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Lesbian/gay/bi/trans victory

Vermont OKs same-sex partner rights

By Shelley Ettinger

On Dec. 20, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples must be provided the same legal rights and recognition as heterosexual married couples. In rallies and celebrations around the country, the ruling was hailed as a historic milestone in the struggle for full equality and civil rights.

The state's high court ordered the legislature to carry out its ruling quickly. Vermont must either establish a system of domestic partnership that is identical to marriage or allow same-sex couples to marry.

Because the ruling was based on the Vermont state constitution's guarantee of equal treatment, it is final. There is no legal appeal.

That does not mean, however, that the road forward will be smooth.

The ideological right wing and reactionary religious elements are enraged at the ruling. If they mount a fight against the decision it's sure to be funded by the right-wing of the capitalist class.

So, although Gov. Howard Dean and leading legislators said they would comply with the court's order, once the anti-gay forces weigh in anything could happen. A great struggle to push all the way to complete victory--in Vermont and nationally--may be in the offing.

Paula Ettelbrick of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute called the Vermont decision "a ground-breaking ruling," that she said represents a germinal shift "in the way gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender families will forever be viewed."

But she added that the movement will have to "be prepared to protect the safety and sanctity of [our] families on the streets" as well as in the courts.

A breathtaking rate of change

Despite a torrential rainfall, New Yorkers gathered in Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village for a Dec. 20 celebration rally. James Loney of the group Marriage Equality commented about how much things have changed since the modern movement for lesbian/gay/bi and trans liberation began right there, in a battle with police at the Stonewall bar, a little over 30 years ago.

Considering that the oppression faced by lesbian, gay, bi and trans people was systematically institutionalized over the course of many centuries, it is being overturned at a breathtaking rate. This proves the power of struggle.

Once, not so many years ago, the weight of law, religion, social custom, convention and attitudes that for so long kept lesbian, gay, bi and trans people locked in the closet seemed permanent, unchangeable.

Now it's all changing fast. Why has popular consciousness shifted so swiftly? Because a mass movement has brought millions into the streets time and again to demand equality and justice. Backwardness, bigotry and all the bosses' billions are no match for that.

Activists say the challenge now is to build on the Vermont victory and push all the way to complete equality in marriage rights.

Chris Tebbits of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force told Workers World: "We're thrilled with the Supreme Court's recognition of our constitutional rights vis-à-vis the benefits that flow from marriage. But our interpretation is that the only way to offer us the full equality they're calling for is through marriage itself.

"Domestic partnership would be an equivalent of separate but equal."

Saying that "something great is going to come of this," Tebbits predicted that the unequivocal right for same-sex couples to marry will come soon, in Vermont and around the country.

He said Vermont Supreme Court Justice Denise Johnson had "hit the nail on the head." Johnson concurred with the ruling on equal rights--then wrote a minority opinion chiding the court for failing to simply order Vermont county clerks to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Johnson commented, "In 1948, when the California Supreme Court struck down a state law prohibiting the issuance of a license authorizing interracial marriages, the Court did not suspend its judgment to allow the legislature an opportunity to enact a separate licensing scheme for interracial marriages."

Workers World asked Tebbits about the "Defense of Marriage" Act. Tebbits said, "Some day when lesbian and gay folks can get married in Vermont or wherever--not an if but a when--and then go home to their states and are denied that recognition, the constitutionality of DOMA will be tested."

DOMA withholds over 1,000 federal rights--including Social Security survivor benefits, tax benefits and much more--from same-sex couples who get married in any state. In addition, 30 states have passed legislation barring recognition of same-sex marriages performed in another state.

A struggle is under way in California to defeat a March ballot measure that would bar recognition of a same-sex marriage performed in another state.

Every current presidential candidate appealing for gay and lesbian votes supported DOMA when it was passed in 1996. President Bill Clinton signed it.

Clinton also instituted the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy, which has resulted in more witch hunts against lesbian, gay, bi and trans people in the military than even the pre-Clinton anti-gay ban did.

Recent exposes about the extent of anti-gay harassment and violence in the armed forces--especially at the Army trial of a soldier in the gay-bashing murder of Pfc. Barry Winchell--have prompted public outrage. The president acknowledged the failure of "DonAsk" in a Dec. 11 interview, and again in a Dec. 16 meeting with a group of gay Democrats. Yet he still refused to remove the gay ban, instead merely ordering a "review" of conditions on military bases.

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