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Vermont’s Lessons on Gay Marriage

Last week’s Senate discussion about gay marriage was another attempt by the Republican Party to gain political points by appealing to our worst prejudices.

In the spring of 2000, Vermont became the first state to recognize same-sex partnerships and to make sure that every right outlined in Vermont’s Constitution and laws applied equally to heterosexual and homosexual Vermonters. Every right but one. Gay and lesbian Vermonters do not have the right to call their unions marriage. The fallout was the least civil public debate in the state in over a century. Respectable church leaders railed against homosexuals and not-so-respectable ones vowed to oust any legislator who voted for the bill. Five Republican members of the House lost their seats in primaries. In the general election, Democrats lost control of the House for the first time in 14 years. My own race, for a sixth term, was the most difficult in my career.

Four years later, we wonder what the fuss was all about. The intensity of anger and hate has disappeared, replaced by an understanding that equal rights for groups previously denied them has no negative effect on those of us who have always enjoyed those rights.

In fact, the gay and lesbian community has undergone a significant adjustment. Couples who have been together for many years had to reexamine their commitments, not only in light of the full legal rights that married couples enjoy, but in light of the full legal responsibilities that also bind married couples. Same-sex couples in Vermont pay the marriage penalty when filing taxes, and are entitled to equal division of property under Vermont law if they separate. The state and other major employers no longer recognize domestic partnerships for health and other benefits since those benefits are now available for those in civil unions or marriages. Although a majority of Vermonters originally opposed the bill – that is no longer true today.

Is there a lesson here for America? Perhaps.

Just as the civil rights movement and subsequent integration began the process of removing painful stereotypes about African-Americans, so does the open declaration and subsequent demand for equal rights begin to remove stereotypes about the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community.

Contrary to the rhetoric of social conservatives, gay Americans are patriotic, serve honorably in the armed forces and die in the service of their country. One of the most extraordinary people I met when running for president was an 80-year-old gay veteran who had served on the beach in Normandy during D-day.

We also now know that there is a strong genetic component to being gay or lesbian. From a medical point of view, there is virtually no scientific evidence to support the myth that sexual orientation can be changed, although we know that throughout history, sexuality can be repressed, often with disastrous results.

While it is true that the Bible (largely the Old Testament) condemns homosexuality in a few places, it equally condemns eating shellfish. Jesus never mentions homosexuality. The bottom line is this: America is grappling with the discarding of old stereotypes about a group of people who have been part of our country since America has been a country. All Americans are diminished when we allow stereotyping to dismiss the worth of fellow Americans. All Americans are stronger and the nation is stronger, when we judge people by whom they are, not what they are.

Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont, is the founder of Democracy for America, a grassroots organization that supports socially progressive and fiscally responsible political candidates. Email Howard Dean at howarddean@democracyforamerica.com Copyright 2004 Howard Dean, All Rights Reserved. Distributed exclusively by Cagle, Cartoons, Inc. www.caglecartoons.com, contact Cari Dawson Bartley 800 696 7561 cari@cagle.com for publishing or posting.