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News & Features » October 2013 » “A Slow Gathering of Courage,” by Governor Madeleine M. Kunin

“A Slow Gathering of Courage,” by Governor Madeleine M. Kunin

To celebrate the release of We Do!: American Leaders Who Believe in Marriage Equality and the Supreme Court’s recent ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act, we’ve invited Akashic authors to share their thoughts on marriage. In addition, today, October 15th, we are celebrating marriage equality and We Do! on Twitter, and want to see your wedding photos! Tweet them at us with “#WeDo!”

Today, we bring you “A Slow Gathering of Courage,” the afterword from We Do! written by the book’s coeditor, Governor Madeleine M. Kunin.

A Slow Gathering of Courage

As Woody Allen said, 80 percent of success is showing up. As a former politician I would raise that figure even higher. When I was governor of Vermont, almost everywhere I made an appearance, my presence made a statement. Showing up at an event was like a public seal of approval. I entered the room and people stopped talking; the klieg lights turned on.WeDoCurrent

Getting there was easy. (I was driven by a state trooper.) Deciding whether to get there was complicated. Every stop on my almost 24/7 calendar had a purpose. Who would I please by gracing their dinner, lunch, or breakfast with my presence? Who might I offend by not showing up? Some invitations to events were command performances. The governor had always shown up at the annual meeting of the state chamber of commerce, or the AFL-CIO convention every year since anyone could remember; whether it was an election year or not, Republicans and Democrats alike. My absence would be noticed.

And then there were conflicting events. I had already said yes to the teachers convention, weeks ago, and now the Burlington Rotary Club wanted me to speak on the same date at the same time. A juggling routine began as my staff and I figured out how I could get to two places at once, defying the limits of geography.

The biggest pile of invitations (before e-mail) came from sponsors of events that were discretionary. Yes or no? Those took the most time to decide. How many people would be there, would there be press, who would I please, and who might I offend? Yes, politics did raise its head. Would I gain popularity or lose it?

When I received the invitation one day in June of 1986 to speak at the gay pride parade down Church Street in Burlington, Vermont, I paused. So did my staff. I don’t recall precisely what went through my mind at that moment, but while I could easily have said no (as most politicians did), I knew I had to say yes.

By saying yes, I was making a statement of support for the gay and lesbian community. I had taken a small step in that direction soon after I was elected—I had appointed an official liaison with the gay community. That was a first, both for them and for me. But it was between us. Having a liaison meeting with me at the office was not like showing up in public and hearing the cameras click.

When my trooper stopped the car close to the steps that lead to the doors of the white-steepled Unitarian church at the head of Church Street, I was nervous. One glance at the boisterous crowd and I knew this would not be like any majorette-led parade that I had ever attended. During the 1980s, the gay and lesbian community enjoyed being outrageous. The scourge of AIDS hadn’t yet descended. This event was a wild and colorful celebration. The statement the gay marchers made was not yet a clear demand for equal rights; it was a demand for recognition: We are here. See us, hear us, and listen to us.

Showing up at the parade was more of a test of courage for the marchers than for me. It marked the first coming out for many men and women. That excitement of liberation from the confines of the closet combined with the thrill of mutual recognition (You too?) exploded into joy. I was pulled into the drum-beating, feet-stomping crowd and no longer wanted to hold myself apart. The exuberance of the moment embraced me.

I do not remember what I said that morning. I wish I did. It must have been supportive, because I recall the cheers, but it’s possible they didn’t cheer me for what I said—those in the back could not have heard me—but for the simple fact that I was there with them.

As governor, I knew about contrasts, going from one event to another, tasting different slices of life, from birthday celebrations to funerals. But no contrast was more clear than going from the gay pride parade in Burlington in the morning to the Veterans of Foreign Wars celebration twenty-two miles north in St. Albans that afternoon. “Up the road a piece,” as a Vermonter might say. I found myself marching in step with the standard-bearing, uniformed, medal-bedecked veterans, flags held high, as we paraded on the quiet tree-lined town green. The only sounds heard were the ritual shouts of commands, promptly obeyed, as they had long practiced.

What if they knew where I just was? I thought to myself, the rainbow-colored scene I had just left still bouncing in my mind’s eye. What would they think? Could I even have felt disloyal to the veterans for having been there?

Impossible to believe that now, but then, in the late 1980s, these were two different worlds. They marched in different steps, and thought in different ways. The gay pride crowd sought to break tradition; the veterans were there to maintain it.

What then could be seen as an act of courage on my part would not cause one eyebrow to be raised today. The unexpected became the expected. Neither group of marchers could have dreamed that some thirty years later, gay soldiers would openly serve in the military and same-sex marriage would be legal in Vermont and twelve other states (plus the District of Columbia)—including California, as a result of the June 2013 Supreme Court decision on Proposition 8. Today, 30 percent of Americans live in states that permit same-sex marriage. These citizens are now eligible for federal benefits, thanks to the court’s 5–4 decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act. This marked a dramatic turning point in the forty-year struggle for equal rights. As one of the plaintiffs in the California case said, “Now I can tell my children that we are a family, just like everybody else.”

Just like everybody else—that is the essence of equality.

But not everyone can benefit from these historic decisions. Those who live in the thirty-seven states that still ban same-sex marriage remain on the waiting list. Indeed, in many parts of the country and amongst some religious groups, gay marriage remains taboo, evidenced by the thirty-one states that passed constitutional amendments to ban gay and lesbian unions. (The two Supreme Court decisions in June 2013 didn’t render all of those bans unconstitutional, but as new states continue to sign on to legalizing same-sex marriage, it’s likely that they will soon become a shameful relic of the past.) The campaign for same-sex marriage, regarded as radical at the outset, today is seen by many as just the opposite—a reach for tradition. Marriage, for any couple, straight or gay, imposes structure on the relationship and affords the imprimatur of belonging. The turning point came in 2004 when Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. No longer was the conversation only about “rights.” It became about love.

Democracies have engaged in a long-standing debate about how cultural change occurs. Which comes first, law or public opinion? Fifty-one percent of Americans in a June 2013 New York Times/CBS News poll said yes to: “Should it be legal for same-sex couples to marry, or not?” A Pew poll taken nine years earlier, in 2004, found that 61 percent opposed same-sex marriage. That change would not have been possible without the political power of the gay community, the growing understanding of the straight community, and the power of law.

We were not there yet in 1986 when I attended my first pride event. A few days after my speech at the Unitarian church, I received a hint that my appearance at the gay pride parade did not receive uniform approval. I was told that my picture, as it appeared in the local Burlington Free Press, had been taped to a cash register in a general store in “the northeast kingdom,” a sparsely populated region of the state. The photographer had taken pains to make sure that the banner that read Gay Pride Day was clearly legible. I was shown standing at the podium, underneath the banner. Someone had taken the trouble to draw a thick red circle around the photo, with a diagonal slash across it. “No.”

Much of Vermont was far from ready to abandon bias and accept equality. The most ugly display of antigay bigotry occurred in Burlington when a young man, who had just left a gay bar, was found bloodied and beaten unconscious in an adjoining alleyway. For a week, it was not known whether he would live or die. The attack occurred while a legislative committee was debating whether to include gay and lesbian assaults in a hate crimes bill. It would create tougher penalties for crimes committed on the basis of racial or religious bigotry.

I decided to testify before the committee. Until that day, I had carefully observed the separation of powers that every schoolchild learns—executive, legislative, and judicial. As the executive, I had never appeared before a legislative committee. Not my territory. What made me step into it this time?

Something flashed in my mind; it was like a danger signal. I could not ignore it. I was compelled to show up. I had to make a statement that violence based on homosexuality must be strongly condemned and punished. The committee members listened to my testimony. Weeks later, as part of a large chorus of like-minded voices, our outrage was transformed into law.

As I look back, I believe I acted on instinct. My mind suddenly reeled back to Nazi Germany in the 1930s when gay men were among the first to be transported to the death camps. Instead of being forced to wear the yellow Jewish star, gay people were identified by pink triangles. My reaction was best expressed by the words of the Protestant pastor Martin Niemöller who himself spent seven years in concentration camps for opposing Hitler.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

I left Switzerland as a child in June 1940 at the outbreak of World War II, with my mother and brother. Because Switzerland had become surrounded by Nazi-occupied countries, I grew up under the shadow of the Holocaust. My family, both on my mother’s French side and my father’s German side, had been scattered by the war to England, Israel, and the United States. Not everyone was as lucky as we were. An aunt and uncle died at Theresienstadt. A cousin died in Auschwitz; his wife and daughter were hidden in Holland and survived. Others in France did not.

Tenuous as it may seem to some, I made a connection between the fate of the Jews in Europe and the young gay man lying in the Burlington alley. I felt the need to testify on the hate crimes bill and to support the gay pride marchers on Church Street because, by standing with them, they would not be alone.

I may have experienced a touch of hubris in thinking that my presence could help protect them from the alienation, ridicule, and abuse they might experience by coming out, by being exposed for the world to see, including their parents, their employers, and anyone else who might want to scrawl a red circle with a slash through it around their heads. It took more than twenty-five years for the words “I’m gay” to be safely said in growing parts of America and some other countries. And it took many years for more politicians to join the parade.

That said, a half-dozen or so Vermont legislators were in the vanguard. On March 27, 2000, when the final roll call was taken on the nation’s first civil union bill, these legislators voted “Yea,” knowing that their vote might spell defeat for them in the next election. Signs sprung up on Vermont roadsides: Take Back Vermont. No one knew its precise meaning, but the thrust was clear—repeal civil unions. Representative Bob Kinsey from Craftsbury, a dairy farmer and former Republican House leader, suffered the consequences. He was defeated twice after his vote. A majority of his constituents never forgave him, but his conscience was clear.

As I look back, I understand that I had to show up at these events, not because I was courageous, but because I was afraid. I was afraid that if I did not speak out, the disease of bigotry would go viral, spreading uncontrolled, as it did during the years of the Holocaust. Unlike my relatives who were killed simply because they were Jewish, I was a different person living in a different time and place. I was an American Jew with the power of the governor’s bully pulpit to support me. It was safe for me to use my voice, to have my picture in the paper under the parade banner. On some not-yet-fully-understood level, I felt that speaking out against hatred when I had the opportunity to do so was my memorial to them—those who’d died.

There is another, more easily explained reason that I chose to show up to endorse the gay and lesbian rights movement. My daughter.

When Julia first told me that she loved a woman, I was taken aback. It was the late 1970s. I was in denial. Like many parents at that time, I thought it was a stage she would go through, and then grow out of, find a boyfriend, get married, and have kids. That’s how I imagined the adult life of my daughter. Now the pieces of the picture were scattered and no longer fit together. She had become a different person than the one I had imagined. Plus, I feared for her.

I was afraid she would be vulnerable to attack, both physically and emotionally. Life is hard enough as a woman, I thought. Why did she place this added burden on herself?

Looking back, I recognize that at the time, I still thought she had a choice. It took me longer to recognize that as a lesbian, this is part of who she is. “It just happened, I never censored or buried it,” she told me recently. Instead of harboring any thoughts of trying to change her, over the years she has changed me. She enabled me to not only accept her sexuality, but to go beyond acceptance to embracing who she is, with pride.

Still, on some level the mama bear part of me wanted to do what I could to protect her. That’s why I had to show up, to speak up, to make her lesbianism not a dangerous aberration, but a safe and ordinary existence.

Many public figures have become advocates for LGBT rights because of their daughters and sons, their coworkers, neighbors, and friends who are gay. The greatest transformation that has taken place in this movement is that the gay community is no longer isolated as being “the other.” “Those people” have names and faces and lives. “They” are “Us.”

When State Representative William Lippert spoke on the floor of the Vermont House of Representatives in 2000, he moved the hearts and minds of his colleagues because they knew him. He was not just “queer,” he was one of them. He had earned their respect as a knowledgeable and hard-working legislator. His was the face that represented a gay man.

He had had the courage to come out long before the issue of civil unions had hit the House floor. It was individuals like him who made equal rights for the gay community personal. It would not have been possible for lawmakers to vote the way they did if the gay community itself had not had the courage to come out and celebrate their own sexuality and equality.

In April 2013, Jason Collins announced: “I’m a thirty-four-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.” He became the first openly gay player in a major male team sport. This milestone would not have been reached if the men and women who marched in the early gay pride parades had not declared themselves first.

The president of the United States could not have announced his support for same-sex marriage if people like Representative William Lippert had not told his story.

And members of an institution as traditional as the British House of Lords could not have heard Baroness Barker say, “Many years ago, I had the great fortune to meet someone. She and I have loved each other ever since.”
Yes, bigotry still surfaces in ugly shapes. In 2013 in the country of Georgia, clergy incited demonstrators to attack a fledgling gay pride parade. In large parts of sub-Saharan Africa, prison or even the death penalty may be the consequence of being openly gay. There are still reports of bullying, beatings, and murder even in America. And there are many Americans who, for personal or religious reasons (but not necessarily reasons of hatred), withhold their approval of homosexuality

Progress is not necessarily linear. We move forward in giant leaps, often propelled by young people, and then are forced to pull back in baby steps. But the trajectory is moving beyond tolerance, toward understanding. The gay community made the first move by stepping out into the sunlight. Politicians like myself then slowly gathered our courage to show up and join them.

MadeleineMKuninWe are not yet finished.


Governor MADELEINE M. KUNIN was the first woman governor of Vermont, and served as the deputy secretary of education and ambassador to Switzerland under President Bill Clinton. She is the author of three books: Living a Political Life; Pearls, Politics and Power; and The New Feminist Agenda; she is also the coauthor of We Do!: American Leaders Who Believe in Marriage Equality. Currently a Marsh Professor-at-Large at the University of Vermont, she is a commentator on Vermont Public Radio and a blogger for the Huffington Post. She lives in Burlington, Vermont.

Posted: Oct 15, 2013

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