People & Places

The Deeper Dig: Vermont marriage equality turns ten

Beth Robinson

“I didn’t plan that kind of emotional reaction. It sort of bubbled out,” Beth Robinson, now a Vermont Supreme Court Justice, said about hearing the final vote in favor of marriage equality in 2009. Photo courtesy Times Argus

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[L]ast weekend, Vermont celebrated the 10-year anniversary of a historic vote.

On April 7, 2009, the House voted to override Gov. Jim Douglas’s veto of a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage in Vermont. The move made Vermont the first state to pass a marriage equality law, leading to similar measures in other New England states and eventually federal action.

The vote brought unusual pressure to the Statehouse. Douglas had signaled days earlier that he would veto the bill if it passed, and leadership had agreed to accelerate the timeline for the series of votes ahead.

The House voted on Friday, April 3, with 95 members in favor: enough to pass the bill, but not enough to override the veto they knew was coming. The following Monday, the Senate passed the bill. Douglas promptly vetoed it. And Tuesday morning, a speedy override vote in the Senate left the House with the final decision.

“I don’t think any of us were certain until the veto was overridden that we had 100 votes,” then-Speaker Shap Smith said. Smith and others had spent the weekend working to secure the two-thirds majority necessary to push the bill through. On the morning of the vote, he was far from certain that they had done it.

“All of us felt that if we failed, we were going to fail history.”

The override vote was more than just the conclusion of the legislative process, key players said in interviews this week. It was the culmination of over a decade of advocacy work and hard-won incremental gains.

Defending civil unions

In 2000, new legislation in Vermont had established civil unions — legal recognition for same-sex couples. The debate around it was fierce, and sometimes ugly.

Rep. Bill Lippert (D-Hinesburg, House Judiciary Chair in 2009): I don’t think there was ever a state, country or community that had more thoroughly been absorbed in the examination of: what is the place of gay and lesbian people in our society? Couples came from every state in the country. They came from other countries. Because there was such pent-up desire to have our relationships given some kind of legal recognition, and civil unions was the first true comprehensive legal recognition anywhere in this country and really, probably anywhere in the world.

Beth Robinson (Vermont Supreme Court Justice, Vermont Freedom to Marry chair in 2009, co-counsel in Baker v. Vermont trial in 1999): Although it was the most protective law then in the country for same sex couples and their families, it was also a compromise. Certainly many elected leaders took enormous political risks, and some lost their seats as a result of supporting that. But it also fell short of the goal we were seeking.

House Speaker Shap Smith. VTD/Josh Larkin

Then-House Speaker Shap Smith in 2012. VTDigger file photo

Shap Smith (House Speaker in 2009): I mean, I had always thought that marriage equality was the way to go. I certainly believed that civil unions had been what you could get at that time. And I think that interim step was really important for us to be able to get to where we were, but it certainly was not what I think many of us hoped would be, which was full marriage equality. And anybody who said differently, I think, didn’t recognize that it was a sort of “separate but equal” situation.

Beth Robinson: For one, the separation created a sense of exclusion, a sense of stigma, sense that the civil unions were something less.

And for two, I’ll never forget a friend of mine, who — his own father had declined to come to a civil union ceremony, and then in the mid-aughts, went to his brother’s marriage to another man in Massachusetts. I originally heard that story and I thought, Oh, that’s a real testament to the father’s evolution over the course of those years. And what my friend said was actually, no, that’s not what it was about. I asked my dad, and he said, Well, what you had was a civil union. And I don’t know what exactly that is. But I know it’s not for me. But your brother got married, and I’ve been married to your mom for the better part of my life. And I’ll be damned if I miss my son’s marriage.

The story really drove home the ways in which creating something new, that didn’t plug into a sort of common understanding and language, really denied couples who wanted to be married something very important.

For the next few years, advocates focused on preventing the civil union law from being repealed.

Bill Lippert: People forget, but the anti-civil union fervor in the House during the next four years was really difficult. It was downright nasty. During that period, we lost our majority. We lost the pro-civil union majority in the elections that fall in the House.

I was at the time still the only openly gay member of the General Assembly, House or Senate. I asked to be seated still on the Judiciary Committee in the House, even though it had an anti-civil union majority.

I think it was every Tuesday was testimony to repeal civil unions. The tension in that room was, at times, horrific. And in the Statehouse itself, “seminars” were occasionally running in Room 11, Room 10 downstairs, about why homosexuality was immoral. This place was palpably anti-gay.

Laying the groundwork

Beth Robinson: Somewhere around 2004, a whole bunch of things happened that shifted the conversation back to marriage.

In 2003, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court issued its Goodridge decision, Massachusetts really leapfrogged over Vermont and became the focus of a national conversation. That was the same time period when you might remember that Mayor Newsom started issuing marriage licenses in City Hall in San Francisco. There were some other city officials around the country who were doing the same. The national conversation changed a lot.

Shap Smith: In 2008, California has a proposition banning gay marriage. And that was largely in response to Gavin Newsom’s decision to issue marriage or certificates in San Francisco. And it was a body blow to the freedom to marry movement. I think that people really were sort of in a dark place, and they were looking for some sunshine to come through to give hope to moving marriage forward again.

Beth Robinson: So at that point, the folks in Vermont Freedom to Marry shifted from defending the civil union law, to reeducating ourselves and our allies and supporters and Vermonters more generally about why the civil union law didn’t represent full equality.

I was back in the church basements, in people’s living rooms and everything else, because we have a whole new package of messages and messaging. That all took time. It took a long time to reengage folks who were frankly, burned out after what I’ll call the first chapter. It was a very difficult time for a lot of people, was very painful. People were exhausted at the end. And it took some time to get people to reengage, educate them.

Bill Lippert: There was a commission set up during that interim period between 2004 and 2009 that Rep. Tom Little chaired. It went around the state, held hearings about the implementation of civil unions: How was it going, what was the impact, what was the effect? I think in many ways testing the waters for further legislative movement toward marriage equality.

Beth Robinson: I think that the way that the Commission hearings unfolded suggested it was a very different time. And that if folks in leadership were looking at the question of whether to reengage on this issue from the lens of 2000, it was probably time to change their lenses.

Vermont Freedom to Marry also worked to get a wave of pro-marriage equality Democrats elected in 2008. Their activism turned to legislative action during the 2009 session.

Bill Lippert: It’s important to note that many of my colleagues were very nervous. And I have to say I was as well to a degree. But many people had been defeated because they’d supported civil unions, Republicans and Democrats. So the idea of continuing to work toward yet another climactic engagement of this issue was, frankly, terrifying for numbers of our colleagues.

Patti Komline (House Minority Leader in 2009; one of six Republican House members who supported the bill): My caucus always knew where I was on this issue. They always knew I supported it. Our caucus tenet was, you vote your conscience, you vote your constituents, and then you vote your party.

It was so difficult. Being in the cafeteria, and the party just turned their back on the six of us. It was it was like middle school, you have your tray, and you couldn’t sit with the Republicans, and you couldn’t sit with the Democrats because the Republicans would get mad at you. You couldn’t sit with the other five people who are on this issue because, Oh, look at them. They’re all, like, banding together.

I took my tray and I went to sit in my committee room and eat lunch by myself. I remember thinking at the time how many kids are ostracized in a cafeteria because of their sexual orientation. And if I can sit in my committee room by myself for a few weeks, to make it easier for people in the future…This is this is an honor to be able to be alienated and ostracized. This is okay.

Shap Smith: You know, the argument was what you hear now: that marriage is a traditional institution that’s between a man and a woman. And that is sort of the biblical basis for it, and the cultural basis for it, and it should not be changed. I think the traditional case for one man, one woman marriage was really being undermined by what people saw on other states and with civil unions in that, hey, we want more people to be families, not fewer.

Patti Komline: There was a lot of outrage. One very big man from Danby came at me really angrily. I’m like, how does this change your life? He said, it’s just giving me one more thing to be pissed off about. I’m like, well, you look like someone who likes to be pissed off. So I guess you’re doing okay.

Beth Robinson: In the end, you could talk about policies, and you could talk about constitutional rights and facts and figures. But, this was an intensely personal issue, and I think it was intensely personal for people across the spectrum on this issue. And I think to really get to the nut of it, it was important for folks to talk about their actual life experiences and how it affected them, because I think there’s a lot of folks who may not be comfortable or weren’t at the time comfortable with it. But they they didn’t want to be part of causing harm to their fellow Vermonters and their families.

Patti Komline: There was a big public hearing on it. There were young people talking about their moms, their dads and what great parents they are. And on the other side, they held the Bible up, and that was their reasoning. A lot of the Republicans in our caucus came to me after and said, clearly your side prevailed in the hearing, but didn’t change their vote.

The vote and the veto

Jim Douglas speaking

Gov. Jim Douglas announced on March 25, 2009, that he would veto the marriage equality bill if it passed in the Legislature. Photo courtesy Times Argus

The marriage equality bill went up for a House vote on Friday, April 3rd.

Bill Lippert: I think we felt fairly confident. We had every reason to believe at that point that we had a strong majority for marriage equality. What I think was unexpected, for some, was the statement by Governor Douglas before the vote that he would veto the bill if it got passed.

Shap Smith: We knew that he was going to veto it before we passed it in the House. He had made that clear, I think after the Senate passed, that he was going to veto. So throughout the time of the vote count for the vote in the House, to pass the bill, we were trying to get the numbers as high as possible. One, to give confidence to the advocates that we thought we could get the measure all the way through, and also to give confidence to other legislators that this was an issue that was going to have broad based support.

I had an incredible leadership team at that time. Bill Lippert was the chair of the committee, and Maxine Grad was the vice chair. But then I had Floyd Nease, who was the majority leader, and Lucy Leriche, who was working as the whip, and they were just doing a great job marshaling the votes for the initial vote, and also talking to people about what would happen if it was overridden.

Bill Lippert: I think Beth — I’ve heard her say she felt fairly confident that Governor Douglas would not veto marriage equality if it passed with a significant number in the House and the Senate.

Beth Robinson: There was certainly egg on my face, because I had predicted with great confidence that that wasn’t how things would unfold. So I was wrong. As history has shown, thankfully, it all worked out in the end.

Bill Lippert: I wasn’t personally surprised. But I was deeply disappointed because I also knew that that set up a hurdle that was going to be much more difficult to overcome. As I said, I think we all felt quite confident we had the strong enough pro-marriage equality support in the House to pass it with a strong vote, which we did. But the idea that we had to now overcome a veto, after all the years of putting in the groundwork to get a strong vote in the House and the Senate, was really dismaying.

There were 95 members in favor: enough to pass the bill, but not enough to override the veto they knew was coming.

Patti Komline: We had a meeting, I remember, an off-site with our caucus that lasted three and a half hours, where they vented. It was Friday night. It was sleeting. It was awful, after being with angry people who you work with. And I called my parents. I was feeling really vulnerable.

I said to my mother, I just want to thank you, you know, you guys are older, but where you are on this issue, I really appreciate that. My mother says well, I think you want to talk to your father, he’s got stronger opinions than I. I’m like, so dad really supports this? She’s like, Oh, no, no.

My father got on the phone and he started ranting about how I should be supporting the governor’s veto. A lot of people felt like, you should be supporting the party, and it was turning your back on the party. And there are things that are far more important than that.

Beth Robinson: The timetable was greatly compressed. It was all within several days. But there was an intervening weekend. And going into the intervening weekend, it looked like they were three votes shy of enough votes to override a veto. There wasn’t a lot of time to think. You can just imagine.

The organization, the Freedom to Marry task force, got boatloads of Tracfones and was sending volunteers door to door, knocking on houses in the districts of the legislators who were sort of in the swing districts. They talked to people, and if people were supportive they’d dial the legislator’s number and hand them the phone and say, Tell your legislator. It was that kind of intensive outreach.

On Monday, the Senate passed the bill. Then, as he had warned, Gov. Jim Douglas immediately vetoed it.

Patti Komline: Shap thought we were going to lose people. I remember seeing Shap out in the parking lot. And he said once the governor vetoed it, Shap said, you know, I’m going to lose you. I’m like nope, you’re not losing, and the six of us are holding together.

And honestly, the governor said to me, I want you to continue voting your conscience. And if anybody tries to sway you, give you a hard time, you send them to come talk to me. And I did. We had people in the caucus that were very angry and expected us to support the governor. I said, Go have a conversation with him. So we held.

Beth Robinson: It was an anxious time. When I went home Monday night, I didn’t think we had the votes. And I will confess that it was for me, the lowest moment in the entire 15 year saga. I was devastated.

Bill Lippert: The night before the vote, there were a lot of late evening conversations happening. Because we had to persuade colleagues who had voted against marriage equality to vote for an override of the governor’s veto. That meant they had to shift their position, either based on their view that the strong majority of their colleagues had voted for this, and they were willing to step forward and risk having voted against the marriage equality bill, but then stepping forward to vote for an override of the governor’s veto. There was enormous pressure.

Shap Smith: The pitch to them was, look, we understand that you may be against the legislation, but when it passes overwhelmingly in the House, it is something that should pass. And it shouldn’t be thwarted by the governor’s veto. So our pitch to people was, stick with the majority of the House, who said that this should go forward. That’s 95 people instead of the one signature of the governor. And for a number of those that switched their votes, that worked.

The House decides

Tuesday morning, the Senate voted to override the governor’s veto. The final decision came down to the House.

Shap Smith: I don’t think any of us were certain until the veto was overridden that we had 100 votes to legalize marriage equality in the House.

Bill Lippert: We came into the chamber that day not knowing for certain that we had all the votes we needed. There were several particular members who were really wavering. There were several members who in one setting they would say they were going to vote for the override, and to others, they would say that they were not.

Shap Smith: I remember when I knew that we had the vote. Floyd visited a particular member in Burlington who was at the airport, and was trying to convince him to switch his vote. I got a call from Floyd probably around 10 o’clock that night, and this was the night before the override, saying, I think we’ve got this vote. You need to talk to this guy tomorrow. And so the next day, the member came into my office and said that he was going to change his vote — he was going to vote to override — and we knew that we had it.

Patti Komline: That morning, I knew it was going to be one vote. It would have been nice for people to have a second vote, right? There’s a wiggle room when there’s a second vote. But because we were all that one vote — for some people was an honor, for some it was a burden, and for some it was both, right? You had to carry that you were that one vote. If it wasn’t for you, this wouldn’t have passed. You were the vote that passed marriage equality. Every single one of us carried that.

Bill Lippert: It also depended on everyone being here. We needed to have two-thirds. And there was at least one member who came to the chamber who was very sick, had not been in the House for weeks. He came and stayed in what we call the infirmary, but it’s really just a little room downstairs. He was not well. He stayed off the floor and came onto the floor only for the vote. Someone else had traveled out of country and flew back.

Shap Smith: Floyd, the majority leader, was responsible for helping out on the floor. But he got a call that morning. His mom was being taken to the hospital. And they weren’t sure whether she was going to live.

He was like, What should I do? She lived down in New Hampshire. I said, you’ve got to go. He decided that he had to stay. And we needed his vote.

He got a call about an hour later, and his mom had passed away. It was still before the vote. And him being able to hold it together under those circumstances and help pull us through was just a testament to how great a leader he was.

It was a lot of drama. It was a very difficult morning.

Patti Komline: It was like a shaking vote. Like when you went to vote you cast your vote — everybody — you had to check your voice.

Beth Robinson: The actual vote was extremely stressful. Because even though on the one hand, with something like this, in theory, you know where everybody is before you put it to a vote, right? That’s how most legislation like this, that would be the case. There were a few places where we didn’t have full confidence until we actually heard the words come out of the mouth.

Bill Lippert: And some people it’s like, are they in the building? Who had the last conversation with them to try to really make sure that they were prepared? There were members who were really struggling because the spotlight was on them. The pressure.

It was nerve racking. Because I knew where in the roll call there were some names that had to become a yes if we were going to win. And some of them were late in the roll call, I’ll just say that.

Beth Robinson: I’m not going to name names, so don’t ask me, but I’ll say that that that there was a disproportionate amount of anxiety about folks whose names were toward the latter part of the alphabet. So it sort of created particular suspense.

When did you know that the vote was going to come out in your favor?

When David Zuckerman cast the last vote.

Bill Lippert: So that roll call was incredibly tense. And the final vote was 100 to 49.

Shap Smith: It was just an incredible feeling. But it was also a tremendous amount of pressure. And I just remember I walked from the podium back to my office and and wept. Because I knew how important the moment was, but just how stressful it had all been. It was incredible, but it was an incredible amount of pressure. Because I think all of us felt that if we failed, we were going to fail history.

Bill Lippert: I choke up remembering it. I remember, it brought tears. I just remember seeing — and then subsequently seeing in the video — Beth Robinson and Susan Murray, sitting here in the Senate seats, just bursting into tears. After years, a decade, more than a decade of laying the groundwork. Fighting, strategizing. The personal toll that it took to stand in the face of what was prejudice and at times overt negative hatred. There were things said in this chamber that were just hard to hear.

Beth Robinson: There was a picture of me sobbing in the front page of the New York Times the next day. I didn’t plan that kind of emotional reaction. But it sort of bubbled out. Just a sense of relief, a tremendous relief and gratitude. Gratitude for so much hard work encouraged by so many people, and gratitude for the, I think, relative civility with which Vermonters had this debate the second time around. I appreciated folks, again, not just the folks who were working for the Freedom to Marry, but folks who were standing up respectfully, but sincerely, speaking their mind on the other side.

Patti Komline: We also had to leave the chamber immediately. There was a big celebration, but the six of us had to get out of the room. That was planned, to get into the Senate cloak room, that small room off the Senate, to get away from the press. Because that’s where the attention was. And and we knew this was going to be really bad for Republicans.

Shap Smith: I remember coming, going out to dinner that night, my wife came down to Montpelier and brought our two kids who were pretty young at that time, and coming into Positive Pie. And then just everybody there standing up and clapping. That was a pretty amazing thing for me to have my kids see.

Patti Komline: Everybody that retires from here says that was their most meaningful vote. That’s why, is because you really had an impact on people that deserved it.

Ten years later

Bill Lippert

Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg, speaks in October 2017 at the unveiling of a historic marker on marriage equality at the Statehouse. Photo by Bob LoCicero/VTDigger

Vermont’s marriage equality vote is widely seen as leading to national action on the issue.

Beth Robinson: Until the vote in Vermont in 2009, all of the action in the national conversation, including in Vermont, had happened in courts. Vermont was the first state that passed a law recognizing marriages between same-sex partners, and doing so not because the court said it had to. That was a big shift.

Now, New Hampshire was just a month later, and they were well down the track. It’s not as though Vermont invented the concept. But there’s no question when I talked to my counterparts in other states that having having someone go first made it helpful for others.

Shap Smith: I think that we had a huge impact on it nationally. And, you know, not only was the impact driven by Vermont, but Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine all moved to pass marriage equality and passed marriage equality in 2009. And I think that, given that push, right after California had voted for Prop. 8, it gave the movement new energy to push forward.

Patti Komline: It was years later that my son was in college. He goes to school in Tennessee, very different political makeup than here. And a teacher was being really inappropriate talking about gay people. He knew that there was a young man in his class, and he got up and he left the class and he filed a complaint about the teacher, what he had said, and he told this student. He said, it wasn’t until that moment that I recognize what it was that you did, and how proud I am of what you did.

Shap Smith: I see it in my own community. I grew up in Morrisville. I think a lot of people who were gay and lesbian were closeted when I grew up, and now they feel comfortable not being closeted. They feel comfortable having their own families. That is, from my perspective, a huge boon to society in general and to the community.

Bill Lippert: I stood on the floor last Friday and made a statement about this. I’d been gone for a week. And I had been gone because my partner Enrique was visiting with family in New Mexico and was unexpectedly, on an emergency basis, hospitalized. And so I left Vermont and spent a week with him as he was treated in the hospital and subsequently was able to recover and I returned.

I had occasion to reflect while I was in the hospital with him. And we commented on it together, what it meant for us to be there having a legal marriage relationship. Having him be able to say, this is my spouse, Bill. This is the man to whom I am married. It requires a different level of acknowledgment. It requires a different level of respect. That I was listening, not as a friend in the room — how many times we have been the “friend” — I was his legal marriage partner.

Beth Robinson: There’s the actual substantive change in the law, which is incredibly important. And it’s what drove the the effort. But seeing the power of ordinary people coming together, seeing the responsiveness of our elected leaders in Vermont. And seeing how conscientiously and sincerely elected representatives — and I include everyone from the governor through the Statehouse on that — how folks handled this challenging conversation makes me feel really good about our state.

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Mike Dougherty

About Mike

Mike Dougherty is VTDigger’s digital editor. He is a DC-area native and studied journalism and music at New York University. Prior to joining VTDigger, Mike spent two years as a program coordinator for the Vermont Humanities Council. Before moving to Vermont in 2015, he spent seven years managing recording operations for the oral history nonprofit StoryCorps, assisted Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, and contributed to the Brooklyn-based alt-weekly L Magazine.

Email: [email protected]

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