Last edited: March 26, 2005

Editorial: Vermont’s Moment

‘Civil unions’ will make a positive difference in many lives

Concord Monitor, March 21, 2000
Box 1177, Concord, NH 03302-1177
Fax: 603-224-8120

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 that’s 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, Vermont’s 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 weren’t ready to accept either change, but they didn’t. They could have devoted their time to trying to thwart the court, but they didn’t 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 state’s 18 percent inheritance tax.

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 couldn’t 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 Hampshire’s record on gay and lesbian rights is positive. The sodomy law was repealed under Gov. Mel Thomson, of all people; Massachusetts hasn’t 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 parents.

Now Vermont is taking a further step forward. Bolts of lightning won’t 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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