Civil Unions Pass Legislature - NPR

In Vermont, the legislature gave final approval today to a civil unions bill, granting same-sex couples virtually all the benefits of marriage. Both critics and supporters consider the bill the most sweeping gay rights legislation ever passed. Governor Howard Dean has vowed to sign it into law, perhaps as early as this Friday. But as Vermont Public Radio’s Steve Young reports, many gay and lesbian couples in Vermont have mixed emotions about this landmark legislation


BJ Rogers says until recently, it never occurred to him that someday he might actually get married. Rogers who’s 25, gay, and still single, says while growing up, same-sex marriage was unthinkable. But he says the debate over the issue in Vermont has changed his view. While he’s unlikely to get hitched anytime soon, he says the issue has a direct bearing on his life:

BJ Rogers: When society recognizes gay relationships as valuable

parts of our social construction, they also recognize gay individuals as valuable human beings.

But as a single man, Rogers won’t be affected in any practical way by the new law. Among gay and lesbian couples, who will be, the bill’s passage is being met with a mixture of cheers and disappointment. 36-year old writer Chris Tebbetts and his partner say they may not even bother to form a civil union. He says the process of filling out the paperwork, getting a license and arranging a commitment ceremony will be expensive and time-consuming:


Chris Tebbetts: I’ve heard from people around the country that we’re absolutely crazy to be anything but thrilled by the bill and we are thrilled by the bill. But we also recognize it as the compromise that it is. People from Seattle and North Dakota are saying why aren’t you on the streets dancing?

Tebbetts partner, 40 year-old Jonathan Radigan says no one’s dancing because the bill contains a major flaw: it provides many of the benefits of marriage while calling it something else entirely. And he says the distinction is crucial:

Radigan: You know there was a lot of debate around the whole word marriage. I don’t think anyone on either side of the issue can say that the word is not important The fact that we struggled so much over the word itself is indicative over how important the word is.

In fact, the civil union bill spells out clearly that civil marriage remains strictly a union between a man and a woman. It creates a parallel system of marriage-type benefits to same-sex couples, an arrangement many gay activists call “separate but equal.” Legislative supporters of civil union, many of whom are in trouble in their districts because of their votes, say that providing same-sex couples with full marriage wasn’t politically viable. 35 year old Wendy Beinner says she understands that. But she also says  she feels let down:

Wendy Beinner: Most of my straight friends and colleagues were so excited about the civil union bill and the decision itself and even when I tried to describe how civil union would not be nearly good enough for me compared to marriage, I think it’s really difficult for them to understand that.

Sam Abel and Craig Palmer were married six years ago in a Congregational Church in the small town of Thetford, Vermont where Palmer grew up. The couple have two foster children, including a seven month old. The new law doesn’t acknowledge their church wedding but will provide a legal status that they’ve never had. So they say they’ll get a civil unions license but Palmer is unsure how they’ll handle the commitment ceremony:

Craig Palmer: It’s really a question because we don’t want to in any way belittle what we did before that. That is still the most important thing. Even without the civil unions bill we’d be together and we would have made this commitment to each other

Abel. 42, says the civil unions bill will have little affect on their lives until there’s a crisis in the family:

Abel: The difference is when there’s stress, when there’s a health emergency, when there’s tension in the family, when the kids have a problem. That’s when you need the protections

Abel says he’ll be grateful for the security but he worries that by creating a separate name for their relationship, his children will be more susceptible to harassment for having two fathers later in life:

Abel: I want our kids to know that our relationship is as legitimate, is as an important family unit as anybody else’s because we are a real family. I want to be able to tell them that this is honored by the state and I think the Civil Unions bill does part of that.

But not all of it. It’s highly unlikely that marriage in name will be granted to same-sex couples anytime soon. Still, many gay couples in Vermont say the legislation is an important first step toward equality. They say they’ll celebrate when Governor Howard Dean signs it into law. For NPR I’m Steve Young