the legislature this spring.

"We're going to try to present the facts as we find them and let the legislators decide what to do next," he said.

Since Vermont's law was enacted, several states have also accepted civil unions for same-sex couples. Connecticut, New Jersey and New Hampshire now allow them, with California and Oregon allowing what they call domestic partnerships. Only Massachusetts recognizes gay marriage in the United States.