More Reflections on Same Sex Marriage from Essex County

imagesEdward and I moved from Boston to Vermont in May of 2004.  That same month, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that same-sex couples had the right to marry.  But Vermont had paved the way for that pioneering decision, by passing its own civil union law, back in 2001.  The battle for civil unions wasn’t an easy one.  It tore the state apart, liberal as Vermont is.  All but one of the fourteen Republican legislators who voted their consciences for the civil union bill lost their seats in the next legislative session.  To this day, in some corners of Vermont, one can still find, affixed to barns and trailers, signs that read “Take Back Vermont,”

Flash forward to 2006.  By that time, we’d moved to Vermont and I’d been appointed Town Clerk of tiny little Guildhall, the shire town of the most conservative county in Vermont.  One of my responsibilities was the issuance and recording of marriage and civil union licenses.

That fall, an adorable lesbian couple from Gorham, NH appeared at my office.  They wanted a civil union license but they were nervous as hell about asking for it.  I gave them a big smile and handshake, and they looked so relieved.  They confessed they hadn’t known what to expect from any Town Clerk they might approach. I issued their license–they were to hold the ceremony in neighboring Maidstone–but they also needed an officiant for the ceremony.  That proved to be a harder task.  We sat down and went over the list of five Justices of the Peace from our town.

Unfortunately, one JP was out-of-town on the date planned for the ceremony.  Three others, sadly, refused to officiate at a civil union.  When I phoned the fifth–an elderly curmudgeonly gentleman with a soft side–and explained that we needed an officiant and that no one else would do it, there was a lengthy pause.  My heart sank and I could tell that a “no” was looming.   And so I did the practical–some might say cynical–thing. I offered to pay him.  Nothing wrong with it, after all.  Lots of officiants get paid for conducting marriages.  I told him they would pay $100 and I would chip in another $50, in my private individual capacity.

He agreed.  I was kind of disappointed that money was the persuading factor.  But in retrospect, that doesn’t bother me much.  People’s motivations can be complicated, and as later became clear, it was still an act of courage and boldness for this gentleman.    Still, he was pretty apprehensive about doing the ceremony.  At one point he wanted to back out and I only kept him on board by agreeing to accompany him there.

I remember driving up Route 102 in his pickup truck.  On the way, he was grouchy (as he often was anyway), and he complained, saying he didn’t want to stay any longer than absolutely necessary with “those people.”   By way of rejoinder, I said “well, we have to stay for at least a little while.  It would be very rude to just leave.”   This gave him pause, and he seemed to agree, grunting his assent.

When we arrived, he stood up and recited the vows the couple had prepared for him.  I remember that one of the couple was dressed in a tuxedo for the ceremony, and the curmudgeonly Justice of the Peace’s eyes widened at that.   Afterwards, we went inside for food, drink and socializing. There was a beautiful view of Maidstone Lake.  My companion the officiant sat down on a couch, stiff as a board, looking around suspiciously.  There was music, laughter, a few impromptu speeches.  I told him I was going to fetch some food from the buffet table.  “Do you want me to bring you some?”  He grunted no.  I brought back a plate heaped with food and started eating it, slowly and deliberately as I sat beside him.  I commented how good the food was.  Finally, I asked him again if he wanted any, and this time he let me go get him a plateful.  After that, he seemed to relax considerably, and even made some small talk with people who it turned out he knew and with whom he had done some kind of business.

As we drove back that afternoon, he said to me “I just don’t understand it, two nice girls wanting to be like that.”  I responded and simply said “well, they seemed very happy, like most people are at weddings.”  He looked over at me, paused, grunted, and then said “well, the food was pretty good.  Can’t argue with that.”  I couldn’t help but smile.   With that, he had come pretty damn close to a form of acceptance.  Not that he was a paragon of gay rights activism.   But hell, in spite of his trepidation, in spite of his doubts, in spite of everything, he was still the Justice of the Peace in Town who was willing to officiate at that cute lesbian couple’s ceremony, no matter what his friends and neighbors might say or think.

He passed on a few years after that, but I’ve always thought fondly of him and that afternoon in Maidstone.  And I thought of him again this past Friday, when the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal throughout the land.

The 14th Amendment, Same-Sex Marriage, and Essex County, Vermont

L to R:  Rose Fitzgerald, Barbara Peaslee Smith, Teri Anderson, 2009.
L to R: Rose Fitzgerald, Barbara Peaslee Smith, Teri Anderson, after Teri and Rose’s wedding ceremony, December 2009.

Friday, June 26, 2015.  The United States Supreme Court ruled that gay and lesbian couples are entitled to a legal marriage anywhere in the nation.

This is a memorable, landmark ruling.  The Court took the long overdue step of applying the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and making marriage a fundamental right for same sex couples.  The 14th Amendment was adopted in 1868.  Section I reads as follows:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” 

The amendment was crafted in the aftermath of the Civil War, during Reconstruction, in an attempt to furnish equality under the law to the former slaves emancipated by the 13th Amendment.  In the years since, the 14th Amendment has been the linchpin of thousands of legal rulings across the nation–covering issues ranging from gender equality, to affirmative action, to the right to travel, or to use contraception (to name only a few!)

The U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t exactly been the vanguard or cutting edge of change over the years.  The Court has lagged behind both popular sentiment and state jurisprudence on some of the thorniest issues of our time.   Likewise here:  on the eve of the Court’s ruling, welcome as it was, over 70% of the states had legalized same-sex marriage, either through state or federal litigation, or through their legislatures.   In a pioneering 2003 ruling, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court was the first to legalize same-sex marriage.  Other state courts followed, in quick succession.  In 2009, my home state of Vermont was the first to green-light same sex unions by vote of the Legislature.(Vermont had previously paved the way by enacting the nation’s first civil union law.)

A couple of months after the Vermont law went into effect, my beloved friends Teri Anderson and Rose Fitzgerald were married here in Guildhall, Vermont.  At the time, I was the Town Clerk of my little municipality, and I had the privilege of issuing them their marriage license, the first in Essex County, Vermont.   They were married at a ceremony at the Town offices by local Justice of the Peace Barbara Peaslee Smith, and there was a joyous celebration into the wee hours of the morning, with music and a bonfire on the Town green.  Now, Teri and Rose live with the confidence that their relationship is recognized everywhere they go in this land.

Reconstruction: Nine Things That Should Have Happened After the Civil War

hmy7Nmwwsc_1399142816204In the aftermath of the Civil War and the defeat of the Confederacy, there was a moment–ever so brief–filled with promise and hope for a future of equality for former slaves.  But the promise of Reconstruction withered, largely due to the failure of the Union leadership to bring the former Confederate states into line.

In spite of General Sherman’s initial plan to provide all former slaves with “forty acres and a mule,” those former slaves got nothing.     And  over generations, a Southern culture of racism and brutality has flourished.  We live with the consequences of the failure of Northern leadership (which wasn’t exactly a paragon of equal rights sentiment) to this day.

Here are my thoughts on what should have occurred–but didn’t–in the months, years and generations after that bloody war.  This program would have been harsh, but civilized, without resort to capital punishment or torture.  It would have inflicted sufficient hardship on those responsible for the confederate treason, over a multi-generational period– to shape and make clear what kind of society we were–and were not–going to be.  We might live in a very different sort of country now if we had fulfilled the promise of Reconstruction in this manner–by decisively crushing the southern Confederacy.

Here are the steps that should have been taken.  Perhaps some of them can even be taken today.

1)Public tribunals with lifetime, or near-lifetime incarcerations for all persons involved in the confederate leadership;
2)Public tribunals with shorter incarceration periods for all individuals who voluntarily joined or otherwise supported the confederate army;
3) Near-total confiscation of land, money, and personal chattel of all those in the leadership and of those who voluntarily joined or supported the confederate army;

4) Near-total confiscation of all assets of those who owned slaves;
5) Re-distribution of that property to former slaves, who had made that wealth possible with their forced labor over generations;
6) Reward of individuals who were loyal to the Union, and who refused to participate in the confederate treason (via re-distribution of wealth);
7) Widespread, consistent criminal prosecution of violence against black people, with long prison sentences and enforcement of anti-segregation laws  using the powers of the federal government;
8) A lifetime ban on any person in the confederate leadership or anyone who voluntarily fought or supported the confederate army, from ever serving in public office;

9) Ban on the display of any forms of the Confederate flag, except as artifacts in museums.