The first time they traded vows, Maurine McLean and Lisa Rogers celebrated with a potluck dinner at home in Austin, Texas. Twenty years later, when Vermont became the first state to legalize same-sex partnerships, the two singers who tour the country as the Therapy Sisters made a beeline to Brattleboro.
For their civil union ceremony in front of the courthouse last year, McLean, 44, wore a black and white gown and Rogers, 50, wore purple pants. They marked the event by writing “Tying the Knot in Vermont,” a paean to gay marriage that promptly leaped onto a gay music Top 40 list.
The influx of out-of-state couples like McLean and Rogers--not to mention their song’s popularity--was just what civil union opponents here feared when they argued against granting the rights and benefits of marriage to same-sex partners. While supporters cheered, foes grimly predicted that, along with splendid autumn colors, Vermont would be renowned as the friendliest state in America for gay and lesbian couples.
As it happens, they were right.
Of about 2,300 civil union licenses issued since the law took effect last July 1, more than 75% have gone to out-of-state couples, state figures show.
“At least short term, I think Vermont has become a mecca for gay couples, which I’m not sure is either good or bad,” said state Rep. Peg Flory, a Republican who this year championed a bill to water down civil unions. The measure failed, and in the end even Flory came around to side with the large majority of Vermonters who see civil unions both as a revenue source and a reflection of the state’s long tradition of tolerance.
“One of my sons owns a tent company, and his business for weddings has blossomed because of civil unions,” Flory said.
No other state acknowledges civil unions--and, in fact, California is among 35 states that have passed defense-of-marriage laws restricting marriage to heterosexual couples. Nevada and Nebraska went as far as to ban outright the recognition of civil unions.
Vermont’s groundbreaking law extends more than 300 benefits normally associated with marriage to gay and lesbian couples, such as inheritance rights, the authority to make medical decisions for an incapacitated partner and the right to be treated as an economic unit for tax purposes. Likewise, a civil union must be dissolved in a court proceeding similar to a divorce.
Annette Cappy, the town clerk in this southern Vermont community, said 99% of her $20 civil union licenses go to out-of-state residents. Cappy even has granted licenses to couples from Europe and Japan. Statewide, about three-quarters of the licenses have gone to lesbian couples.
But the civil union trade is hardly a marketing bonanza, said Thomas Altemus, the state’s tourism commissioner. In the first six months of the law’s existence, Altemus said out-of-staters coming to Vermont for civil unions added $258,000 to Vermont coffers--most of it going to innkeepers, florists and caterers.
His office cleverly transformed the slogan of anti-civil union factions into a catchy marketing phrase. Thus, “Take back Vermont,” seen on signs across the state, became “Take back Vermont . . . maple syrup!”
Meanwhile, a Web site (https://www.gay-civil-unions.com) details desirable Vermont locations for modest or elaborate ceremonies. There is a list of justices of the peace. A roster of friendly town clerks is headed by Brattleboro’s Cappy, who opened shop at midnight last July 1 to issue the state’s first civil union certificate and who now corresponds with many of the couples she has met in the process.
Vermont also figures heavily in “The Essential Guide to Lesbian and Gay Weddings,” a contradiction of sorts, since the “m-word,” for marriage, cannot legally be attached to same-sex unions here. Still, couples often liken their ceremonies to weddings and say the experience makes them feel married.
“We are definitely thinking of this as a wedding,” said Howard Kessler of New York City, who exchanged vows with his partner of 11 years, Andrew Thomas, on July 1. Dozens of family members accompanied Kessler, 52, and Thomas, 61, to the quaint Putney Inn not far from here for a ceremony that featured a rabbi and the breaking of the glass rite found in many Jewish weddings.
Kessler and Thomas, the director of pre-college programs at New York’s Juilliard School of Music, wore tuxedos, cowboy boots and hats. Their reception menu included only products from Vermont, right down to samplings of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
“We were trying to honor Vermont, to say thank you,” Kessler said. “They’re the first state that believes all people are created equal.”
Among couples who travel here to solemnize their vows, gratitude toward Vermont is a recurring theme. After their civil union ceremony last year in Newfane, John J. Campbell and his partner, Richard J. Harrison, spent their honeymoon shopping.
“To be frank, one of the things we wanted to do was to spend some money up there, because we were so thankful to Vermont for what they have done,” Campbell said. The New Jersey couple will return this weekend for the anniversary of a ceremony that surprised them with its significance.
“The relationship has more of a permanent feeling now for both of us,” Campbell said.
The couple had a simple ceremony that innkeepers say is typical of the emerging etiquette of civil unions. Unlike conventional weddings, civil union ceremonies often occur midweek. Frequently, the couple comes alone, without the entourage of so many modern marriages. The details are deeply personal and sometimes whimsical, such as the pair of women from New York who brought two figures of Minnie Mouse to put atop their cake.
“Many of our civil union guests are coming from San Diego and Seattle,” said Judy Goodman, co-owner with her husband, Jerry, of the Wiley Inn in the village of Peru. “The majority have been together anywhere from 10 to 25 years. They are absolutely amazed that they are able to make this commitment in public.”
Goodman often gets teary when the couples recount how they met and fell in love. Right alongside the weddings section on her hotel’s Web site, she has devoted a spot to pictures of couples who have had their civil union ceremonies there.
“We intend to do a lot more marketing in gay publications to . . . tell people that this state is more than happy, in fact proud, to be hosting civil unions,” she said.
At the Putney Inn, innkeeper Randi Zitner said she just hosted a civil union celebration for “two very elegant, charming young women” from Florida. They served Perrier-Jouet champagne and carried bouquets of Vermont wildflowers.
The holding of more than two dozen civil union parties at her hotel “certainly has been a significant economic boon for us,” Zitner said.
The ceremonies are often distinctive “because so often, these are people who have been together for years and have an established life. " Zitner said. “In heterosexual weddings, usually they’re toasting toward the future, but these unions are an opportunity to recognize all that the couple has had together.”
Louise Young and Vivienne Armstrong, both 54, have spent 30 years as partners and lesbian activists in Dallas.
“We’ve spent every minute working for our collective rights,” said Young, a software engineer. “We saw the legislation in Vermont as a huge step toward what we had sought all along, which was equal rights under the law. That’s all we’ve ever wanted.”
Young said she and Armstrong would have hitchhiked to Vermont--"my gosh, we would have walked"--to trade vows. Yet they were unprepared for the effect.
“When we heard the justice of the peace speak those words, ‘by the power vested in me by the state of Vermont,’ it was like a sledgehammer hitting us,” Young said. “The enormity of the moment and the enormity of what had been gained just struck us so hard. It was like, this is incredible. This is what everybody else has.”
The trip changed their lives. Back in Texas, they threw themselves into raising “tens of thousands of dollars” to help reelect Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a Democrat who faced opposition in November from an anti-civil union Republican. When Dean won, they traveled to Montpelier for his inaugural party.
Last month, they vacationed in Brattleboro and bought a house. They plan to relocate soon.
“To me, what this says is that individuals are willing to go to enormous lengths for freedom,” Young said. “We’re willing to pull up our roots to go to the one place in the United States where we can have equal rights under the law. I mean, we’re 54 years old, for Pete’s sake.”
The women recognize that they will be making a substantial economic contribution to Vermont in the form of state income taxes--which don’t exist in Texas.
But, Armstrong said, “I think we’re getting more than we’re going to be paying.”