News, Wit & Commentary for Lesbians
Just in case the link craps out: (Montpelier, VT) -- Lois Farnham and Holly Puterbaugh, among the very first same-sex couples in the nation to be legally joined as spouses when Vermont's civil union law went into effect, are happy to be celebrating their fifth anniversary.But for all the history they believe they helped make, they still wish they could get married. And they're far from alone in the first state to grant gay and lesbian couples full rights and benefits that flow from marriage. Their reason: Vermont stopped just short of allowing them to marry, creating civil unions, instead. As gay and lesbian couples in Massachusetts have won full marriage rights and a number of communities have recognized same-sex marriages, even fleetingly, the civil union certificate that they got on July 1, 2000, seems just a little like second best. "I think people have accepted civil unions, without any question," Farnham said. "Don't get me wrong, it's still a compromise. I would still like full marriage benefits, but it's better than what we had." In the law's first five years, 7,549 couples have joined in civil unions, all but 1,137 of them from out of state. Roughly two-thirds have been women. There have been 78 dissolutions in that time. Activists who marked Friday's fifth anniversary of the Vermont law going into effect say it stops short of full equality for gay and lesbian couples. They are beginning to revitalize their lobbying organization and plan to renew their push for full marriage equivalent in name and status to opposite-sex marriage. "We knew from the outset it wouldn't get us where we need to go, which is full inclusion and equality for gay families," said Beth Robinson, the lead lawyer in the suit that led to civil unions. "I think we've got plenty of work ahead of us." Opponents, who have remained largely silent since 2000, would organize against an initiative for marriage, said the Rev. Craig Bensen, who helped lead an opposition effort five years ago. "The legislative psychology, based on what I've been observing, is that neither side and certainly not the middle sees any great desire on anybody's part to reopen the debate, just because of the huge amount of fallout that came with it the first time around," Bensen said. "I think it would get very hot again." House Speaker Gaye Symington said it was important to keep in mind that "Vermont remains in the forefront of states where we have established real legal rights that are as far as a state can go in establishing the legal rights and benefits that go with marriage." She said she anticipated a debate about permitting same-sex couples to marry eventually, but civil unions would remain the law for now. "I don't think it is something that Vermont is likely to change in the short term," she said. Activists were sorely disappointed in 2000 when the Legislature, acting after the state Supreme Court ruled that gay and lesbian couples were being unconstitutionally denied marriage rights, decided to enact a system parallel to marriage and called it civil union. They started out seeking full marriage rights. But, following the lead of Gov. Howard Dean, lawmakers decided the public was not ready for such a big step and compromised for a system that granted all of the rights, benefits and responsibilities of marriage. But it was a new institution, then recognized nowhere else in the country and still in only one other state. That, alone, is a major drawback for people who believe civil unions comes up short. When they leave Vermont, they don't have, for example, the guarantee they can visit their partner in the hospital or the unquestioned authority to make medical decisions in the event their partner is incapacitated. "We're going to a friend's anniversary party this weekend. It's in New York state," Farnham said. "Legally in New York state we are not related to each other. When you travel out of state people do not realize the benefits that we do not have, that you can't carry them across the state line." Sandi Cote-Whitacre said she and her partner, Bobbi Cote-Whitacre, rely on their civil union certificate to guarantee them all the rights of marriage when they're in Vermont. But when they travel to Massachusetts, they take with them a sheaf of legal documents, including powers of attorney and other contracts that seek to make clear their relationship. They both also are approaching retirement age and want to be married because that's the only way the federal government allows one partner to qualify for the other's Social Security and other pension-related benefits. The Cote-Whitacres care so deeply about marriage that they got married in Provincetown, Mass., last May before state officials halted weddings among out-of-state couples. They're now part of a lawsuit seeking to recognition of out-of-state couples' marriages. They got a civil union in 2000, also, and found immediate tangible and emotional benefits. Their auto insurance bill, for example, was halved to $600 because their insurer recognized them as spouses as soon as Vermont's law went into effect. "At that point we had been together 33 years and you think you've related to each other on every level possible," Sandi Cote-Whitacre said. "But when we got up the next morning it was different and I don't know what was different about it. That was the intangible that civil union gave couples. It added another level of commitment that I was surprised at and so was Bobbi." Marriage, she argued, would be even more meaningful. But not everyone agrees. The very first couple to join in a civil union -- Carolyn Conrad, 34, and Kathleen "KP" Peterson, 46, of Brattleboro -- are happy with what they've got. "It doesn't make any sense to me to quibble over a word when I know that for me the civil union has been spectacular and if it's not enough for somebody else I'm sorry about that but I'm really happy having a civil union," Peterson said.
Hmm, that insurance cost cut would be mighty nice. Anybody want to get hitched?
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