There are issues that divide generations, lines in time and thought that once passed seem ludicrous from the other side. I hope Marriage Equality is one of those. This last June when the Supreme Court of the US declared state level bans on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional, it was the final victory of a decades long struggle, that in many ways, had its groundwork lain in Vermont. Jeff Kaufman’s excellent documentary STATE OF MARRIAGE dives into the fight in this state, the first to establish legal recognition of same-sex civil unions and same-sex marriages by legislation and not as a result of a court ruling. Looking into the success of this campaign sheds light on the larger victory in the country as a whole, the contest for hearts and minds, and not just law. I had a chance to speak with Kaufman a few days ago about STATE OF MARRIAGE, which is aGLIFF’s closing night film this year.
“I lived in Vermont for about eleven years, for five or six of those years I had a daily radio show,” Kaufman tells me. It was at this time the Marriage Equality debate exploded onto the scene, both statewide and nationally. “I don’t think that has ever happened anywhere else – and that wasn’t accidental, that was really part of Beth and Susan and Mary’s strategy to engage everybody that way.” Mary Bonauto, a Boston-based attorney with Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders joined with two Vermont attorneys, Susan Murray and Beth Robinson in bringing suit for three same-sex couples denied marriage licenses in 1997. “It was fascinating to see this conversation about gays and lesbians and marriage equality erupt across the state,” the director says, pointing out on his radio show that he “tried to express my views but also be civil and open to people of all persuasions. In the marriage equality movement and the origins of it in Vermont I got to know everybody and gave everyone a chance to say their share.”
In a unanimous ruling on December 20, 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that the state must guarantee the very same protections and benefits to same-sex couples that it does to male-female spouses. It demanded that legislature should in a “reasonable period of time” find a way to provide same-sex couples with those benefits. This led to massive political debate in the Vermont legislature that eventually led to the approval of same-sex civil unions, and resulted in quite a few members who voted in favor losing their seats in the next election. “I’ve met some amazing politicians who risked their career to do the right thing,” says Kaufman, “republicans like John Edwards [a former state trooper]or Marion Milne who knew that they would lose their seat if they voted for marriage equality, did it anyway, lost some of their best friends, but never regretted it for a moment. I thought that was a tremendous example of public service.” Howard Dean, governor at the time, later characterized the ‘discussion’ as “the least civil public debate in the state in over a century” — he even took to wearing a bulletproof vest at times.
“You have to remember that when Mary, Beth and Susan started out on this road in the early 1990s, virtually no one in America supported marriage equality.” reminds Kaufman, “On a national level Bill Clinton was advocating signing the Defense of Marriage Act – that was the tenor of the time.” The story stayed with Kaufman for years, coming up in conversations, dinner parties, and all the people he had met on both sides of the issue. While shooting a documentary in Haiti with his producing partner Macia Ross, he told her his story. The Haitian documentary was on hold temporarily so “she said let’s do it. So we did it,” he adds, “this is actually the first time I’ve done a film that was close to home for me that way.”
Kaufman’s history with the issue and his track record of getting both sides to share their thoughts is what makes this film so special. He allows groups like Take Back Vermont to say their piece even if they sound, to this listener, like a bunch of bigots. It’s a tactic that serves documentaries so well (like the excellent Welcome to Leith), to allow these people to make their case, and let the viewer decide. Unfortunately, so few filmmakers can employ it because it requires establishing trust with the other side. “I always wanted to try to pull in folks from the other side, so it had that mix and balance,” says Kaufman, “for one thing I think you so much better understand what Beth and Susan and Mary and others were up against when you see that fifteen years later these people are still so angry.”
In fact, the turning point of the entire debate in Vermont hinged on making contact with the other side. A few years earlier in Hawaii, a similar case reached the state supreme court, won, and was ‘over-ruled’ when Hawaiian voters approved an amendment to the state constitution reserving the right to marriage to opposite-sex couples. “They made important legal points but they didn’t get any public support,” says Kaufman, “so Beth and Susan had this vision of reaching out in three different ways, Socially to neighbors, Legally and Politically.” This meant going right into the opposition and engaging with them. “The formula for winning hearts and minds in law and in the public started in Vermont,” he says, “it seems so simple but it had never been done before. But also its really hard to reach out to someone face to face and say ‘hey I’m your gay and lesbian neighbor and we have the same rights as you do. That takes a lot of personal guts to do that and they showed courage in so many different ways.”
One of Kaufman’s favorite moment in his film is something Mary Bonauto said about going up to a rally in 2000 outside the state house in Vermont; “when she saw the opposition, like three thousand people, it reminded her of her own family, her own neighborhood growing up, and she said ‘I realized that if I wanted them to see my humanity I had to see their humanity as well,’” he quotes, “that speaks a lot about Mary, it’s a lesson of who she is, but it’s a lesson for us all, so I wanted to get that across.”
In fact, there is a lot of bravery and understanding on display in STATE OF MARRIAGE including former presidential candidate Howard Dean, who to me will always be more than a pump of a fist and a strange donkey noise of celebration. Even if he couldn’t get 100% behind Marriage Equality in 1999, he pushed for Marriage Opportunity. Up for reelection immediately after the law passed, he campaigned against the ‘Take Vermont Back’-supported candidate with the slogan ‘Take Vermont Forward.’
“Dean did something that no other politician had ever done before,” says Kaufman, “he signed a version of marriage equality into law, and then took it to the streets and campaigned on it. That’s remarkable, but he wasn’t the only politician. There were republicans and democrats that did the right thing – and I love that message, that there were republicans and democrats. It was a good message for a national audience.”
The film captures every side of this debate, the political machinations, the personal stress and turmoil, the intense hatred. Throughout, the protagonists face near insurmountable odds and somehow still find the energy and hope to continue their battle. It’s a film that should be shown in political science and civics classrooms across the nation. For me, it was both an educational and emotional experience. I’m not a political person, in fact I’ve basically banned news television in my house, I wouldn’t even watch Jon Stewart because he’s just preaching to the choir. Marriage Equality is one of two issues I actively follow and advocate for, and have been for fifteen-plus years (the other is protecting wildlife habitat, especially for Bears). STATE OF MARRIAGE captures all the heartbreaks and triumphs and now, in the wake of the SCOTUS decision, plays like a celebration – a hall-of-fame highlight film for some 30-for-30 series on gay rights activism. This is not a bad thing at all, these people need to be celebrated, they are modern heroes.
“One of the things that I try to remind people about is that it’s important not to be complacent,” says Kaufman about the victory lap I want to suggest to him. He mentions Michelangelo Signorile’s recent book “It’s Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, and Winning True Equalit” as guiding us to the next stage of the conversation. “There are many battles to come,” says Kaufman, “we see that battle in Kentucky right now, where not only does the county clerk defy a republican appointed federal judge and refuse to give marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples but presidential candidates flock to Kentucky and to her side and say ‘yeah, you don’t have to do what the supreme court says.’” He is quick to mention the saying ‘married on Sunday, fired on Monday’ and the number of states where same-sex couple may have the right to marry but not the securities that should go with it. He says, “its not over until you have all the protections of heterosexual marriages, not just the right to get a piece of paper.”
For now though, we can at least take a moment and look back at how far forward we’ve come and applaud how we got there. And praise those who led us, one of whom unquestionably is Beth Robinson, who in 2012 was appointed to the Vermont State Supreme Court, by a unanimous vote. “It’s an amazing journey,” says Kaufman, “she is an example for anyone who has a dream for social progress.” Of course, she’s not the only one, STATE OF MARRIAGE, features other inspiring people from Freedom to Marry founder Evan Wolfson to Tony-winning playwright Terrence McNally, whose film CORPUS CHRISTI (which I directed the Texas Premiere of in Austin back in 2000) changed my life irrevocably. “I really believe in political action and social involvement,” says Kaufman, “and I think there are some interests in this country that want to discourage that. I think this film shows that with almost no money but with a lot of energy and a great vision you can really change the world. Really.”
STATE OF MARRIAGE plays as the aGLIFF closing night film, Sunday September 13th at 5:15 pm.