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Before same-sex marriage, there were civil unions. The term was coined in Vermont. Thirteen years ago, Vermont became the first state to extend rights to gay couples. It did not do so easily or by choice. It was forced on the state by the Vermont Supreme Court.
In light of this week's Supreme Court arguments over gay marriage, NPR's Liz Halloran recently sat down with two key players from that tumultuous period in Vermont. And a caution: The story contains language that some listeners may find offensive.
LIZ HALLORAN, BYLINE: The court decree landed like a grenade in a state better known for ice cream than gay rights activism. John Edwards was a Republican state legislator.
JOHN EDWARDS: I woke up one day and the decision was on the front page. And I said, oh, my God. What have we done?
HALLORAN: What the court had done was unprecedented. It found the state's marriage law discriminatory and ordered that gay couples be given the same rights as their heterosexual neighbors. It was up to the state legislature to figure out how, and that had not been on Edwards' to-do list.
EDWARDS: I mean, I was probably like 99 percent of the people out there. And, you know, it wasn't an issue for most of us.
HALLORAN: Almost overnight, the small state splintered. Neighbors stopped speaking to one another. Governor Howard Dean sometimes wore a bulletproof vest. Metal detectors were installed at the statehouse. And legislators like Edwards at times feared for their safety and for their political futures.
EDWARDS: I knew from talking to my constituents how they felt about it. You know, if it was put to a vote up there, it would overwhelmingly go down to defeat.
HALLORAN: Edwards and Democrat Bill Lippert - the only openly gay member of the legislature back then - served together on the committee that had to write a law to satisfy the court. Even just coming up with a name for what they were doing was hard.
EDWARDS: We had to have a title on the bill. And we didn't have one.
BILL LIPPERT: I remember one of the suggestions was how about civil accord? And everyone looked around and said, it sounds like the model of a car. We can't do that. And then I...
HALLORAN: But back in 2000, there were few laughs. They say the worst was a hearing at the high school in St. Albans, in the north of the state.
EDWARDS: That was really nasty. The auditorium was packed. And I walked in there, I said, oh, my God. You could feel it, you know? And, you know, I probably could put a name on - I don't know - 50, 60 percent of the people. And the ones I couldn't put a name with, I sort of recognized.
HALLORAN: Democrat Bill Lippert.
LIPPERT: The volume of the crowd and the negativity was - it was so raw and so apparent. It was like this was not going to be good.
HALLORAN: State police had provided security for the hearings at the statehouse. But Lippert says there was no security in the high school auditorium that night.
LIPPERT: I was frightened. And I think someone actually offered to walk with me to my car.
HALLORAN: Lippert says that the anti-gay vitriol in St. Albans was so threatening that it persuaded some legislators to vote for civil unions. Others were persuaded by Lippert's speech before a packed House chamber the day of the vote.
LIPPERT: I started by saying: I think it's important to put a face on this. I think it's important to ask who it is that we're talking about.
HALLORAN: Vermont Public Radio recorded his words back then.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
LIPPERT: We are not a threat. We are not a threat to traditional marriage. We are not a threat to your communities. We are, in fact, an asset.
HALLORAN: Edwards, the Republican, was among those who came around. Like many elected officials today, he says what proved powerful to him were the mothers and fathers who testified about their gay children's lives. He came to see parallels with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
EDWARDS: It was nothing new, just that the object of the bile had been changed. It was really word for word. You just changed the N-word, nigger, for fags or faggots or whatever you wanted to call.
HALLORAN: And yet, the conversation rapidly changed. Vermont's cutting-edge law quickly became the conservative alternative to same-sex marriage.
Still, the political costs at the time were high. Democrats lost control of the House. And all but one of the 14 Republicans who voted for civil unions lost, Edwards included.
EDWARDS: It was a great honor to represent my district, and I have honestly missed it ever since.
HALLORAN: Lippert remains in the statehouse and is chairman of its judiciary committee.
LIPPERT: My fellow colleagues who gave their political lives for the success of creating the first legal recognition anywhere in the United States for same-sex couples, John and those who lost are my heroes to this day.
HALLORAN: Vermont went on to pass a gay marriage law in 2009.
Liz Halloran, NPR News.
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