Before the Vermont Legislature passed the civil-unions law in the spring of 2000, hundreds of Vermonters testified at the Statehouse for and against the bill. It was a display of democracy at its finest. The debate outside the chamber, however, often turned nasty.
Much of that ugliness came from conservative activists, who accused gay Vermonters of advocating a wide variety of evils. At one point, a radical "pro-family" group called Who Would Have Thought, Inc., took out a full-page ad in Vermont newspapers suggesting that civil unions would lead to the legalization of pedophilia.
Six years later, that passion has faded. Civil unions are much less controversial, and most of the organizations that opposed them have disbanded. One group that remains is Who Would Have Thought, Inc., which morphed into the nonprofit Center for American Cultural Renewal, and is now spinning off an activist arm called Vermont Renewal. The organizations are quietly fighting against what founder Steven Cable calls the "valueless, culturally toxic agenda" of the "homosexual lobby."
CFACR/Vermont Renewal sends email updates to a list of 4000 recipients. The groups organize in opposition to things like pornography, gay marriage and adding protections for gender identity and expression to Vermont's anti-discrimination laws. Given the current political climate, the organization can afford just one paid staff person, conservative political operative Kevin Blier.
Blier writes angry letters to the editor and op-eds in Vermont newspapers. He shows up at the Statehouse from time to time to lobby. Meanwhile, the organizations he opposes do the same, seemingly unaffected by much of his work. The gender-identity bill Blier identified as a top priority in this legislative session passed easily through the Vermont House.
But if most of Blier's opponents ignore him, one anonymous activist, or activist group, is taking a more personal - some might say bullying - approach.
A blog called "Blier Watch" - at http://blierwatch.blogspot.com - is dedicated to monitoring Blier. But it doesn't just keep track of his political activities. The bloggers have posted Blier's home address, and a picture of his young son. In a state that prizes its tradition of civil political discourse, these tactics go against the grain.
Blier, 34, is a Brandon resident who moved to Vermont in 2004 to become the director of the Center for American Cultural Renewal. Today he describes himself as the director of policy analysis and research at Vermont Renewal.
According to the "Blier Watch" profile, its mission is to examine "the spin, the character and the associations of Vermont's most recent anti-civil unions/anti-gay activist, self-made public figure and registered lobbyist for Vermont Renewal & Center for American Cultural Renewal, Kevin W. Blier." Its posts suggest links between Blier, CFACR and other social conservatives, as well as far-right activists such as Fred Phelps. And it makes jokes at Blier's expense. Quips the site's author: "We poke fun at Kevin so you don't have to."
Not surprisingly, Blier objects to the blog. He says it oversimplifies his positions and threatens him and his family.
Blier suggests the blog is linked to a bill introduced this year by Rep. Mark Larsen (D-Burlington) that would legalize gay marriage in Vermont. "I think they're looking to intimidate the opposition. I find that interesting with the introduction of the gay marriage bill, where the sponsor and [attorney] Beth Robinson both said that they wanted to 'start a conversation,'" he says. "What sort of conversation did you want to start?"
Internet activism of this kind isn't new, especially among queer bloggers. Over the past few years, sites have sprung up all over the country dedicated to connecting the dots between conservative organizations, and digging up dirt.
Liberal bloggers such as gay Washington attorney John Aravosis have exposed hypocritical conservatives by outing their aides and occasionally outing them. Aravosis was also responsible for exposing the secret homosexual life of James Guckert, a.k.a. Jeff Gannon, a writer for a conservative news service who had attended White House press conferences.
Others, like Wayne Besen - a former spokesman for the queer activist group Human Rights Campaign who blogs at http://www.waynebesen.com - keep an eye on conservatives and the ex-gay movement. Besen is known for photographing John Paulk, ex-gay poster boy, in a Washington, D.C., gay bar. Besen's posts often shine a spotlight at social conservatives on the radical fringe.
But Blier Watch differs from these more prominent examples in important ways. For one thing, the blogger is anonymous. He or she declined an email request to be interviewed for this story. The blogger denies being a conservative in disguise, though it's impossible to know for sure.
More importantly, the site is directed specifically at Blier. An unflattering photo of him - a screenshot from C-Span of his appearance at last year's Conservative Political Action Conference - sits just below the site's header.
The Blier Watch blogger knows how to game Google's algorithms: A search for Kevin Blier yields 120,000 results. Though it's only been around since December 2005, Blier Watch is number one and two.
The blogger pulled off a similar trick with Blier's home address. His phone number and address are unlisted, but he appeared at a selectboard meeting last November to inquire how to circulate a petition for the March ballot and, like all participants, he was required to state his home address. The information was included in the Brandon Selectboard meeting minutes, posted to the town website. The Blier Watch blogger found the citation, linked to it, and directed enough traffic to it for it to appear as the seventh Google search result.
Blier Watch also parodied a letter Blier sent to local newspapers. In a post entitled, "Shorter Kevin Blier," the anonymous scribe writes, "Dear Bill," a reference to House Judiciary Chair Bill Lippert (D-Hinesburg), "My God hates fags. Man's law must comport with my God's will and uphold anyone who also hates fags. And you, being a fag, have got to go."
The fake letter is signed "Kevin," and the signature is a link to Blier's email address. Blier argues that although he advocates against legitimizing gay unions, he would never use the F-word. He has a family member who is gay, with whom he claims to be very close. "It was an inaccurate representation of anything I have thought or said publicly or privately," he says.
The blog also lists CFACR's site alongside links to the Neo-Nazi Stormfront site, and the site for Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church. Blier calls Phelps "a despicable idiot."
But the thing that ticks Blier off most is that Blier Watch published a photo of one of his sons, which Blier himself had posted to a Rutland meetup site a year earlier. After learning of the attack blog, Blier tried to delete the photo, and changed his residence on the site from Brandon to Rutland. His nemesis found the deleted information in the Google cache - the site often saves deleted information, at least for a short time - and published the photo and the deleted info in a March 14 Blier Watch post.
This infuriates Blier, who accuses the blog of turning his son into a political pawn. "With my son's picture out there, his identity is revealed," he says. "Now if someone wants to get to me, maybe they want to threaten the kidnapping of my son."
Blier is so worried about safety that he's unwilling to reveal the actual location of his office. The Center for American Cultural Renewal website - http://www.cfacr.org - lists only a post-office box, and Blier would like to keep it that way.
"There are safety concerns for us in this office," he says. "I try to be as discreet as possible without seeming secretive." He notes that during the civil union controversy, the organizers at Who Would Have Thought, Inc., received death threats.
In fact, activists on both sides of the debate were threatened, and it's worth noting that all of the state's major queer-advocacy organizations list their physical addresses on their websites. But Blier says CFACR is different, because it's the only group of its kind in the state. He claims it doesn't enjoy adequate protection from the Vermont Attorney General's Office.
As evidence, he cites an angry phone call he received about CFACR's position on the Lisa Miller case. Miller and her partner Janet Jenkins got a civil union in Vermont in 2000 and later moved to the state. Miller bore the couple's daughter, Isabella. The couple later split up when Miller declared herself a "former lesbian" and returned to Virginia. Jenkins is suing for custody of the girl. The case is currently before the Vermont Supreme Court. Not surprisingly, CFACR is supporting Miller. Steve Cable sent out a six-page fundraising letter focusing on the case in 2004.
Blier says that in January 2005 he received a phone call from someone who said, "The sooner we wipe your kind out of the state of Vermont, the better." He reported it to the Attorney General's Office and the state's Human Rights Commission.
A January 28 letter to Blier from Civil Rights Investigator Jean Lowell explains that the A.G. declined to investigate because the caller's reported remark did not indicate "the caller was threatening to cause harm to your person or property."
Lowell continues: "In addition to the remark quoted above, the caller referred to you as a 'homophobic moron.' It is understandable that you would be offended by such remarks. However, neither the frequency of the call, which I understand to be limited to this one-time occurrence, nor the content of the call rises to the level of unlawful harassment."
Blier claims the A.G.'s refusal to investigate justifies his caution. "I mean, if I know I don't have the A.G.'s protection in this state, I have to be careful," he says. He suggests that the Blier Watch blog might qualify as unlawful harassment. But that seems unlikely - U.S. courts have been reluctant to force Internet Service Providers to unmask anonymous web users. And in the famous Nuremberg Files case of 2001, the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that an anti-abortion website that published the names, addresses and photos of abortion providers, and crossed them off if they were gunned down, was protected by the First Amendment.
But even if the site is legal, does that make it right? Leftist blogger John Odum of the blog Green Mountain Daily - http://www.greenmountaindaily.com - calls Blier Watch "pretty harsh."
Odum, a straight man who worked to defeat an anti-gay proposal in Oregon in the early 1990s, sympathizes with Blier Watch. "A lot of folks feel like these challenges need to be addressed immediately and definitively before they can be allowed to take root," he says. But, he adds, "I do think the issue of family does cross a line. Obviously they would argue that Kevin Blier is threatening their families, but not in such a personal, direct way."
Robyn McGuire, the field director for the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force, said a call from a reporter was the first she'd heard of the blog. And VFTMTF attorney Beth Robinson says her organization has nothing to do with the site. She says her organization is engaged in meaningful dialogue about the issue with Vermonters across the state. "Our claim to fairness and equality doesn't depend on attacking anybody else," she says. "I don't want to sound callous about his concerns," she continues, "it's just not our blog."
Blier doesn't believe them. "There's a banner up there" at Blier Watch, he notes, "that says, 'Stop the hate,' as if this blog's done in love. It's a hateful, spiteful website, and yet they turn around and call us haters. I'd find that almost funny if it wasn't my picture plastered on their website."
Though Blier writes op-eds, does grassroots organizing, and recently ran unsuccessfully for the Brandon school board, he argues that he doesn't deserve this level of scrutiny. He wishes Blier Watch would leave him alone, or change its name to Vermont Renewal Watch.
"If they want to pinpoint me as the high-profile public figure making these arguments," he suggests, "I say, start pointing to Steve. He's the president."