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Lesson From Vermont: Don't Cower, Push
They did it. On Tuesday the Vermont legislature formally recognized that civil unions are not the same as marriage. Forgive me for saying it, but I think the Vermonters have a thing or two to teach the Congress.
Mustering one more vote than the two thirds majority needed to override their Governor's veto, they passed a bill that grants same sex couples the freedom to marry, and became the first state in the nation to achieve marriage equality through legislation rather than the court.
What's it got to do with Congress? Merely this: there is such a thing as the courage of conviction. How many times have we heard that progress comes through conciliation? It's the ubiquitous refrain of political "framing" and "spin-meisters." "Go to where the middle is." How many anti-war activists, anti-poverty, pro-single-payer advocates have been told that progress comes from hugging the middle, not pushing the edge? You hear it now in Washington, around healthcare --- or the budget.
Go to where the bipartisanship is. It's the conventional wisdom. And often it's bunk.
Civil Unions, passed in 2000 in Vermont, didn't satisfy fair-minded Vermonters. They'd pushed from the edge to Civil Unions, still wanted marriage equality, and they weren't going away, and they continued to work and to push. A veto threat from Vermont's governor didn't discourage the backers of same sex marriage. Among the people egging them on was former Democratic National Committee chair and former Vermont governor Howard Dean. "Vote your conscience, not your district," he encouraged legislators at a pre-vote party fundraiser.
"Stand up for doing the right thing; for being a human being," Dean was quoted as saying in the Burlington Free Press. "Put human rights above politics - because if you don't, you'll regret it for the rest of your political career."
He was right. Coming less than a week after a ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court that extended same sex marriage in that state, and with bills to follow suit under consideration in several other states, the arc of history feels as if it's tilting toward equal protection after all.
And watching LGBT equality advance you've got to chalk up one more victory to a small but determined minority clinging to what they believe is right. If culture warriors always trod softly-softly and adhered to conventional guff, we'd never have marriage equality. Or inter-racial marriage. Or votes for women, or civil rights.