After landmark civil-union legislation was enacted in Vermont in 2000, town clerks could barely keep up with the demand for licenses. From Burlington to Bennington, their offices were full of same-sex couples looking to be recognized in a way that would give them the same state protections, albeit with a different name, as their heterosexual peers.
“Back in 2000, we were beating them off with a stick. We’d have 10 couples a week,” recalls Deborah LaRiviere, town clerk in sparsely populated Bolton, of the days and weeks following the legislature’s decision. “We had a booming business then.”
There’s been no such business for LaRiviere in anticipation of the day that same-sex marriage becomes legal in Vermont. As of last week, not a single gay or lesbian couple had come to her office seeking a marriage license.
LaRiviere doesn’t expect requests to pick up significantly, either. Although same-sex couples could legally wed in Vermont starting Tuesday, September 1, few are rushing to the altar. As of last Friday in Chittenden County, only 15 civil-marriage licenses had been requested by same-sex couples; in Burlington, just three.
This seeming nonchalance may surprise some observers who watched as throngs of same-sex couples crowded courthouses and town offices to get marriage licenses in Massachusetts in 2003, San Francisco in 2004 and all over California in 2008, before voters approved a constitutional amendment reversing the right. National media documenting the advent of Vermont’s same-sex marriage law are unlikely to see a similar scenario play out.
Greg Trulson, a justice of the peace in Duxbury, cited two probable reasons for the uneventful transition. One: Many same-sex couples already have civil unions and are just transferring them to marriage certificates. Vermont’s new law will not affect existing civil unions, although no new civil unions will be issued after September 1. Two: There is no threat that civil marriage will vanish. Because Vermont is not a referendum state, marriage rights for same-sex couples can be revoked only if the law is found to be unconstitutional. Since the law bested a gubernatorial veto in April, it is unlikely the legislature or the state’s supreme court will take up this issue again.
At midnight on the night same-sex marriage became legal, Trulson officiated at the wedding of a gay couple from Whitehall, N.Y. It was one of the first same-sex nuptials in the state and one of 19 that Trulson is slated to officiate between now and the end of the year. But Trulson, who owns Moose Meadow Lodge in Waterbury with his soon-to-be husband Willie Docto, said most of the couples he’s talked with are either holding off on civil marriage until the anniversary of their civil union, or are just not making a big deal of it. “There’s not that rush to be the first on September 1,” he said. Many of the couples he expects to see are ones whose civil unions he’s already performed. They’re returning to him on their anniversaries so they have fewer dates to remember, Trulson joked.
Other officiants around the state are seeing the same trend. Fairfax minister Moretti, who goes by one name, performs about six to ten marriage and civil-union ceremonies a year. So far, he’s only scheduled for two civil-marriage ceremonies, both for couples whose civil unions he has already officiated. The two couples wanted low-key affairs because they’d had big celebrations years ago, Moretti said. He anticipates couples will be more thoughtful about entering into a marriage than they were when civil unions became law. “I don’t think you’ll see the same sort of impulsiveness as you did with civil unions,” Moretti said. “I don’t think people will come here and say, ‘Let’s get a gay wedding.’”
The fact that there’s no rush to be the first same-sex couple legally married in Vermont has troubled some members of the LGBT community who fought hard for the right. Weeks before September 1, Beth Robinson, board chair of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Action Committee, lamented the lack of big doings for the “first” same-sex marriage in the state. She said she was surprised no couples had planned ceremonies for just after midnight on September 1.
Karen Pike, a local wedding photographer and board chair of Outright Vermont, likewise said she couldn’t believe no one was planning anything for the big day at 12:01 a.m. After batting around the idea with a few people, Pike found a couple willing to be the public face of same-sex marriage in Vermont and offered them free floral arrangements and her services as a photographer, along with those of Robinson as officiant. Claire Williams and her now-wife Cori Giroux have already had two ceremonies celebrating their love, but legal marriage felt like “icing on the cake,” Williams said. She quipped that when most people get hitched multiple times, it’s generally to different partners.
Williams and Giroux, who had intended to tie the knot some time after September 1, agreed to choose the day itself on principle. “Can you imagine if civil marriage became legal on September 1 and nobody got married?” Williams said. “Part of the fight is exercising your right.”
The fact that they were among the few same-sex Vermont couples to wed early on September 1 doesn’t suggest the gay community is apathetic, Williams said. Rather, she thinks it indicates that people feel secure this law will stand. With civil unions as a precedent, same-sex couples can feel safe in the knowledge that their marital rights will be upheld — at least in Vermont. “Because we were the first state to legalize civil marriage through legislation, people aren’t stressed that it’s going away,” Williams said.