Edward and I moved from Boston to Vermont in May of 2004. That same month, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that same-sex couples had the right to marry. But Vermont had paved the way for that pioneering decision, by passing its own civil union law, back in 2001. The battle for civil unions wasn’t an easy one. It tore the state apart, liberal as Vermont is. All but one of the fourteen Republican legislators who voted their consciences for the civil union bill lost their seats in the next legislative session. To this day, in some corners of Vermont, one can still find, affixed to barns and trailers, signs that read “Take Back Vermont,”
Flash forward to 2006. By that time, we’d moved to Vermont and I’d been appointed Town Clerk of tiny little Guildhall, the shire town of the most conservative county in Vermont. One of my responsibilities was the issuance and recording of marriage and civil union licenses.
That fall, an adorable lesbian couple from Gorham, NH appeared at my office. They wanted a civil union license but they were nervous as hell about asking for it. I gave them a big smile and handshake, and they looked so relieved. They confessed they hadn’t known what to expect from any Town Clerk they might approach. I issued their license–they were to hold the ceremony in neighboring Maidstone–but they also needed an officiant for the ceremony. That proved to be a harder task. We sat down and went over the list of five Justices of the Peace from our town.
Unfortunately, one JP was out-of-town on the date planned for the ceremony. Three others, sadly, refused to officiate at a civil union. When I phoned the fifth–an elderly curmudgeonly gentleman with a soft side–and explained that we needed an officiant and that no one else would do it, there was a lengthy pause. My heart sank and I could tell that a “no” was looming. And so I did the practical–some might say cynical–thing. I offered to pay him. Nothing wrong with it, after all. Lots of officiants get paid for conducting marriages. I told him they would pay $100 and I would chip in another $50, in my private individual capacity.
He agreed. I was kind of disappointed that money was the persuading factor. But in retrospect, that doesn’t bother me much. People’s motivations can be complicated, and as later became clear, it was still an act of courage and boldness for this gentleman. Still, he was pretty apprehensive about doing the ceremony. At one point he wanted to back out and I only kept him on board by agreeing to accompany him there.
I remember driving up Route 102 in his pickup truck. On the way, he was grouchy (as he often was anyway), and he complained, saying he didn’t want to stay any longer than absolutely necessary with “those people.” By way of rejoinder, I said “well, we have to stay for at least a little while. It would be very rude to just leave.” This gave him pause, and he seemed to agree, grunting his assent.
When we arrived, he stood up and recited the vows the couple had prepared for him. I remember that one of the couple was dressed in a tuxedo for the ceremony, and the curmudgeonly Justice of the Peace’s eyes widened at that. Afterwards, we went inside for food, drink and socializing. There was a beautiful view of Maidstone Lake. My companion the officiant sat down on a couch, stiff as a board, looking around suspiciously. There was music, laughter, a few impromptu speeches. I told him I was going to fetch some food from the buffet table. “Do you want me to bring you some?” He grunted no. I brought back a plate heaped with food and started eating it, slowly and deliberately as I sat beside him. I commented how good the food was. Finally, I asked him again if he wanted any, and this time he let me go get him a plateful. After that, he seemed to relax considerably, and even made some small talk with people who it turned out he knew and with whom he had done some kind of business.
As we drove back that afternoon, he said to me “I just don’t understand it, two nice girls wanting to be like that.” I responded and simply said “well, they seemed very happy, like most people are at weddings.” He looked over at me, paused, grunted, and then said “well, the food was pretty good. Can’t argue with that.” I couldn’t help but smile. With that, he had come pretty damn close to a form of acceptance. Not that he was a paragon of gay rights activism. But hell, in spite of his trepidation, in spite of his doubts, in spite of everything, he was still the Justice of the Peace in Town who was willing to officiate at that cute lesbian couple’s ceremony, no matter what his friends and neighbors might say or think.
He passed on a few years after that, but I’ve always thought fondly of him and that afternoon in Maidstone. And I thought of him again this past Friday, when the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal throughout the land.