Thursday, March 19, 2009

Vermont Gay Marriage Hearing March 18 2009

The Vermont State House Montpelier Vermont Public Hearings on Gay Marriage Bill Wednesday March 18 2009- John Calvi

The drive north form Putney is sprinkled with spring rain. The sky is shades of blue grey as the interstate moves between the Connecticut River in the East and a ridgeline of low mountains in the west. The temperature drops from 50’s to 40’s and snow melts on fields and mountainsides. I find a parking spot directly in front of the state house as though I’ve come home from work and found welcome. As I approach there is a guard at the entrance and I wonder if the long slim object carried at his shoulder is a rifle. But it seems to thin. Is it a large taser? Coming close enough to say hello, I see it’s an umbrella. When hearings were held here in 2000 on civil unions, Vermont had never received so many threats of violence nor filled the state house to capacity. The then governor refused state police requests that he not attend outdoor events, as his safety could not be assured. Instead, he attended many events wearing a bullet-proof vest for months.

Now years later the debate has changed- shall Vermont move from civil unions to gay marriage. The noise around this is less. The crowds are less fierce. But the feelings are still strong. The percentages have now shifted to pro marriage in the polls. The old scare tactics have lost their punch. Often weddings are cited as good business and we need to compete with Massachusetts.

I’m here two hours early and the crowds are small. Our local representative kindly invites me to tea in the cafeteria before the hearing starts. But I make a beeline for the best seat in the house- a large red velvet armchair just to one side of the podium in the House of Representatives. From here one faces the witnesses chair at the end of a long table where the senators sit listening to each witness giving testimony. I face the main door and can see almost every seat on the main floor plus the entire balcony. To my left will be security and I can overhear them discuss their operations. Soon after I sat down, the all the best seats are filled. 1 hour before show time, most of the room is full.

Familiar faces drift through the crowd. A small crowd from Putney has come by bus- Tim, the wonderful painter and his husband Philip the whale researcher have come with Eva our local Quaker lesbian commie and their neighbors Bari & Diane. Netflix says the most rented DVDs for our zip code is the L word- need one more proof of Putney’s bountiful lesbian population? There is also MaryAnn, a wonderful lesbian therapist who had a daughter in my classroom 30 years ago and Bill, a gay Vermont senator who brought me in to sing at the gay coffeehouse not quite 30 years ago. Vermont is small and neighborly. We’ve fewer than 700,000 people in the whole state and only one small almost urban area. We are also small geographically- one could drive the longest diagonal from the northwest corner to the southeast in about 3 hours on our one interstate- watch out for moose. Until recently, the governor answered his own phone.

Witnesses sign up to speak on either the pro or con list and the senators call each forward alternating back and forth, each with 2 minutes to speak. I signed in at #40. This means 80 people would have to be called for me to have a turn. Looking over the crowd and listening to each witness, there is a sense that Vermont’s burgeoning evangelical churches have made a strong showing with pastors and older congregants. They put forth similar ideas to what was heard in opposing civil unions 9 years ago- this is unnatural and against God’s law, the change in the definition of marriage is the beginning of the homosexual agenda to destroy civilization, science and morals don’t support the idea, etc. There was less fire and brimstone which cost them dearly in the last vote- the claim that frogs would fall from the sky and we’d be punished with AIDS just like Africa for going against God’s law ruined their efforts to gain support. The undecided people in the middle said- I may not be comfortable with civil unions but I don’t this it’s going to rain frogs! The pastors come in mainly two flavors- threatening God’s wrath or smarmy and smiling with all the warm of a hungry used car salesman. Both carry on with the most insulting declarations and all deny that any of this is meant to be personally insulting. How, I wonder, can I be accused of plotting the end of the family in American life and not hear something negative being cast upon me? Such is the magic of “Christianity” in its most un-Jesus-like forms.

The pro side includes more young people. There are fewer clergy but they tend to emphasis a loving God rather than the grouchy landlord who will fry your butt with just one step off the path. Also the pro side speaks about their lives and personal experience. There is little in the way of theory or abstractions. There is mention that this law is on the way to gay couples and their children receiving the 1200 or so federal benefits such as social security in the future. The con side describes theology and legal theories that feel as though they mask a huge fear of some unknown monster. Throughout, the senators face the speaker, listen and make notes. There is no sign of favoritism or opinion among them this evening.

There is not as much insult as there was before. One unfortunate man probably in his 40’s came forward to say he was a rape survivor and equated his wounding and the current bill as legalizing male rape. This brought the only loud response, a moan from the crowd making a clear statement that this was unfair testimony. It was a sad moment of hurt being used to blame and hurt others and the crowd wouldn’t stand for it.

In general, there is no understanding among the cons that describing gay people in the most insulting manner is their assumed privilege while they are under no threat of votes on their marriage. And believe me, I’ve got a few marriages I’d like to vote on!

This went on for 3 hours. Mostly everything had been said. Gay zoology, Adam and Eve, kids needs, proud Vermont history of progressive thought, God’s authority. I was just beginning to think I should leave when my name was called to testify. I immediately had a panic attack with my heart in my throat. I can’t imagine why- I’ve spoken to larger crowds easily, I’m a popular invited speaker, I had thought about what I’d say on the drive up, what’s the big deal? I tried to calm myself using prayer and straightening my posture, which was weary after 5 hours of being chair bound. I sat in the batter- up chair listening to the speaker before me.

This poor guy was in horrible pain. He came from some evangelical church and confessed that he had been an alcoholic and womanizer and that he was wrong and his sin shouldn’t be legalized and this sin of gay marriage shouldn’t be legalized either. He finishes up with his arms in the air yelling Jesus Christ Exalted Forever.

Now the odd thing is- I couldn’t wash myself of my tension while waiting to speak. But upon hearing his pain, I immediately settle down into deep prayer in body and mind to reach his layers of sadness and panic and lighten his load. It was as though I’d gone to the cosmic car wash because I was able to stop shaking and feel completely grounded. Oh service, be thou my savior.

I took the chair and spoke briefly from memory what I had planned to say. I was able to keep eye contact with the senators and treat them as though they’d had a long night too. I did forget one line I meant to put in the middle of my statement- I think the opposition we’ve heard tonight does not reflect the teachings of Jesus, which are kind and generous.

Here’s what I said-
My name is John Calvi from Putney Vermont. My husband, Marshall Brewer, and I were married by our Quaker meeting in Putney 20 years ago. Quakers have been marrying gay couples for 40 years now. I have a ministry among Quakers. I am an itinerant preacher. When I look at the issue we are discussing tonight, I think mostly it is caused by a mean nasty old rumor that gay people are not good. You have a wonderful opportunity here. You have the opportunity to make an improvement, to make history. I hope and trust that you will do the right thing.

Nothing memorable, but I sounded so good after the fellow in so much pain and confusion. I wished I’d remembered the part about Jesus, but there it is. There was one more speaker after me, then generous applause from the crowd thanking the senators.

I had some sense that the opposition feels beaten, unheard, their theological warnings unheeded. And it seems the votes are there for passage. The Republican governor has been unclear about signing or vetoing. He tends to wait and have his expensive pr consultants do a poll. I am hopeful and after the sadness of California’s vote I’d really like a victory of common sense. I also trust that in 50 years or less, people will shake their heads and say- what was that noise all about?