- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2000

An old-fashioned state's new-fangled notions

Some cynics have called the place where I live The People's Republic of Vermont. But not any more. The truth is that no self-respecting people's republic would allow even the contemplation of homosexual marriage as the State Supreme Court of Vermont has recently forced the legislature to do. Can you imagine the People's Republic of China (PRC) where merely professing belief in Christianity is a danger to one's continuing ability to breathe, or bearing more than one child can result in the same breathlessness allowing such an idea to float? Can you imagine what public advocacy of same-sex marriage might do to one's upward mobility there?

Here in Vermont however, that the idea was seriously considered by the highest court did not surprise anyone. Nor did the court's instructions to the legislature to grant same-sex cohabitants perhaps through the marriage rite itself the identical rights and privileges as wedded folk. All this in the interest of "fairness." Of course.

While such dolce far niente states as Hawaii and California have declined the demands of the homosexual community to be allowed to partake in the marriage ceremony, Vermonters had yet to speak the final word on the subject. Increasingly, Vermont stands on the far left side of liberalism by virtue of its social welfare system (one of the most generous in the country although we are one of the poorest states); its income redistribution; and just to drive the point home its socialist representative in Congress, the only one of his stripe and our one and only representative there.

In order to get a sense of when and where the shoe will drop, one need look no farther than the recent Town Meeting Day and subsequent Super Tuesday Election.

Snapshot of any recent Town Meeting Day: Stiff-necked, ornery Vermonters, the kind who talk funny and amuse summer folks, are a dying breed as are old Vermonters, Republican Vermonters, and parochial Vermonters. Like the rest of the country our schools have computers, our families are ever smaller, we're on the Internet. In fact, you no longer see many old style Vermonters at Town Meetin' Day in my village. They're not necessarily dead but they make only the rare appearances these days, replaced by younger, hipper, cooler cats from New Jersey, Connecticut, and other more densely populated New England states. The newcomers obviously enjoy being in the historic surroundings of our quaint Town Hall and partaking in the continuum of democratic debate. Except, of course, there is mighty little debate these days. The out-of-towners bring a liberal, homogenized point of view, quietly convinced that their point of view is the right point of view. But the easygoing tolerance they exhibit while some old fool of a native objects to increasing local taxes is amazing to see. One can only say of these newcomers, what forbearance; what patience.

Even before they speak the elderly indigenes are easy to spot. They're the ones whose skin is reddened and coarsened by decades of numbing, outdoor work and whose clothes seem to have been bought at jumble sales. But the voices and accents that tourists so enjoy when they come up from the cities to relax in the summer are not raised at town meeting with quite the confidence that I heard when I arrived nearly 20 years ago.

There has been an obvious, and ever increasing muting of traditional conservative opinion in the presence of these new, presumably smarter, more successful citizens. Old-timers seem loath to reveal their grammatical errors, their pinchpenny beliefs and fears for their financial futures, their hopelessly out-of-date attitudes toward morality. Submission to the herd is an undeniable and ongoing trait of human nature and for all their independence of spirit the elderly are ashamed to rock the boat. Even the weather plays a part. There is something about the long, harsh winters and brief, heady, indescribably beautiful summers that has made elderly Vermonters very tolerant of their neighbor's peccadilloes, less eager to roil the waters or embarrass a neighbor. Presumably, it comes under the heading of Let Them Make Hay While the Sun Shines.

Although it is already clear that the legislature will not vote for same-sex marriage it was also apparent until now, that raising domestic partnership to some sort of legal status was an appealing compromise to legislators who want above all to remain in office.

So it had to be with consternation and shock that they and the media learned from one early February Vermont poll that 59 percent of Vermonters were against any change in the marriage laws. If February was a shock, I think that the events of early March brought a seismic roll.

Thirty-one towns voted overwhelmingly in a non-binding ballot to deny gay marriage rights (many of the towns also voted strongly against domestic partnership rights). Five towns voted for, one town had a tied vote. A nonplussed Governor Dean was heard on television saying something to the effect that "if they understood the law they wouldn't be against it."

True, Vermonters as a whole are as slow to understand complicated issues, i.e., Whitewater; the ins and outs of political finance reform; nuclear fission and supply-side economics, as the rest of the country. And certainly, not every county has been heard from. But for now it would seem, when it comes to homosexual marriage, governor, we Vermonters do get it: the overthrow of 5,000 years of the primary civilizing force in the lives of men and women.

Barbara West lives and writes in Vermont.

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