The struggle for social equality for gay men and women has been decades long and saturated in controversy; politicians wage an internal battle, balancing the demands of their constituents with the demands of their own conscience. In 1997, that battle came home to Vermont when three same-sex couples sued the State of Vermont after they had been denied their marriage licenses. The debate would go all the way to the Vermont Supreme Court and finally be decided with the case of Baker v. Vermont. The final decision from the justices stated, “[The] plaintiffs are entitled . . . to obtain the same benefits and protections afforded by Vermont state law to couples of opposite sex” (Baker v. Vermont | Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse). Ultimately, the Court left implementation to state legislators.
The bill that lawmakers crafted offered up all of the legal benefits of marriage but “without the name” (Goldberg). “Civil Unions” quickly became Vermont’s most contentious political issue. As Brattleboro resident Michael Gigante put it, “We are the most progressive state in the union . . . But [these social innovations] are dividing the state” (Florio). For some lawmakers this proposal became a crucible wherein they grappled with a festering bigotry and their own sense of human decency.
In Orleans County Robert E. Kinsey of Craftsbury had always been a loyal conservative. At the age of 72 he had been a member of the legislature and had served as a House Republican for 30 years. He represented one of the most conservative districts in Vermont: towns in the heart of the bucolic Northeast Kingdom. During an inquiry into his lineage, Kinsey discovered that his grandmother had hidden her ancestry from the public eye to avoid prejudice and discrimination due to her heritage. She had been both Native American and Irish. “They used to call her ‘Jason’s squaw’” Kinsey said. “They had bigots back in those days too” (Halloran). He saw parallels between his grandmother's experiences and those of homosexuals facing societal stigma and prejudice. His own family history helped shape his conscience and inspired his courage.
Kinsey had supported equal rights for the gay community with respect to housing and employment. The Civil Unions vote would challenge Vermont’s cultural status-quo in a much more profound way. Some in his own party threatened him, promising that if he supported the Civil Union bill, they would run another handpicked Republican against him, a “Christian conservative.” Kinsey said, “They have targeted me” (Halloran). Despite what his fellow Republicans and longtime friends told him, when the time came to cast his vote, Kinsey voted with the Democratic majority. “I don’t take threats very well,” he said. Kinsey was one of 10 Republican House members who voted for the bill (Florio).
The draft law passed the House with a solid majority, making history in the process. The New York Times picked up the story and reported that the bill, “cleared its most critical legislative hurdle and gained final approval in the Vermont House of Representatives [that night], setting the stage for the state to adopt the most sweeping set of rights for same-sex couples in the country” (Goldberg). The moment Governor Howard Dean signed off on the proposal, Vermont became the first state in the Union to establish a legal recognition of same-sex unions through legislation, setting an example that numerous other states and eventually the whole country would follow ("D.C. Vote Puts Gay Marriage Before Congress"). Governor Dean expressed his gratitude during a press conference after the law's signing: “There is much to celebrate about this bill. Those celebrations, as the subject of this bill, will be private. They will be celebrated by couples and their families, by people making commitments to each other . . . I believe this bill enriches all of us as we look with new eyes at a group of people who have been outcasts for many, many generations” (Moats).
Robert Kinsey said that he was expecting to have a rough time in the next election period, “But I can handle it” (Halloran). Little did he know that a tidal wave was bearing down on him. Kinsey did not win his re-election. He received only 572 of the 3013 votes cast in his district (Ballotpedia). The outcry of many of the bill’s opponents in the Northeast Kingdom was deafening. Old farm houses, barns, and car bumpers were plastered with signs proclaiming, “Take Back Vermont!” as people fought to make their outrage known (“Backlash in Vermont”). Kinsey was one of five Republicans who were ousted in the year 2000 largely due to his vote on this Civil Unions bill (Mehren). Even so, the sacrifice and courage of men like Kinsey took our state one massive leap forward in the direction of human dignity. With his vote and the vote of others, Robert Kinsey and his fellow legislators sent forth “a tiny ripple of hope,” and as Robert Kennedy once told students in South Africa, “ . . . crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance” (Kennedy).
Last year, 15 years after that seminal decision from Vermont, the United States Supreme Court decided that marriage was a right afforded to all citizens. The cornerstone of that United States Supreme Court decision was laid in Montpelier, Vermont in April of 2000. By their decisive action 16 years ago, a group of courageous legislators in Vermont, including a Republican farmer from Craftsbury who sacrificed his political career, moved Vermont and their nation forward.
"Backlash In Vermont." CBS News 6 Sept. 2000. CBS. Web. 4 Jan. 2016.
"Baker v. Vermont.” Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse. University of Michigan Law School, 18 May 2013. Web. 5 Jan. 2016.
"D.C. Vote Puts Gay Marriage Before Congress." Boston.com 9 Apr. 2009. Associated Press. Web. 4 Jan. 2016.
Florio, Gwen. "Backlash In Vermont Angry Over New Legal Rights For Gay Couples And Other Issues, A Gubernatorial Candidate And Her Supporters Are Rallying Under The Slogan "Take Back Vermont." Philly.com 25 Oct. 2000. Web. 4 Jan. 2016.
Goldberg, Carey. "Vermont's House Backs Wide Rights For Gay Couples." New York Times 17 Mar. 2000. Web. 4 Jan. 2016.
Goldberg, Carey. "Vermont Moves Step Closer To Same-Sex Civil Unions." New York Times 19 Apr. 2000. Web. 3 Jan. 2016.
Halloran, Liz. "Soul-searching In Vermont." Hartford Courant 19 Mar. 2000. Web. 4 Jan. 2016.
Mehren, Elizabeth. "Voters Oust 5 Who Backed Vt. Civil Union Law." The L.A. Times 14 Sept. 2000, Web. 4 Jan. 2016.
Moats, David. Civil Wars: A Battle for Gay Marriage. Orlando: Harcourt, 2004. 242,243. Print.
Kennedy, Robert. "Day of Affirmation Address at Cape Town University."American Rhetoric. Ed. Eidenmuller. Eidenmuller, 6 June 1966. Web. 6 Jan. 2016.
"Vermont House of Representatives Elections, 2000." Ballotpedia. Madison, WI: Graves. Web. 4 Jan. 2016.