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Gay Rights Activists Committed to Moving Beyond Civil Unions 

Local Matters

VERMONT -- Forty-five states currently have laws or constitutional amendments limiting wedlock to one man and woman, so it might seem like hard times for the gay-marriage movement. But marriage-equality activists are focused on the long term and have reason to be optimistic. That's the message Evan Wolfson, executive director of the national organization Freedom to Marry, will deliver on June 27 at a Burlington fundraiser.

"The characteristic pattern of civil-rights advances in America is a patchwork," Wolfson notes in a phone interview. "During those patchwork periods, which can last years or decades, some states move faster while other states stay the same or regress. We're not immune from history, but we have to seize our victories."

Connecticut, like Vermont, now grants civil unions. California, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey and the District of Columbia all provide some spousal-like rights to same-sex couples. The biggest coup, of course, is in Massachusetts, which recognizes actual marriage between same-sex couples. And with challenges before their high courts, Washington, New Jersey and New York could all join Massachusetts.

The push for marriage rights for same-sex couples is taking place on three fronts: in the courts, in the legislature and in the arena of public opinion. Wolfson, whose views are published online at www.freedomtomarry.org and in his book Why Marriage Matters, explains that it's a matter of "teaching people to put gay and marriage into the same sentences and explaining . . . how the denial hurts people and why marriage matters. As we explain to people, over time, it brings them to fairness."

Wolfson says he avoids the phrase "gay marriage" because it suggests a separate, special institution, he says. "We're not asking non-gay people for something new as a favor," he stresses. "When people are committed, it's called 'marriage.'"

Ironically, so-called "defense of marriage" activity also helps the marriage-equality cause, Wolfson suggests, because it puts the issue on the table. "Any time people are prompted to push past their discomfort," he claims, "the more fair-minded people move to our side."

This trend doesn't follow a straight line; it's more a matter of two steps forward, one step back. Support for marriage equality grew in 1996, after Congress passed defense-of-marriage legislation, but it fell in 2003-'04, with "the barrage of right-wing attacks and amendment efforts and the president and the pope ganging up," Wolfson says. Once the public had absorbed the legalization of marriage in Massachusetts and Canada and the Supreme Court's Lawrence decision striking down Texas' anti-sodomy law, opposition to same-sex marriage began to decline, polls show. Today, just over 50 percent of Americans -- a much smaller number than a decade ago -- oppose marriage rights for homosexuals.

In Vermont, "We've taken a breather from the civil-union debate and are now ready to open the conversation again," says Beth Robinson, chair of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force. "The world has changed so much since 2000," the year of the civil-unions debate, she says. "The issue of whether gay and lesbian relationships should be recognized and respected is off the table. The focus now is how to do that."

Exit polls in 2004 showed 40 percent of Vermonters favoring marriage, 86 percent supporting civil unions, and only 2 percent opposed to either.

This year VFTM picked up its pace. The group -- which has a mailing list of 17,000 to 18,000 and a budget of around $100,000 to $120,000 -- hired a field director. It has been organizing house parties around the state and sponsoring talks at churches and Rotary clubs.

In the legislature, Representative Mark Larsen (D-Burlington) introduced a marriage-equity bill this year. The measure didn't go anywhere, "but he or someone else will raise it again and again and again until it does," Robinson predicts. "We've been keeping our eye on the ultimate goal of full marriage equity since day one."

In addition to Wolfson's talk, Tuesday's event will feature the premiere of "Voices of Vermonters." The 13-minute video by Vermont filmmakers Deb Ellis and Nora Jacobson is "designed to let Vermonters hear fellow Vermonters telling their stories and what this law means to them," Robinson says. The program begins at 7 p.m. at the Lake & College Street Building on the waterfront.

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