Editorial: Vermonts Moment
Civil unions will make a positive difference in many lives
March 21, 2000
Box 1177, Concord, NH 03302-1177
Believe it or not, New Hampshire has a progressive record on the question of gay and
lesbian rights. Of course, Vermont is about to go zipping past us on the left and
thats good news, because like New Hampshire, Vermont is headed in the right
direction. Eventually, we should all reach the same destination, leaving any sort of
discrimination based on sexual orientation in our past.
Last December, Vermonts Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to deny
the benefits of legal marriage to same-sex couples. This compelled lawmakers to make a
politically difficult choice: allow same-sex marriages, or create a separate but legally
equal alternative called civil unions.
Vermont lawmakers could have dwelled on polls showing that many voters werent
ready to accept either change, but they didnt. They could have devoted their time to
trying to thwart the court, but they didnt do that either.
Instead, bathed in the bright lights of national attention, they passed what was a test
of conscience. Last week, the Vermont House approved legislation that creates legally
recognized civil unions for gay and lesbian couples. The Senate is expected to pass it
soon, and the governor to sign it into law.
Granted, Vermont lawmakers did choose the path of less political resistance. By
continuing to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman - as their bill does -
they will perpetuate the notion that homosexuals should remain a class apart.
This is a pragmatic reflection of the fact that discomfort with same-sex relationships
remains widespread and strong. As Douglas Schwarz argued in these pages in a thoughtful
essay Sunday, there are many reasons for this discomfort. They should fade with time, but
in the political arena they are a reality that must be respected in order to make progress
sooner rather than later.
And the progress being made in Vermont is of great significance. This legislation will
make a positive difference in the lives of many committed same-sex couples, while doing no
harm to anyone else.
Suppose, for example, that a lesbian couple lives in a house owned by one partner. She
dies and wills the house to her longtime partner. In New Hampshire, because they were not
spouses, legally speaking, the transfer would be subject to the states 18 percent
As with marriage, there are responsibilities at stake here as well as rights.
Suppose, by way of another example, that one partner in a gay couple is stricken with
AIDS. In New Hampshire, because they are strangers in the eye of the law, the healthy
partner has no legal obligation to provide financial support to the victim. The state
couldnt count his income in determining whether the victim is eligible for Medicaid.
Unfortunately, and in sharp contrast to Vermont, the hot legislation on this topic in
New Hampshire this session is a bill to deny recognition to same-sex marriages performed
in other states. Such legislation has been defeated in the past, and it remains beside the
point now. Because no state permits same-sex marriages (even Vermont), it is as much a
waste of time and effort as a law forbidding three-headed dragons.
On balance, though, New Hampshires record on gay and
lesbian rights is positive. The sodomy law was repealed under Gov. Mel Thomson, of all
people; Massachusetts hasnt managed that to this day. State civil rights
law forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. And last year, the
Legislature repealed a law forbidding gays and lesbians from serving as foster or adoptive
Now Vermont is taking a further step forward. Bolts of lightning wont come
zapping down from the heavens when civil unions become law there. Life will go on, for
better or for worse, in sickness and in health - unchanged for most, but better for some.
That Vermont has taken the lead on this issue is to its credit. Soon as soon as
next session New Hampshire should follow.
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