In May of 1997, Nina Beck and Stacy Jolles walked confidently into the town offices of South Burlington, Vt., the town where they had lived together for more than a year, and requested a license to marry. As they expected, their request was refused, because Vermont—and every other state—regards marriage as the union of one man and one woman, not of two men or two women. Beck and Jolles then sued the state, claiming that the Vermont constitution's guarantee of "common benefits" for every class of citizen gave them as much right to marry as anyone else.
"We are both Jewish and both daughters of Holocaust survivors," says Jolles, 41, a psychologist who met Beck, 44, a physical therapist, in California. "I think that really taught each of us to stand up for our civil rights."
Two years later, their act of defiance has resulted in a landmark decision by the Vermont supreme court with ramifications that may be felt far beyond the state's borders. In a unanimous ruling last Dec. 20, the five-judge panel held that when Beck and Jolles and two other gay couples were refused marriage licenses, they had been unconstitutionally denied the rights and legal benefits enjoyed by married heterosexuals. The court ordered state lawmakers either to legalize gay marriage or—suggesting an option that many experts consider more likely—to define a new status of domestic partnership that would bring with it some 400 legal benefits, including access to joint health insurance policies, inheritance rights and hospital visitation privileges. "I don't think a lot of opposite-gender couples even think of these things," says family therapist Stan Baker, 53, who with his partner of nearly seven years, college theater instructor Peter Harrigan, 38, is among the Vermont plaintiffs. "It's just assumed they will be there."
A sharp debate over the ruling began almost at once. Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer, former president of the Family Research Council, called the Vermont ruling "worse than terrorism," while gay-rights advocates hailed it as a vital step forward.
Still to be decided is the thorny question of whether gay marriages legalized in Vermont would be recognized elsewhere, since 29 states have passed laws rejecting same-sex marriages regardless of where they are performed. Family-law expert Sandra Morgan Little of Albuquerque says future legal challenges to those laws could drag on for years and may be finally decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In any case, the three couples who won in Vermont have no plans to move out of state anytime soon. Nina Beck and Stacy Jolles, who in 1992 celebrated their partnership with a religious ceremony derived from Jewish traditions, moved to Vermont in part to raise Noah—the son to whom Beck had given birth by artificial insemination—in what they considered a quieter, safer setting than San Francisco. Under Vermont law, Jolles was able to become one of Noah's legal parents through a process known as second-parent adoption.
Sadly, Beck and Jolles lost Noah, then 2, to congenital heart disease in November of 1997. Beck gave birth to a second son, Seth, last Nov. 20, and the couple's determination to take on the state never wavered. "For me, getting married was about wanting to have our kids protected financially and emotionally by having two parents who were married," says Jolles. "It seemed to make sense that if I live in a state that thinks I'm good enough to be a parent, then maybe I'm good enough to be a legal partner."
Beck and Jolles say they have encountered little in the way of face-to-face discrimination as gay partners, although Jolles does recall the day in 1995 when Beck developed complications just before Noah's birth and had to be rushed to a hospital in Asheville, N.C. "At the emergency room, they stopped me and said, 'Who are you?' Thankfully it wasn't a real emergency because I brought [medical power of attorney] papers with me and I was able to go in and be with Nina and Noah. But had I been a man, they wouldn't have thought to ask."
All three couples in the Vermont case say they have been encouraged by the support they have received from neighbors and even strangers since the court ruling was announced, though demonstrators from as far away as Kansas had protested outside the Vermont state-house in August. The third couple, Holly Puterbaugh, 53, a math professor at the University of Vermont, and her partner of 27 years, school nurse supervisor Lois Farnham, 55, are taking the controversy in stride. "Twenty-seven years ago, marriage was not in our wildest dreams," says Puterbaugh. "This is a big first step."
Eric Francis in Vermont
- Eric Francis.