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State of the Unions.

The fierce battle in Vermont to recognize gay relationships will have a ripple effect beyond the state's borders

Late one night last summer Vermont resident Robert Dostis hurt his back, and his lover, Chuck Kletecka, hurried him to the local emergency room. When it appeared Dostis would need an overnight stay, Kletecka went to the admissions desk to fill out the necessary paperwork. But Kletecka was turned away. "You're not the next of kin," he was told.

In rushing to get Dostis to the hospital, it never occurred co Kletecka to grab the medical power of attorney sitting in an filing cabinet upstairs in their Waterbury Center home. Without the document, Kletecka was left powerless to advocate for his lover at the hospital.

"Fifteen years together," Kletecka recalls, "and at that moment it meant nothing without a power of attorney in my back pocket."

The memory of that night is just one reason Kletecka and Dostis plan to make their relationship official later this year when the newly passed Vermont law on gay and lesbian relationships kicks in this July. The "civil unions" law is the first of its kind in the nation to legally recognize gay and lesbian relationships and grant them every state-sanctioned privilege that married couples enjoy, with one notable exception: a marriage certificate.

The sweeping law will affect everything from inheritance to parenthood to state income tax returns--including the ability as the next of kin to make medical decisions, if necessary, for a hospitalized partner.

The new law "is something unprecedented from any court or legislature," says Mary Bonauto of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, a Boston-based legal group. "It changes everything." Bonauto is the cocounsel in Baker v. State of Vermont, the case that led the state supreme court in December to order that same-sex couples be given the same rights and protections as married couples. Under the new law, a direct result of the Baker decision, registered gay and lesbian couples can take advantage of more than 300 Vermont statutes that previously bestowed benefits only on married couples.

"That's the practical part of it," says Stan Baker, one of the six plaintiffs in the case and the man whose name graces the landmark state supreme court ruling. As well as the material gains, Baker says, gays and lesbians win "public recognition that our relationships are valid and worth officially recognizing. So in addition to the tangible benefits are the social benefits."

How tangible the results will be to gays and lesbians outside of Vermont is another question. Because the bill covers Vermont laws only, the effect of the legislation stops at the state border and carries no weight in other states. Because there is no residency requirement in the bill, gay and lesbian couples from other states can register their relationships in Vermont when they visit.

Still, gays and lesbians elsewhere will also reap many of the social benefits of the law. "When all the screaming, gnashing of teeth, and breast-beating is done, people across the country will come to see that only one thing has changed in Vermont: Life will be a little better for gay and lesbian citizens," says Dick McCormack, vice chairman of the Vermont senate judiciary committee and the senate's majority leader. When gay and lesbian advocates advance similar legislation in other states, they "will be able to point to Vermont as an example of how foolish all the hysteria [from the opposition] is."

Bill Lippert, the openly gay vice chairman of Vermont's house judiciary committee, hopes the Vermont law offers the rest of gay and lesbian America "a renewed sense of inspiration and hopefulness, particularly in the face of the Knight initiative," an anti-gay-marriage ballot measure passed by California voters in March, and similar state laws that define marriage as solely between a man and a woman.

Some legal experts say the long-term ramifications could add up to much more than feel-good psychology. In fact, Vermont might provide the blueprint that other states decide to copy. "Nationally, there can't help but be legal influence," asserts Greg Johnson, cocounsel in the Alaska same-sex marriage case Brause v. Alaska (currently on appeal to the state supreme court) and an assistant professor at Vermont Law School. "This sets an example for other states to follow." He predicts "a lot of promise" for recognition of gay couples in all the New England states as well as Minnesota and California.

Evan Gerstmann, an assistant professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and author of The Constitutional Underclass: Gays, Lesbians and the Failure of Class-Based Equal Protection, agrees: "I would be very surprised if a number of states didn't move along the Vermont model." Gerstmann says many states have constitutional provisions similar to the "common benefits" and "equal protection" clauses that motivated the Vermont supreme court to mandate benefits for gay and lesbian couples. "What is unique about Vermont is the approach of judicial-legislative cooperation," he says. "If you look at the political reality--extreme negative public reaction to courts trying to do this on their own--it's clear that such a partnership is a more effective way to win results."

Beth Robinson, cocounsel in the Baker case, even suggests the Vermont law might be used in the future to secure benefits for gays and lesbians outside the state. It's possible that a couple who eventually leave Vermont might sue to have their union recognized elsewhere. "We're plowing new legal ground, and how that plays itself out in other states remains to be seen," she says.

Further litigation from gays and lesbians within Vermont, however, seems less likely in the near future. While the Vermont supreme court has retained jurisdiction in Baker and could thus be compelled to review whether or not the law fulfills the mandate to provide equal benefits, a majority of the plaintiffs do not appear eager to return to the courtroom.

Lois Farnham and Holly Puterbaugh, who have been together 27 years, were one of the three plaintiff couples in Baker. Puterbaugh admits her emotions sway between "the half-full, half-empty glass syndrome. Some days I am so excited at what we've accomplished. Other days I'm reminded it's still not marriage." Still, Farnham says the two "are most likely satisfied with things for now. I'm tired."

Baker and his partner, Peter Harrigan, feel the same way. "I'm looking forward to it being through," Baker says with a sigh.

The victory in Vermont has not come easily. Gay and lesbian Vermonters and their supporters have sustained months of highly vocal, very public attacks from opponents. In drafting the law, both the house and senate judiciary committees held hearings in which gays and lesbians were called everything from perverts to child molesters. Right-wing activist Randall Terry, founder of the antiabortion group Operation Rescue, set up camp in the shadow of the state-house and remained there for the duration. In the final weeks Republican presidential candidate Alan Keyes and Traditional Values Coalition head the Rev. Lou Sheldon visited the state to campaign against the impending legislation. And opponents took out full-page ads in local papers, denouncing the governor and listing home phone numbers of supportive legislators.

"The degree of ugliness and the volume of nastiness are things we're not accustomed to here," says Barbara Dozetos, editor of Out in the Mountains, Vermont's statewide gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender newspaper. "It brought to the surface a lot of homophobia that previously lived silently in this state. The excitement has been mixed with equal parts pain." As a result, she says, "the mood is not all celebration."

And even the most ardent supporters of the new law cannot escape that it falls short of full equality. The law leaves unaddressed more than 1,000 federal benefits available to married couples but still denied gay and lesbian Vermonters. Dozetos and her girlfriend of three years afford just one example of how couples can still fall through the cracks. Dozetos's girlfriend, a Canadian, is in the United States on a student visa. Even if the two register as a couple with the state of Vermont, the girlfriend still faces U.S. immigration rules that could force her to return home in August.

Some gays and lesbians are so skeptical of the law that they may not take advantage of it. "It codifies us as second-class citizens," says Windham County resident Bari Shamas. Shamas and her partner of 15 years have not yet decided if they will register. She also expresses "reservations about registering with the government as queer."

Defenders almost universally refer to the law with the same words as plaintiff Peter Harrigan: "A step in the right direction, toward marriage."

Just how and when that next step might be taken, however, does not seem to be pressing on the minds of most gay and lesbian Vermonters. In fact, political insiders warn that in the near future the "next step" should not be pushing for gay marriage but protecting the new law from repeal.

In November every member of the Vermont legislature is up for reelection, as is the governor. Opponents have promised to make the gay issue paramount.

This law "will cost some people their political lives," senate majority leader McCormack predicts--possibly even his own. "I'm from a county ready to lynch me," he says.

Openly gay representative Lippert is adamant that continuing to push now for gay marriage could be a disastrous tactical error. "Legislators who supported this are vigorously and viciously being targeted for defeat. Our task right now is not to go for further relief," he insists, "but to educate Vermonters to reelect legislators who showed courage."

Even Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force spokesman Chris Tebbetts concedes that "in the future, we can collect evidence of how this falls short of equality. But now is a time for healing."

Tired of court battles and statehouse protests, many gay and lesbian Vermonters seem eager to put down their placards and finally capitalize on the hard-won benefits. Kletecka and Dostis are looking forward to turning their attention from the political to the personal as they begin planning a ceremony to accompany their union. "It's been such a hard battle," Kletecka declares. "Now I want a party."

RELATED ARTICLE: Profile in Courage

Gov. Howard Dean stands on principle rather than popularity in his push to make Vermont the most forward-thinking state in the nation

Vermont's governor, Howard Dean, has been steadfast in his support of state-sanctioned gay and lesbian unions ever since the state supreme court decision late last year, Now, in an interview with The Advocate, the Democrat--running for his fifth term this year--underscores his support and explains why Vermont is the right state to ignite a nationwide debate on the issue

Are you surprised to be the first U.S. governor to ponder signing what to date would be the most comprehensive bill for gay and lesbian rights?

I don't think of it as all that sweeping, I view this as just an extension of the rights and benefits of the [Vermont] constitution to all Vermonters, regardless of their sexual orientation.

We were the first and the only state to ban slavery in our constitution when we wrote it in 1777, I think people here feel pretty strongly that everybody is equal, and that includes the governor. The governor doesn't drive around in a limousine in this state, and there's a reason for that.

How do you think state-sanctioned gay and lesbian unions will affect the state of Vermont?

I don't think this is going to radically change Vermont's lifestyle because the people who take advantage of this are going to be people who want that long-term, stable relationship, and that's very consistent with what's been going on in Vermont for many, many years.

Do you think it will have impact outside Vermont?

Yes, I do. I think what we will show is that there is no reason for other states not to do this. I think there will be a lot of discussion for some years to come, and I think that other states will follow us fairly quickly. Within the next five years or so, you'll probably have five or six states that embrace domestic partnership or civil union.

The opposition in Vermont has been more virulent than some anticipated. Can you talk about the opposition's tactics?

It's been very disappointing. You get the same old tired nonsense that we are going to be teaching homosexuality in the schools and that I am personally in favor of child abuse. That kind of talk is obviously, ridiculously irresponsible, In some ways, people who are uncomfortable with this notion [of state-sanctioned gay and lesbian unions] are even more uncomfortable with the caliber of the opposition.

Many gay and lesbian people say it has been hurtful to hear the opposition

demonize them. How have you countered those images?

Well, I use the example of adultery. Are there heterosexual marriages that are compromised by adultery? Yes, there are, but the state still grants them full benefits. Are there homosexual relationships that are characterized by promiscuity? Yes, there are some. But the state can't make moral judgments about those actions.

You and every member of the state legislature are up for reelection in November. How will this affect the upcoming election?

I've tried to avoid making predictions about that, but I think there will be some seats that are lost in the house and perhaps in the senate.

What about your own reelection bid?

I think there's no question it will make it more difficult. But this is not a vote that is about politics, This is a vote that is about principle, and that principle is respect for everyone--and that is regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, race, or any one of a number of factors that makes us different. That's a principle that is incredibly important to the success of this country, and it's not a principle that I have any regrets about supporting.

A lot of gay and lesbian Vermonters, even supporters of the bill, say it's good but it's still not marriage. How do you respond?

Well, I think the court didn't say that marriage was essential in order to have equal benefits and equal respect. I think this meets the supreme court test. I think that parallel institutions are OK. The notion of marriage is one, frankly, that is going to be some time in coming, if it ever does.

Do you ever see gay and lesbian marriage in the future of Vermont?

No one can predict what the future is, but I think there is an increasing understanding that homosexuality is not chosen and that gay and lesbian people have the same rights and privileges of any members of society.

What, if any, personal feedback have you received from gay and lesbian Vermonters?

Initially, I think people were disappointed because I said I was uncomfortable with gay marriage. But I think people are now very appreciative because I am standing up and taking an enormous amount of heat. So I feel like I've been pretty well-supported by the gay and lesbian community, but, of course, I can't speak for them.

How has this affected you in any personal way?

Well, yeah, it's been hard. I mean, there really have been a lot of sleepless nights. And the tone of the opposition [pause]--some of the opposition are decent people who are just struggling with the issue. But there obviously are a number of hate groups inside Vermont and outside Vermont who have come here, and they take a personal toll.

-- Mubarak Dahir

Find more on the Vermont civil unions law and links to related Internet sites at www.advocate.com

Dahir has contributed to Time, The Industry Standard, and Redbook.
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Author:Dahir, Mubarak
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1U1VT
Date:May 23, 2000
Words:2631
Previous Article:ABS FAB.
Next Article:Firm partnerships.
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