A historic marker rising prominently from the Statehouse lawn now commemorates Vermont’s outsized role in the history of gay rights.
The green and gold marker, cast in aluminum, pays homage to the passage of civil unions legislation in 2000, and the marriage equality law that followed nine years later.
Much has changed in the years since the watershed votes. Gay couples now have the freedom to marry anywhere in the U.S. And according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted earlier this year, nearly two-thirds of Americans support same-sex marriage.
But the social backdrop was far different when lawmakers debated civil unions on the floor of the Vermont House in March of 2000.
In 2000, Rep. Bill Lippert said:
“I have been called names in this chamber, in this building, the likes of which I have never experienced in my life. Because for some people, the hate runs that deep. The prejudice runs that far.”
On Tuesday morning, shortly after a ceremonial unveiling of the “Vermont Equality For Same-Sex Couples” marker, Lippert reflected on that debate.
“It seemed like at the time my name was, ‘Rep. Bill Lippert The Only Openly Gay Member Of The General Assembly,’ because it was true,” Lippert said.
Lippert’s unique role in the civil union debate made him a favorite target of a rabid opposition. He recalled a briefing from state police in the hours before a public hearing on the civil union bill.
“And they told us what the escape route was, in case something happened. And they said, ‘You follow our directions, you don’t ask us questions. If we say go, you go,’” Lippert said.
Lippert says vivid memories of those difficult moments — he also received a “very specific” death threat in 2000 — made Tuesday’s celebration somewhat surreal.
“I would never have dreamt," Lippet said, "number one, that marriage equality would have happened in Vermont, marriage equality would have happened all across the country and that a marker would be put on the Statehouse lawn commemorating this, in my lifetime.
Stan Baker, the named plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case that led to civil unions, gave a short speech to the 150 or so people who came out to witness the unveiling.
Baker says people still ask him why he and his now-husband, Peter Harrigan, went ahead with the suit.
“Our answer then, and still is, because we fell in love,” Baker said. “Because we fell in love, we wanted to have a legal bond joining us, and we wanted to be able to proclaim our love in front of our family and friends.”
Baker said the years between the filing of the suit, in 1997, and when they won a victory in the Vermont Supreme Court, 2000 “were a wild ride for all of us – sometimes difficult and sometimes exhilarating.”
“While the discussion was difficult and often vitriolic, Vermonters had a conversation that they otherwise would not have experienced,” Baker said. “Regular folks found themselves using words they never used before: homosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, same-sex, et cetera. People who before were able to maintain a veneer of tolerance suddenly had to face their own heterosexism.”
In their fight for equality, Baker says he and other gay Vermonters have empowered the institution of marriage for everybody.
“If you’ve been denied a fundamental right, you know the value of that thing, and will stand up and fight for it,” he said.
Lois Farnham and Holly Puterbaugh wore matching tie-die t-shirts on Tuesday. The shirts were printed with the words, “It’s just love. God is still speaking.”
Puterbaugh says the couple, also named in the Baker case, will have been together 45 years as of this Friday. They married shortly after passage of Vermont’s marriage equality law. But Puterbaugh says the marker somehow cements the bond.
“It’s … recognition of the value of the relationship, and what we have done, and sort of like a stamp of approval,” Puterbaugh said.
There are nearly 250 historic markers in Vermont, but they’re generally reserved for events that happened at least 50 years ago. Laura Trieschmann, Vermont Historic Preservation Officer, says the importance of the civil union and marriage legislation warranted an exception to that rule.
The marker reads:
On Dec. 20, 1999, 'in recognition of our common humanity,' the Vermont Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling in Baker v. State that Vermont same-sex couples were constitutionally entitled 'to the same benefits and protections as married opposite-sex couples.'
On April 26, 2000, the Vermont legislature responded to the court's ruling, by voting to create Civil Unions, granting same-sex couples all of the rights and responsibilities of the marriage statutes. Effective July 1, 2000, this controversial Civil Union legislation granted legal recognition to same-sex couples for the first time anywhere in the United States.
Over the next nine years, from 2000 to 2009, 1,600 Vermont same-sex couples, and more than 7,000 couples from 48 states and dozens of foreign countries travelled to Vermont to be legally joined in Civil Unions.
On April 7, 2009, Vermont became the first state to enact same-sex marriage through a vote of the legislature rather than through a court ruling. In voting to override the governor's veto, the legislature made Vermont the fourth state to legalize same-sex marriage.
On September 1, 2009, Vermont achieved full marriage equality for all Vermont couples.
Trieschmann says the Historic Preservation Office has plans to commemorate other people, places and events related to Vermont’s LGBTQ history.