Discussion of same-sex marriage hits home for Centre professor

February 13, 2004|HERB BROCK

To most of the packed audience at Centre College's Young Hall Thursday night, the discussion of same-sex marriage by a gay rights crusader from Vermont apparently was interesting, but something they only had read or heard about in the media. But to David Hall, the advocate's words hit home.

Hall, a professor of religion at Centre, was raised by two sets of parents while growing up in California - his mother and stepfather and his gay father and his partner. To Hall, he got the best of both worlds.

"My parents divorced when I was 9 years old because my dad was gay," Hall said following the discussion. "The divorce was more than amicable. My biological parents got along well following the divorce, and that made for a very loving and caring atmosphere for me in both of their homes."

Hall's father and partner had a 20-year relationship before the partner died. As a indication of the closeness of both of Hall's sets of parents, his mother and stepfather grieved along with Hall's father.


Because of his own experience, Hall was more than sympathetic with the words expressed by Beth Robinson, an attorney from Middlebury, Vt., who was one of the leader's of Vermont's efforts to get the state legislature to enact a gay marriage law. The effort fell short of its goal but it did result in a compromise that Robinson supports as a "first step" toward legalized gay marriage - a "parallel structure" law that allows civil unions.

Robinson said the movement for same-sex marriage legislation began in the mid-1990s with several cases brought to her law office of gay partners who wanted their relationships to be not only written into the laws of the state of Vermont but also "woven into the fabric" of that state's society.

There was the case of the gay woman who wanted to visit her partner in the hospital but was prevented from doing so because she was not a legally-recognized relative.

There was the case of a gay person who wanted to leave his estate to his partner but couldn't "leave a penny" to him.

There was the case of gay partners who wanted to have the home one of them owned put in both of their names but couldn't do it without a property transfer.

There was the case of a gay person who poured her life savings into the development of property owned by her partner only to lose every penny of that investment when the couple split because she was not covered by the typical 50-50 community property provision under divorce laws.

And there was the case that Robinson said was "perhaps one of the saddest" in which she had been involved, one involving the death of a gay person who had been involved in a long partnership.

"The surviving partner often would come by the cemetery, go to the burial plot, place some flowers there and grieve for her partner," she said. "It was a time she could be with her partner and talk to her and remember her.

"But one day, on a visit, she was stunned at what she saw. Where her partner had been resting, there was a big hole. And the monument had been broken into pieces and placed near a dumpster. Her partner's biological family had had the remains moved to their family plot. Under the law, there was nothing she could to stop them, even if they had asked before they did the disinterrment."

While these cases were compelling - and "heart-rending" - there was not much Robinson or her law partners could do because "the law was not on their side." That's when she, her partners and members of gay activist groups started the movement to legalize gay marriage.

The movement was a combination of legal and political actions. In 1997, Robinson's firm filed suit on behalf of gay partners seeking the same legal protections enjoyed by heterosexual married couples. At the same time, she and her law partners set up booths at county fairs and spoke at churches and civic club meetings.

The suit was thrown out by the lower court because it had "no basis in law." But Robinson's firm appealed and the case ultimately ended up in the Vermont Supreme Court, where the case became a challenge to the laws cited by the lower court.

An argument against gay marriage deals with procreation

One of the main legal and publicly popular arguments confronting Robinson and other gay marriage advocates was the contention that marriage is mostly about procreation. Since it is biologically impossible for gay couples to bear children, they could not ever be considered married people, so the argument went.

But Robinson countered that many heterosexual couples cannot have children or choose not to. She also argued that many older people marry or remarry well beyond the child-bearing years.

"My grandmother remarried when she was in her 70s, and the wedding was a wonderful celebration of two people and their committed, loving relationship," she said. "No one at that wedding even thought of questioning the value of their relationship, yet they certainly could not have children."

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