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"Union" Made 

Book Review: Civil Wars: A Battle for Gay Marriage

Published February 4, 2004 at 5:00 a.m.

David Moats' Civil Wars: A Battle for Gay Marriage is a magisterial recounting of Vermont's long, bitter fight over the nuptial rights of homosexuals. The book should be of great interest to anyone who registers for a civil union in Vermont --my partner and I fall in that category -- as well as any gay couple who marries in Massachusetts.

But there's one person for whom Civil Wars should be required reading: George W. Bush.

Why? Because Moats never wavers from the conviction that the struggle in Vermont was fundamentally a matter of human rights, a step along the road to equality "that ranks… with Birmingham and Selma." While he respects the religious convictions that made some Vermonters object to the prospect of gay marriage, he maintains a steady focus on the American ideal of a secular democracy.

Bush, by the evidence of his recent State of the Union address, is apparently willing to discard those principles. By advocating a constitutional amendment that would forbid gay marriage, the President said in essence that he was is willing to eliminate the separation of church and state in order to satisfy the religious right.

Moats' book offers an indispensable counterpoint. The editorial-page editor of the Rutland Herald, Moats won a 2001 Pulitzer Prize for his "even-handed and influential" series of editorials on the gay-marriage debate. He is just as even-handed in Civil Wars; at one point he praises the "measured yet determined tone" of a memorandum from House Judiciary Committee Chair Thomas Little, and it's clear that Moats strives for those qualities in his own prose as well.

He lapses only a few times into high-flown foreshadowing: "The curtain was going up on the biggest drama of his life." But for the most part Moats tells the story with a minimum of histrionics, and the cumulative impact of his quiet approach is powerful.

In his introduction, Moats traces his impulse to write the book to a dinner with friends in California, in October 2002. He remembers how difficult it was to convey to them "the full scope of the upheaval that had overwhelmed Vermont" since Dec. 20, 1999. That's when the Vermont Supreme Court decided that the state was constitutionally required to extend to same-sex couples "the common benefits and protections" afforded to married couples, and that the legislature should make it happen. Civil Wars, he explains, is the story he would have told his friends that night in Oakland.

Perhaps because he's keeping a flatlander audience in mind, Moats strives to provide a historical context, and it's invaluable. For instance, he discusses the fact that Vermont was the first state to outlaw slavery, making the astute parenthetical comment that the debate over immediate versus gradual emancipation would be echoed in the civil-union debates more than 150 years later.

More important still, Moats traces the development of gay rights in Vermont. Its mostly exemplary history nonetheless showed the potential for virulent anti-gay sentiment in the state: in 1986, for instance, the Equal Rights Amendment was defeated largely because the religious right argued that it would promote gay marriage. Moats also honors the courage of those who helped forge early legislative wins for gay rights -- such as David Wolk, a state senator from Rutland whose sponsorship of hate crimes and anti-discrimination bills in the early '90s drew death threats and arguably lost him a bid for lieutenant governor in 1992.

But it is the men and women involved in the battle over gay marriage who form Moats' main cast of characters, and he does a fine job bringing them to life. We're introduced to most of them in the book's first chapter, at the moment the Supreme Court decision is announced: Beth Robinson and Susan Murray, the Middlebury lawyers who argued the case; their clients -- Holly Puterbaugh and Lois Farnham, Nina Beck and Stacy Jolles, Stan Baker and Peter Harrigan -- who by the simple act of applying for a marriage license began a revolution; the lawmakers, such as Chittenden County Representative Bill Lippert, the Vermont Legislature's only openly gay member; the revolution-shaping judges, such as Chief Justice Jeffrey Amestoy; and Governor Howard Dean, who was criticized for signing the civil-unions bill behind closed doors but is presented here as both pragmatic and principled.

Moats expertly homes in on key biographical details. For instance, he mentions House Republican leader Bob Kinsey's childhood memory of seeing a Jewish neighbor, Sam Schneider, doused with water by neighborhood bullies; later, that anecdote is recalled to telling effect. (And it's a good thing Moats' index is thorough, because it may take you a while to remember who Sam Schneider is.) Moats also knows how to hold back; we don't know till pages after they're introduced that Robinson and Murray are lesbians, which seems in keeping with Moats' central tenet that a person's humanity is more important than his or her sexual orientation.

Robinson and Murray's pioneering dedication to the cause of gay marriage, and Murray's earlier successful defense of gay adoption, helped pave the way to civil unions in Vermont. But Moats makes clear that, for them, settling for the "second-class status" of civil unions seemed at first to represent "a galling compromise." Here and throughout the book, he conveys the complexities of Vermont's gay-marriage debate; there were never just two sides, and his nuanced approach details the many shades of gray in the positions of legislators and voters.

Of course, some positions were anything but nuanced. Among the most shocking passages in the book is Moats' account of a public meeting in St. Albans, which was intended to be a question-and-answer session with legislators about civil unions but collapsed into chaos. Moats' understated reporting makes the behavior of the attendees seem that much more outrageous: "When a teenager told the audience that she had two lesbian parents, audience members shouted obscenities. According to the account in The Messenger, someone hollered, ‘Child abuse!' Someone else shouted, ‘What do they do to you at night?'"

Perhaps it's my flatlandish naïvete, but I was stunned by the level of homophobia revealed in this and many other incidents described in the book. That said, it's good to know who and where your potential enemies are. Darlene Wyman, for example. The Athens town clerk "told voters she would quit her job rather than sign a civil union certificate."

But the hatred and ignorance that surfaced in St. Albans and elsewhere backfired. Legislators who'd been on the fence saw that there was no possibility for compromise with bigots and decided to vote their conscience, consequences be damned. Similarly, legislators didn't take well to the intimidation tactics of Operation Rescue demagogue Randall Terry and conservative House member Nancy Sheltra -- two of the most vociferous opponents of gay marriage.

On the other hand, the eloquence of those speaking in favor of civil unions proved persuasive. Moats' comprehensive account of the proceedings leading up to the final vote includes large chunks of testimony from public and legislative debates, which are alternately appalling, eloquent, funny and moving. Bill Lippert's statement is the most impressive of all.

Moats devotes five pages to his account of the legislator's speech; its combination of candor and impassioned reason may very well have turned the tide and won the vote for civil unions. It's too long to excerpt here, but I'll leave you with Moats' account of what House Republican leader Bob Kinsey said, immediately after Lippert finished speaking.

"‘Mr. Speaker! I just heard the greatest speech I've heard in thirty years,' he told the packed chamber. ‘And that's why I'm glad to be a friend of the member from Hinesburg, and that's why I'm glad to be on his side.'"

George W. Bush could learn a thing or two from Lippert. Please, someone send him a copy of Civil Wars today.

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David Warner


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