Reaching for the Ring 

A Pulitzer Prize winner takes a nuanced look at gay marriage

A Pulitzer Prize winner takes a nuanced look at gay marriage

Civil Wars: A Battle for Gay Marriage

By David Moats

(Harcourt, 288 pp., $25)

While serving as editorial page editor at the Rutland Herald, David Moats wrote a series of insightful, well-balanced editorials about Vermont’s fight to legalize gay marriage. Like communiqués from the heat of battle, the editorials were succinct and immediate and eventually earned a Pulitzer Prize. Now, almost five years later, Moats has written an in-depth narrative that puts the Vermont case in the context of a larger ongoing struggle for civil rights. The book has the added benefit of being a taut courtroom drama.

Vermont’s ethos is central to Civil Wars, and Moats goes to great lengths to broaden the area’s conservative, rural image. Embedded in the state’s serene traditionalism, he says, is an innate sense of fair play and a stubborn resistance to mandates from outside authorities. These qualities, along with an aversion to extremism of any stripe, make Vermont the ideal proving ground for arguments that eventually made same-sex legal unions available in that state as well as in Massachusetts and California.

In 1995, Beth Robinson and Susan Murray joined together with a handful of supporters to form the Vermont Freedom to Marry Taskforce. Both lawyers, the two had long been involved in gay and lesbian causes and were convinced that Vermont law discriminated against homosexuals who were in committed relationships. The goal of the Taskforce was both to raise public awareness and to find plaintiffs who were willing to challenge the law, which held that marriage could not exist except between a man and a woman. After having their case dismissed by a lower court, Robinson, Murray and their six plaintiffs—one gay couple and two lesbian couples—won an appeal before Vermont’s Supreme Court.

The debate centered on what ought to be the right definition of marriage. The state’s opposition to the case rested on the legal concept of a word’s “plain meaning.” Also known as the procreation argument, this definition holds that marriage is a God-given institution in which a man and a woman carry out child-rearing, its primary function. Robinson and Murray, on the other hand, argued for “the underlying purpose” of state-sanctioned marriage, which is to nurture and protect couples in a committed union.

In addition to its legal definitions, the very word “marriage” carried emotional baggage for those on both sides of the argument. For the plaintiffs, the right to marry would bring with it a sense of legitimacy: Along with the rights, privileges and financial benefits that married heterosexuals enjoy would come an acknowledgment of the basic humanity and worth of gays and lesbians. The opposition, too, believed that marriage has implications which go beyond mere social usefulness: For them, heterosexual union is both natural and necessary for maintaining traditional values and public virtue.

The court decided that gay couples were, in fact, entitled to the rights and benefits of marriage—its underlying purpose—but deferred to the legislature in deciding how those rights and benefits should be provided. From there, the drama shifted to the Vermont State House. Bill Lippert, a respected, openly gay congressman, was the pro-marriage movement’s point man in the legislature. His position on the House Judicial Committee put him in an ideal position to lobby colleagues who were on the fence or who felt pressured by their constituents.

The Judicial Committee held public hearings that brought thousands to the town hall in Montpelier, the state’s capitol, despite blinding snow and freezing temperatures. The heated debate that ensued was a model of participatory democracy, both sides taking part passionately yet respectfully. The bill that finally passed the House and Senate was a compromise that allowed for the separate but equal institution of civil union. (Any bill using the term “marriage” for gay partnerships would never win passage, both sides believed.) Then-Gov. Howard Dean signed the bill, a victory for its supporters but one that fell short of total equity.

Civil Wars is a description of events that, while important, would be dull reading were it not for Moats’ skill in bringing the case’s central characters to life. The plaintiff’s attorneys, legislators, judges and lobbyists are all compassionate, conflicted and tangibly human. The night before an important speech in front of the House of Representatives, the usually composed Lippert left a late-night message on a friend’s answering machine. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I just wanted to talk to someone who would understand how important it is what I have to do.” Nor is Moats one-sided in the sympathy of his depictions: He portrays those in opposition to gay marriage as compelling characters in their own right, thoughtful and principled throughout. (The exceptions are Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry and Republican House member Nancy Sheltra, who appear as one-dimensional extremist monsters. At the 11th hour, Sheltra proposed an amendment to the bill that would require negative HIV tests before civil unions were granted; the mean-spirited amendment failed 136-2.)

But the compelling stories of the six plaintiffs play the key role in humanizing this story: It’s hard to deny marriage’s underlying purpose when all the couples, who come from a variety of family backgrounds, face the same challenges in their long-term relationships that straight people do. Shortly before the trial, Nina Beck and Stacy Jolles, two of the plaintiffs, lost their child, Noah—who had been conceived by artificial insemination—to a heart condition. “Noah, even in his absence,” Moats writes, “became emblematic of the importance of family.” Moats points out that it’s not enough to change the hearts of people, however. Real social change requires a shift in legal structures and customs. The book’s epigraph quotes Martin Luther King Jr.: “A movement that changes both people and institutions is a revolution.”

As the case moves from its preliminary stages though the courts and legislature, Moats ratchets up the suspense in Civil Wars. Like a nonfiction version of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, he avoids preaching, instead letting the case’s rich characters and inherent tension do the bulk of the dramatic work. The result is that Civil Wars is a page-turner that may have readers so engrossed in its storytelling, they forget the controversial nature of its subject matter.

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