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Take Back Vermont - Let History Show Us the Way

Andy Christiansen

Recent commentaries and articles assert two theories about the proliferation of "Take Back Vermont" signs. The first theory, published in the New York Times story about Corinth, Vermont and also in the September 3rd Sunday Times Argus and Rutland Herald says: "The people who really don't like civil unions are the ones who were born here and grew up here. The ones who like it are the ones who just moved here." The second theory is that arrogant legislators have not "listened" to their constituents.

Given the xenophobic climate which requires anyone writing a letter on the subject of civil unions to declare that they are a sixth-generation Vermonter, I suppose it is necessary to preface my remarks by pointing out that I am an 8th generation Vermonter (genealogy available on request). My grandmother (who unfortunately was only a 6th generation Vermonter) descended from the very same Col. John Taplin, who was the only person to be listed on all three charters of Corinth. He was also one of the participants in christening the state with the name Verd-Mont on Mount Pisgah in October 1763. (History of Corinth - 1764-1964, p.45)

Since East Corinth was where my mother grew up, my parents were married, and where I traveled to see cousins as a child, I was saddened to read about the ignorance of Corinth's history and the erosion of tolerance for diversity by the latest generation of "Vermonters."

Twenty years ago while interviewing my grandmother, I asked her if she was aware of any people who were gay in 19th century Corinth. She said "Oh my, yes. Of course there were." I asked how they were treated, were they looked down upon? She said that everyone knew who was gay and that some lived long, committed relationships. They were considered rather odd, but at the same time, they were very well respected in the community and well liked. One was involved in the local church, and another was a doctor, but the point that my grandmother repeated was that they were treated equally, with respect and dignity, and people accepted these relationships on a par with all others in the community.

A similar attitude was prevalent in Weybridge, Vermont in 1843. Ida Washington's History of Weybridge Vermont quotes the author William Cullen Bryant, who visited his aunt, Charity Bryant who ran a tailor's shop with her partner, Sylvia Drake. He wrote: "I would tell you how, in their youthful days, they took each other as companions for life, and how this union, no less sacred than the tie of marriage, has subsisted in uninterrupted harmony, for more than 40 years." He wrote how they shared a "common pillow" and "purse." They were deeply involved in the community and took in young girls as apprentices to teach them how to be seamstresses. He continues, "and I would speak of the friendly relationships which their neighbors, people of kind hearts and simple manners, seem to take pleasure on bestowing upon them." (Pp.40-46)

An old home movie from the 1960's shows our family haying and helping out at our neighbors' farm. These lesbian farmers lived in a committed relationship for years and years, and the primary thing that we thought was strange was that while we milked cows, they milked goats.

The principle that was stressed by my grandmother and other Vermont elders was that we should always respect other people's right to do as they wish "as long as it doesn't hurt other people or other people's property."

I wonder if those who have put up "Take Back Vermont" signs are aware of this side of Vermont's history? Could they tolerate the tolerance displayed by Vermonters over the last two centuries?

While some, ignorant of this history, desire to take back Vermont to a mythical, intolerant past, others could be using the signs as an expression of pure bigotry. Many of the letters the sign-posters have written stress that they are not bigots and are not hateful. As Shakespeare would note, I think they "protest too much." Skimming such letters reveals certain buzzwords - "corruption," "perversion" etc. that reveal their true feelings. Webster's Dictionary defines a bigot as "a person who holds blindly and intolerantly to a particular creed or opinion, a narrow-minded, intolerant person." This definition seems very accurate. Recent stories point to people who are only registering those people who are opposed to civil unions, a gubernatorial candidate that will only talk to people who agree with her, and a growing legion of voters who intend to cast their vote on a single issue alone.

One of the frightening things about bigotry, whether spawned by politics or religion, is that it is a seed that can grow into hate that can tear communities apart and create unforgivable destruction. After World War I, economic conditions in Germany created a climate where a charismatic out-of-stater could come in, blame the politicians for selling out and not listening to the German "folk," blame certain groups of people for destroying the morals of good Germans, and then fan the waves of hatred into an ugly, dehumanizing movement with slogans such as "Blut und Boden." This translates as "Blood and soil" which was a call to take back Germany from the hated "outsiders," and give it to the original Germans. As time went on, the list of perceived "outsiders" grew to include more groups such as Jews, gypsies, and gay people.

"Take Back Vermont" just like "Blut und Boden" by its very imprecision, reaches out beyond gay people, to enfold a larger circle that falls within its realm of hate. The message's proponents have already expanded the list to include any politician that they disagree with, environmentalists, and supporters of equal educational opportunity. Ruth Dwyer (born in Painesville, Ohio), the recognized spearhead of this movement, has said that we should get rid of Act 60, and just go back to where we were before. I have not heard one constructive word from this group about how to solve the problems that Act 250, Act 60, and civil unions legislation were crafted to address. All they can suggest is to take Vermont back and to hell with the kids, the environment, and equal justice under the law.

Even more troubling than the recent disclosure of Dwyer's anti-Semitic statements, is the current Republican Party's stance of turning a blind eye to them and sweeping them under the carpet. This act, again reminiscent of post World War I Germany, validates the prejudice and hatred that responsible leadership should be quick to condemn.

Vermont is different from other states, not because it has been free of racists and bigots, but because such individuals have been in the minority. One era that sign proponents might wish to take Vermont back to could be the 1920's when the Ku Klux Klan held nighttime parades in Montpelier. An inconvenient circumstance though is that the KKK focused on Catholics, who are an important part of the anti-gay coalition.

I myself would prefer the era of the 1778 Vermont legislature whose first act was to have a statewide property tax AND a steeply progressive income tax AND tax all stocks and bonds, while retaining equitable homestead exemptions. Act 60 would have been too wimpy for these pioneers.

The major flaw with the assertion that Act 250, Act 60, and other laws are the work of "out-of-staters" is that it is plain wrong. A recent op-ed piece by Daniel Neary (Sunday Rutland Herald-Times Argus August 20, 2000) reveals an undertow of flatlander guilt and fails to recognize the contributions of "natives" to moving Vermont forward. For example, Act 60 could never have happened without the tireless efforts of Arthur Simpson (a Republican who hailed from the Northeast Kingdom) who held public meetings around the state in the late 1950's and early 60's to focus on the inequities between towns in property tax rates and educational quality. Act 250 would never have happened without the efforts of "native" Republican Gov. Dean Davis. It's true that some flatlanders supported these efforts, but it is ridiculous to suggest that they were the leaders in this legislation, unless one ignores decades of Vermont history.

As my hand gently rests on the facial hair over my upper lip, it is not lost on me that the original definition of "bigot" comes from an old Spanish term meaning "a man with a mustache." Every time I see a "Take Back Vermont" sign, I can feel myself growing less tolerant and more hateful. It is clear that to some extent we are all bigots bent by some philosophy, life experience, fear, religious belief, or political persuasion. In fact, we are all human and at some level, as Mark Twain frequently observed, seem to enjoy hating each other.

The problem is that we still have to live with each other and defining marriage through the political process is like trying to butter toast with a chain saw. What can we do? First, we need to stop yelling and whining about whether the legislators are "listening" and start doing some listening ourselves. We need to listen to our history of respect for other's privacy, property, and opinions. Civil unions opponents should give some consideration to the Vermont Constitution and note that polls show a public that is evenly split on the issue. Proponents should understand the importance of marriage as a religious concept that will be difficult to legislate. Second, we should strive for a practical solution that may find some common ground between the opposing camps. I propose that we get government out of the marriage business and religion out of government. All unions sanctioned by the state should be civil unions and all tax benefits, privileges, and other policies (such as hospital visitation, etc) should be defined in that context. If someone wants to sanctify that relationship with a marriage they can go to a church and let the churches fight it out.

It is not the legislators, but we who are not listening. We are not listening to our history. We are not listening to each other. As the adage says, "Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it."