In 2009, our civil rights movement lurched forward decisively after our devastating loss on Prop 8. Elected officials in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine turned the tide, passing marriage equality bills in all three New England states (though voters in Maine narrowly turned back Maine’s advance). The D.C. City Council followed suit. And legislators in Iowa held the line against the backlash after the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling affirming our equal right to marry.
In each of those places, courageous leaders stuck their necks out to get the job done, often at great personal and political risk. Our collective success going forward will depend on the strength of our commitment to stand by our friends through November.
Take Vermont. In the fall of 2008, our prospects for securing marriage equality seemed bleak. The economy was faltering, and many of our own supporters in the Vermont Legislature were publicly questioning whether they could take on the freedom to marry in 2009. Memories of the overwhelming electoral backlash following passage of our first-in-the-nation civil union law in 2000 loomed large. We had the votes for marriage, but not the legislative will to act.
Our only chance to get the job done was to rely on strong and effective leadership. Vermont Senate President Peter Shumlin stepped up to the plate. Inspired by his own indignation at Prop 8, and defying the conventional wisdom that taught that the freedom to marry was a third-rail issue, Sen. Shumlin vowed to do whatever he could to pass a marriage law in 2009; he kept his pledge. He put the issue high on the agenda, and urged, cajoled and inspired many of his reluctant counterparts to come along. Without his commitment, we would never have gotten out of the blocks.
It was a tough political lift under any circumstances, but when Republican Gov. Jim Douglas announced his intention to veto the bill, an uphill battle became a Herculean task. Shumlin readily mustered a veto-proof majority in the Senate, and House Speaker Shap Smith went to work. We had entered the process with a substantial majority in the House, but not two-thirds. We had to call on countless legislators—Republicans, Democrats, and Progressives—some representing quite conservative districts or facing overwhelming personal or intra-party pressures, in order to override the veto. The night before the override vote, we were still two votes short. I spent the evening drafting a press statement acknowledging the setback and vowing to continue our efforts.
The light of day brought fairer winds, and the legislature overrode the governor’s veto by a 100-49 vote—without a single vote to spare, making Vermont the first state in the nation to secure the freedom to marry through legislation. We didn’t get much national press at the time, and folks may assume based on the vote tallies that the vote was uncontroversial. It wasn’t.
In November, dozens of Vermont legislators who stuck their necks out will stand for reelection. Some face considerable risk as a result of their support for the override.
In the meantime, Sen. Shumlin is engaged in a five-way Democratic primary in the governor’s race. Vermont Fund for Families is committed to supporting legislators who stood up for us in 2009, and Vermont Freedom to Marry Action Committee is urging our community to support Peter Shumlin for governor.
We’re doing this to send a message to politicians across the country that supporting the freedom to marry is not only the right thing to do, but it’s the politically smart thing to do. And we’re doing this because, after years of asking them to stand up for us, it’s our turn to step up for them.
Beth Robinson is chair of Vermont Freedom to Marry Action Committee and helped lead Vermont’s marriage movement for the past 15 years. Reach her via vtfreetomarry.org.