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Taking Back Vermont

Local Matters


Published November 10, 2004 at 7:49 p.m.

Last week voters across the country dealt a blow to supporters of gay marriage, but the day after the election, one of the architects of Vermont's civil-unions legislation was smiling.

Bill Lippert, the Hinesburg Democrat who served on the House Judiciary Committee during the contentious civil-union debate, knows the score. A gay man himself, he is aware that voters in 11 states approved constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. And he's not in denial about George W. Bush winning a second term. Bush opposes both gay marriage and civil unions -- Republican strategist Karl Rove confirmed as much last Sunday in an appearance on the Fox Network.

But Lippert has a reason to be enthusiastic: Though the backlash against legal recognition of same-sex couples is just beginning in some states, here in Vermont it's officially over. On November 2, pro-civil-union candidates regained control of the state legislature, which they lost in the 2000 elections. "We're basically back to where we had been before," says Lippert. "To have had that successfully reversed is just thrilling to me."

Beth Robinson, a lawyer who represented the plaintiffs in the landmark lawsuit that led to civil unions, says that the backlash has actually been over for a while. "But this election reaffirmed that in a big way," she adds.

For starters, the Vermont Fund for Families, a pro-civil-union advocacy group, now counts 87 gay-friendly legislators in the Vermont House, out of a possible 150. That list includes 75 Democrats, six Progessives and six Republicans.

In an email to supporters, the Fund announced that two prominent civil-union opponents lost on Election Day -- Republicans Frank Mazur of Shelburne and Nancy Sheltra of Derby. Democrat Michele Kupersmith beat Mazur, and Sheltra lost by 14 votes to Progressive Winston Dowland. In the Senate, the Fund counts a 21-9 pro-civil-union majority.

Lippert also cheerfully notes that he's no longer one of two gay men in the General Assembly; Vermonters elected five gay men, including new Democratic Senator and former Auditor of Accounts Ed Flanagan of Burlington, and Democrat Steve Howard, a former State Representative from Rutland who has reclaimed his old seat. Allies of GLBT youth should be cheered to learn that Outright Vermont has a friend in the House: Newly elected Democratic Rep. Tim Jerman is the father of Kate Jerman, Outright's co-executive director.

Perhaps most encouraging to gay-rights supporters were the Associated Press exit polls in Vermont. In 2000, respondents were evenly split, 49 percent to 49 percent, over whether civil unions should be legal. This year, fully 77 percent of the 698 poll respondents said they supported either gay marriage or civil unions. Only 21 percent opposed both.

But Vermonters hoping to win a fight for full gay marriage in the Green Mountain State will probably have to wait a while. In Lippert's opinion, pushing for marriage now would be "politically foolish." He concedes that some within the GLBT community probably disagree with him, but he'd like to see gay-rights supporters focus on battles over environmental protection, health care and women's rights, issues their allies abandoned to fight for civil unions.

Still, he's confident gay marriage for Vermonters will someday be a reality. "The time will come," Lippert says.