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Watts: Civil Union Anniversary

Before it was invented in a Vermont legislative committee room in the spring of 2000, the concept of Civil unions didn’t exist anywhere in the world.

Civil unions are now common and marriage equality is the law of the land. A law that can be traced directly back to decisions made in Vermont eighteen years ago.

This began when the Vermont Supreme Court found that refusing to allow marriage for gay and lesbian people violated the common benefits clause of the state constitution. They ordered the legislature to fix it.

Legislator Bill Lippert remembers that in January, it fell to the judiciary committee to develop a solution. The committee lacked the votes to pass marriage. But the legislature had to act.

Within days, they’d established a legal framework that provided all the rights and responsibilities of marriage but they had yet to decide what to call it. So legislators leaned back in their chairs around the long wooden conference table and considered a name.
The word civil – as in a civil society – was already in play. One legislator then suggested accord, civil accord. No, someone else said, that sounds too much like a car and everyone laughed.

It had been an intense time. Thousands showing up for public hearings. A “god Squad” lobby group from out-of-state stalking them in the hallways. Death threats and foul language hung in the air. Back in the committee room, someone added the word union - civil union - and that was it.

A few weeks later -18 years ago today - the committee took it to the House floor – not knowing if they had the votes. After a debate that went deep into the evening, the House voted 76-69 and the new law was on its way to changing the world for gay and lesbian people.

I’m reminded of this story because next month the Center for Research on Vermont is hosting a discussion on archiving Vermont’s important GLBTQ histories – including the civil union debate.

Currently, the tape of that conversation is missing, but the memory is alive and well.

History is not only about understanding the past - it also offers a glimpse of where we can be. Observing the 18th anniversary of the contentious debate over civil unions shows how far we’ve come, but also reminds us of how far we have yet to go -- to create a truly fair and just society.