If you had asked folks back in the early ‘90s if they thought little Vermont would be at the heart of the battle for same-sex partnership rights, they would’ve probably scoffed at the thought. And yet today, in 2015, we look back in gratitude of the Green Mountain State. There could be no better tribute to the remarkable work done in Vermont and the three women at the center of it than The State of Marriage, a new documentary directed by Jeff Kaufman.
Beth Robinson, Susan Murray and Mary Bonauto are powerhouses. Without them and the amazing group of people around them, there’s really no telling when advancements for same-sex couples in Vermont and elsewhere in the U.S. would come. Fortunately, we never have to find out.
The story starts with Susan, who in the ‘80s developed a family legal practice focused on helping gay and lesbian couples. In 1987 she met and soon began working with Beth, back then new to the legal game. In just a few years’ time, they and the rest of the country would witness the battle for same-sex marriage play out in Hawaii.
In 1993 the Hawaii Supreme Court found that the refusal to grant same-sex couples marriage licenses was discriminatory. But in 1998 voters approved a constitutional amendment allowing the legislature the power to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples. Gay and lesbian advocates had won in the courts, yet failed in the legislature.
Lessons learned from Hawaii, Vermont, with its two tenacious local lawyers, seemed like a logical new battleground. The duo became a formidable trio when Mary Bonauto of GLAD got on board.
They needed a case, and they found it in Baker v. Vermont. Among other plaintiffs were Holly Puterbaugh and Lois Farnham (together 41 years at time of filming), and Nina Beck and Stacy Jolles (together 23 years). They filed the case in 1997, and Beth would argue it before the Vermont Supreme Court on Nov. 18, 1998.
On Dec. 20, 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples must have the same protections and benefits of opposite-sex couples. But it didn’t give them the right to marry, instead passing the issue to the Vermont legislature.
As much as the trio wanted to push for same-sex marriage, the political atmosphere favored civil unions. On Mar. 15, 2000, the final vote came in 79 to 68 in favor of civil unions, making Vermont the first state to pass such a measure.
In 2004, same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts after Mary successfully argued the Goodridge v. Department of Public Health case, making it the first state same-sex couples could marry in.
Spurred on by the decision in Massachusetts, Beth wanted to pursue the same rights for couples in Vermont. But she would do it through the legislature, making for yet another first.
They had a heavy opponent in Gov. Jim Douglas, who in April 6, 2009 vetoed the bill. Of course that’s not where the story ends. The next day the House and Senate overrode the veto, making Vermont the first state to legalize same-sex marriage through the legislature. In recognition of her outstanding work, Gov. Peter Shumlin appointed Beth to the Vermont Supreme Court in 2011.
I just happened to have all these facts filed away in the back of my brain. Okay, I didn’t. But I do now, thanks to an incredibly detailed documentary that featured interviews from the key individuals of the time (our three heroes, the plaintiffs, high ranking politicians, journalists, and more), old footage, and spectacular storytelling skills.
This is our history and if you don’t know it, you should. And even if you do, you’ll find The State of Marriage is a refresher you can grin about.
Visit The State of Marriage’s Facebook page to find out when the documentary is playing at your local film festival.