Interview with Jane Dwinell and Brendan Hadash

TRANSCRIPT:

Jane:

Brendan and I are here to tell the story of the Unitarian Universalist involvement in the passage of the Vermont Civil Union Law in 2000. What I remember, where it began for me, and I think you had a lot to do with this, was the first ministers’ retreat that I attended at Rock Point. You had Beth Robinson come and speak to us. That was either in ’96 or ’97, and Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force had already started. Yes? At that point?

Brendan:

Yes, ’95.

Jane:

In ’95, so maybe that was ’96 when she came to speak to the ministers.

Brendan:

Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jane:

Beth Robinson was an attorney who was the person who got the three couples to sue for the right to marry. She was a graduate of Dartmouth, lived in Vermont. After Hawaii, the national people turned to Vermont because we didn’t have a state referendum way to make laws like many states do, in California for example. It was only the legislature who made laws, so they thought there was a chance in Vermont to be able to pass marriage equality. Beth came to the ministers’ retreat to get the ministers behind that. Is that when you started VOWS?

Brendan:

Yeah, probably.  That’s when I first reached out to the UU ministers. That would be when it started. VOWS stood for Vermont Organization for Weddings of the Same gender. We stayed away from the word “sex” because we were going to be dealing with clergy from many different denominations even though that was not really precisely the proper phrasiology.

Jane:

Yeah. And you wrote a document, who wrote the document that like we all signed on to?

Brendan:

Beth wrote that.

Jane:

Beth Robinson wrote that. Yeah.

Brendan:

Okay. I’ll tell a little bit what happened before.

Jane:

Yes.

Brendan:

Okay. Now, there’s a book where they interviewed all the key people, or many of the key people in the civil union movement in Vermont. And I just reread parts of that book and I was surprised how important Unitarian Universalism was.

Jane:

You bet.

Brendan:

Yeah, we were. When I overlook the role, I was kind of like the shot heard round the world that started things off. And you were kind of the fireworks at the end, having the first wedding in a church. I mean the first civil union in a church.

Jane:

Right.

Brendan:

My memory is Beth Robinson, the lawyer who kind of got this all kind of launched, contacted me in 1995 and said, “Well we want to try and get gay marriage in Vermont.” She had found a couple willing to have a Holy Union because she knew that Unitarian Universalists did Holy Unions.

Brendan:

She found a couple willing to have a Holy Union at Gay Pride in 1995, and so that was going to be the launch of the whole, you know, movement toward gay marriage because we said we have to get the gays online first because it was controversial even among the gays in those days. She said, “So the first thing I want to do is at Gay Pride”. So, it was announced that I was going to be doing this wedding and I also said that it would be a public wedding if anyone wanted to be married in the audience, they could take their vows at that time also. And that was advertised. And as I mentioned in another video that the local very conservative newspaper heard about this and wrote a full page article about me and it was a little scary, you know, what will this very conservative area – how will they respond to an openly gay minister?

Brendan:

I didn’t have any problems, but another member of my congregation also came out into a full page spread in this newspaper. He had his… He had like epitaphs or epithets or whatever written on his place of work. And you know that names, I won’t say. So it’s, it’s kind of a dangerous area. And I noticed that Mark and Hal had death threats from your congregation.

Jane:

Oh many people in my congregation had death threats. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, Brendan.

Brendan:

We’re getting ahead of ourself. So let me focus on 1995. So in 1995 what happened was because of the threats and things like that, the couple that were going to get married backed out, they were too scared. And so I was already scheduled at Gay Pride in ’95 to do this wedding. I said, I’m going ahead. And in 1993 there was a gay march on Washington and at Supreme Court, I believe they had, you know, ministers and rabbis and whatever stand up and do a wedding for anyone who wanted to in the audience.

Brendan:

So I said, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll just say the words and if people, anyone wants to say the vows out in the out in the audience, they can say them, and that’s between the couples themselves. And so I was scared. Is it going to be a right wing demonstration against this? I was worried. But from my perspective luckily it started pouring rain. And so the crowd dispersed, there was hardly anyone there. But I said, I’m going ahead with this. So I went ahead and I could see one poor lesbian couple who in these beautiful frilly wedding gowns drenched just dripping. And they were saying the vows to one another and I saw another gay male couple over in this corner saying the vows to one another. Getting choked up.

Jane:

Yeah! No, that’s so exciting.

Brendan:

And I heard later there was another family that had kids that were saying vows to one another. So at least three couples took vows that day. And then Beth, the lawyer, that’s when she organized for Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force really to get going, which was the organization working toward gay marriage and eventually civil unions working for gay marriage. So she started that in the fall after. The fall of ’95 is when she really started that.  The role I was tasked with, as one of the core members of the Task Force early on, was I was charged to get together the names of clergy, religious leaders, religious organizations who would support same sex marriage, and were willing to have their names put on an amicus brief to go before the legislature.

Jane:

Before the Supreme Court.

Brendan:

Supreme Court, I’m sorry, yes.

Jane:

We weren’t at the legislature yet. We were still at the Supreme Court.

Brendan:

We were still at the Supreme Court, that’s right. Keep me on track here.

Jane:

I will.

Brendan:

Probably the first thing I did is, I probably brought Beth to the minister’s meeting and said, hey, easy pickings, go for those first.

Jane:

That’s right.

Brendan:

So let me go for the UU ministers. And all the UU ministers of Vermont signed on right away.

Jane:

Yeah.

Brendan:

We eventually got… And then I kind of cast a big net of people who had any relationship to Vermont. So we ended up with 25, even though there weren’t 25 churches in Vermont, ended up with around 25 UU ministers sign this amicus brief right off the bat. Then I went on to other denominations. I ended up with approximately 200 clergy, religious leaders. Several congregations took votes, like the UU churches in Rutland and Burlington. The district, you know, New Hampshire, Vermont district took a vote.

Brendan:

So there are several organizations also, and versus like, like the Quakers who don’t have ministers, they had to go to their whole meeting. But like I believe there’s a Putney meeting and I think there was maybe another Quaker group that they had the whole congregation vote.

Brendan:

So, and then the ministers there were, you know, we had all the UU Ministers.

Jane:

Yeah, that was easy.

Brendan:

The UCC Ministers, they ended up with all around 75 ministers. We had 25. They had 75 just cause there’s so many of them. We got totally outnumbered by them. There were about 25 Episcopals, and then you know others. There were some Methodists, there’s some Presbyterian, several rabbis on this amicus brief. And the other thing that we used the names for is we put them all on a poster and we put these posters up at county fairs. Here are all the clergy in Vermont that support same sex marriage. And you must’ve staffed some of these booths.

Jane:

The beauty of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force, the way they chose to talk to the public, was to go to all the County fairs in Vermont and have a booth where people like Brendan and I would sit there and talk to people as they came by, which in different parts of Vermont was a different kind of activity. The part of Vermont that Brendan and I lived with was very conservative and it was, you know, it was challenging, but there was this whole grassroots… The three couples who were part of the lawsuit went in church basements and town halls anywhere anybody would have them to talk about it. And one of the couples was elderly, these two women who were dairy farmers and never had come out to anybody, but they had been together their whole lives, had a small herd of cows and talked with a Vermont accent. And that kind of personal story really moved people’s hearts and minds in Vermont. And then when we get to the next part, that’s what moved the legislature.

Jane:

So we spent two years doing the town hall and the county fair thing, and at the same time the legal cases were moving through the system. And the day where the oral arguments were before the Vermont Supreme Court, myself and another UU minister, Carol Karlson, organized an interfaith worship service at the UU church in Montpelier that we held like as a vigil while the case was being argued before the Supreme Court, because we all couldn’t go, you know, only so many people could go. And then the attorneys came over to the church afterwards so we could all like cheer and whatever. And so then it was in the hands of the Supreme Court and that was November of 1998, and we waited and waited and Beth Robinson had a joke where she had, she had her fancy suit hanging on the back of her office door ready for when the announcement was going to come. The announcement came from the Supreme court in December of 1999, right before Christmas, and they said people should have the right to marry, but we’re going to leave this up to the legislature to decide, you know, this is by the people and for the people so it’s up to the legislature. Legislature session in Vermont starts the beginning of January. So there was a hop to like, oh my God, we had to like get organized fast to get it in the legislative session, yes?

Brendan:

Yeah, the Supreme Court, we were, we were kind of annoyed at their ruling because what they said is, well, gays and lesbians have to have the same rights as any other married couple, period. But how the legislatures decide to do this, whether as marriage or registered partnerships was the phrase they used or some other vehicle. It’s all up to the legislature. We said, that’s not… That’s separate but equal. That’s not equal.

Brendan:

But anyway, that was another decision.

Jane:

Yeah. And so it was this fast thing and the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force was run by Dorothy Mammen, who was a UU lay person from the Middlebury, Vermont congregation. She ran it out of her living room, this woman, she was straight and she was tireless, tireless, tireless, making phone calls, talking to people because all of a sudden we had to start lobbying our legislators about this. And there were public hearings where the State House was jammed, you know, and in Vermont, still to this day, anybody can walk into the State House. There are no metal detectors, there’s no security guards. You can just go in and participate.

Jane:

And both Brendan and I were at the public hearing, but neither of us got our names picked. And so what I did, and actually a whole bunch of people from my congregation, We were both serving small congregations and my congregation at that point was maybe 30 members, I want to say maybe 35. There were six or seven of us who came from the congregation to testify and none of us got chosen. So the Sunday after that I scrapped whatever worship service I was doing and I had everybody stand up and give the testimony that they were going to give at the State House as the worship service. It was very powerful because it was everybody from gay people to straight people in the congregation who were willing to speak up for that. But the real critical thing that happened was so many gay and lesbian people in Vermont had to come out.

Jane:

You know, they were like, this is our chance. If something’s going to happen, we have to come out, and Hal and Mark who were in my congregation. Mark was a fourth grade teacher in this very conservative area and he came out, the big splash article on the front page of the very conservative local newspaper and he didn’t lose his job. The people were very supportive of him, his principal, and the parents, amazingly enough. Though, they did get hate mail. The church got hate mail. It really, it escalated as the legislature got closer to crafting a bill. They were crafting it as, as a civil union instead of marriage. They felt that had a greater chance of passing and that it was a first step.

Brendan:

I kind of wonder if possibly the UUs even influenced the name because we had “Holy” Unions, and I  actually mentioned in a meeting – well how about “civil” unions.

Jane:

Yeah.

Brendan:

So UUs could’ve actually been responsible for the name.

Jane:

Yeah. We had a UU lobby day where we had a press conference and had UUs come from all over the state to lobby their legislators, and several legislators came to the press conference and they said that how important this was to them, that people were speaking to them individually and they, and they held up their hate mail. They said, we are getting hate mail from people all over the country and I forget, who was that bad guy that came and said-

Brendan:

Phelps?

Jane:

Yeah, set up an office. Anyway, they were like, now we understand what it’s like for gay and lesbian people because we’re getting hate mail and we haven’t done anything. Then in March I get a phone call from Beth Robinson and she says, would you like to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in two days? I’m like, oh sure, Beth, I would love to. Oh my God. So I wrote this. This is my testimony:

Thank you for inviting me to speak before you today. I’m the Reverend Jane Dwinell, and I serve the first Universalist parish, a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Derby line, Vermont. My congregation serves Unitarian Universalists from all over Orleans County as well as part of the Eastern townships of Quebec. I’m also a member of the board of trustees of the New Hampshire, Vermont district of Unitarian Universalist societies as well as president of my districts chapter of the Unitarian Universalists Ministers Association. I also serve as a chaplain for the Orleans and Northern Essex County Visiting Nurses and Hospice and North Country Hospital in Newport. I live in Irasburg. I’m also a seventh generation Vermonter.

Jane:

I’m going to, jeez, I didn’t get emotional with them. On both sides of the family my ancestors having settled the towns of Braintree and Calais. I grew up here in Montpelier and learned about the civil rights and importance of speaking up for the oppressed in church. As a Unitarian Universalist I’m called to speak out against injustice and for civil rights. Thus, I’m here today to let you know there are people of faith who are in favor of same-gender marriage and civil unions. Our denomination has a long history of faith-based action in the civil rights arena from the people who work to end slavery in the early to mid 1800s, to women like Susan B. Anthony, who fought tirelessly for women’s rights, to social workers who spoke up for the rights of the mentally ill in the early 1900s, to the clergy and lay people who went south in the 1960s to march for the civil rights of Americans with black skin.

Jane:

My colleague, the Reverend James Reeb, was murdered in Selma, Alabama when he went to march with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King in 1965. It’s no different for us in the area of rights for gay and lesbian persons. For the past 30 years, our clergy have been performing services of Holy Union between members of the same gender. These union ceremonies carry the same weight as marriage within our denomination and are celebrated in the same fashion as weddings of opposite gender couples. In fact, in 1996 our general assembly passed a resolution in support of the right to marry for same sex couples. Right after the passage of this resolution, Unitarian Universalist Association president, the Reverend John Buehrens, asked all same gender couples present to come forward. Several hundred people gathered on the stage to a standing ovation by the delegates at the assembly. It was a powerful and moving moment. Since the 1996 general assembly, a similar resolution has been passed at the New Hampshire Vermont District Annual Meeting by our district ministers association and at several Unitarian Universalist churches in Vermont.

Jane:

We as a denomination understand that the right to have longterm, committed, heterosexual or homosexual relationships supported and acknowledged by the government is a civil right. Homosexuals are born, not made. One’s sexual orientation is as much of a birthright as one’s race. Why would it be any other way? Just as people once thought that the Earth was flat and that our planet was the center of the universe and had to change their viewpoint once the scientific evidence was in, scientists and psychologists now agree that one is born with one’s sexual orientation. Why would anyone choose to be homosexual? In the words of one of am I gay parishioners, why would anyone choose to be called an abomination or beaten and tied to a fence to die? Why would anyone want to live their life in fear and secrecy, unable to tell even their closest friends, coworkers and relatives that they have fallen in love and formed a family?

Jane:

When a couple comes to me wishing to be married, consenting adults who have fallen in love and want to make a public statement of their commitment and have it blessed, we sit down together and talk. We talk about what the couple is looking for in a ceremony, how they wish to honor their relationship before friends and family and their faith community. But mostly we talk about the quality of their relationship, their struggles and their joys, what they love most about each other. What bugs them most about each other, how they handled conflict and money and decision making in general. Whether or not they want children and when and what kind of relationship they have with each other’s family of origin. We discuss how a trusting, loving, and caring sexual relationship can deepen their level of intimacy, but as anyone in this room who is in or has been in a longterm committed relationship, knows sharing sexual pleasure is the least of it.

Jane:

Couples spend more time worrying about the mortgage and the bills, how to balance work and family. How to raise the kids in a responsible manner, how to find time to contribute to society and find meaning in life. How to decide who cooks and who cleans, who goes grocery shopping and who takes out the trash. I provide the same pre ceremony counseling for same gender or opposite gender couples. Their concerns are the same. Their joys are the same. Their lives are the same except for one point. Society does not recognize the same-gender couples relationship. When I work with dying people and their families, I meet people where they are without judgment. They want to explore the meaning of their lives and make plans for the care of their property and their body after death. These are deep conversations and people have deep concerns. Caring for a dying loved one is one of the greatest gifts we can give to one another.

Jane:

Disposing of our loved one’s body after death and planning a memorial service or some of the most intimate things we can do for one another. How can we as a society deny these rights to anyone. Emotional again. And I guess I was too nervous. And especially to someone who has tended their partner’s body and spirit at home through the final days and weeks of a terminal illness. Marriage as an institution has changed over the years. Once upon a time, it was only for the wealthy as a way to cement bonds of property and inheritance. Once upon a time, people of different religions, different races and different social classes were not allowed to marry. Marriage has changed with the times granting the right of civil union to same-gender couples, which is in no way marriage as it is not portable from state-to-state and does not bestow upon them any of the federal rights associated with marriage, would in no way degrade marriage as an institution, it would only enhance it.

Jane:

Gay men and lesbians are in my congregation. They are my friends and family. They are my neighbors. I have gained nothing but strength for my own marriage from them. I see close at hand what they go through to create a home in society that is against them. I see them raise wonderful children, work hard in their communities, and participate fully in the life of their house of worship. A loving and benevolent divine essence walks with us. We are called to be whole people, to look inside ourselves and be true to who we are. We all struggle with this from time to time, but gay men and lesbians struggle more. They do not want to think they are deviants in society. They do not want to listen to hate-filled language spoken by people who do not understand what it is like to be a gay man or lesbian in our world.

Jane:

Homosexuals, like heterosexuals, just want to be left alone, to love their mate, to raise their children, to care for their home, to contribute to society, and to find a faith community that will nurture their deepest longings. Our society has struggled and continues to struggle with many so-called moral issues, slavery, desegregation, interracial marriage, child labor, the death penalty, abortion rights, the rights of the disabled, and now gay and lesbian rights. Faith communities also struggle with these issues, but we religious leaders expect our governmental leaders to seek equitable and just solutions to these issues, not based solely on a particular faith point of view. In Orleans County alone, there are practicing Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, as well as people of various native and Earth Centered Traditions. The history of freedom of religion and the separation of church and state runs deep in Vermont.

Jane:

Because we know that Americans and Vermonters are not of one faith, we ask you, our elected officials to look deep into your hearts and do what is just and fair. There are times when it is necessary for you to look beyond the popular vote because other legislators before you had the courage to do that. We no longer have segregation separating the races and women have the right to vote and be independent citizens apart from their husbands or fathers. All couples have the right to their commitment have their commitment honored and respected by society. The Civil Union Bill takes the first step toward full equality. I ask you to do all you can to ensure the rights of same gender couples to have the full benefits, protections, and responsibilities that heterosexual married couples enjoy.

Jane:

And then it passed!

Brendan:

Yeah!

Jane:

It passed in April of 2000. It passed and the governor signed it into law.

Brendan:

The next day.

Jane:

I happened to be in New York City at the time with my, then 10-year-old son, and we were walking in Times Square and it came on the banner in Times Square and we’re jumping up and down and screaming. People thought we were weird. But it was New York City, like whatever.

Jane:

And then the exciting part was doing ceremonies. Oh my goodness. I… We had the… I officiated at the first ceremony done in a UU church. The law went into effect July 1st of 2000 and the ceremony was on July 2nd of Hal and Mark. Hal was the church organist. And they had met already, anyway. And they had a daughter. Kappes was I think 11 at the time. The church held maybe 125 people. There were 150 in at this ceremony and worldwide media in the balcony that had come as from as far as Japan, that was all lined up in the balcony. It’s a poor, little church. And it was amazing and wonderful, and that summer I did 25 ceremonies. How many did you do Brendan?

Brendan:

Oh, around 200. I actually advertised in gay magazines, like the Advocate. I actually had put up a website then, and because at that point Vermont was the only place in the world where you could, where a gay and lesbian couples could go to have a legal recognition of their relationship.

Jane:

Yeah.

Brendan:

Unless you already lived in that country. So I had people coming from Mexico, from Australia.

Jane:

People from all over the country.

Brendan:

It was from all over the country. I’ll never forget the first one. I’m going to cry again, by the way.

Jane:

It was hard for me, you know, because when I had done weddings before, I had never done the, “By the power vested in me, by the state of Vermont…” And now you never said that like, well who would say that? But I said that! It was like so exciting! By the power invested in me, by the state of Vermont. I know, you know.

Brendan:

My very first civil union was two elderly men and I think they were in their sixties, well their sixties or seventies. They’d been together for around 40 years I believe. They came up from Massachusetts and they said no one’s going to ever know about this. We’re in the closet back home. But we just, they said their vows, they said they just loved each other so much.

Jane:

Yeah. Yeah. One of the most fun ones I did were two couples, that gay male couple and a lesbian couple from the UU church in Canton, New York. And they came over with their ministers and they had already had a Holy Union ceremonies. And so it was just us. And they stood up for each other as you know, witnesses. And they did the same ceremony again with their ministers Wade and Anne, and, and I just did the pronouncement. I just did that. But it was really, it was really fun. And, and that, that gay male couple was, they, they were in their seventies I think they’d been together a long time. So it was, it was a heady time. It was an exciting time.

Jane:

And it was really those personal stories that affected the legislators to be able to move forward with this. And, and I was so honored by the bravery of my congregants who were not out, who came out and knew they had to and that that was going to change things. And it did, I mean, because of the run of civil unions, there was then legal precedent to move forward with marriage in Massachusetts. And then it snowballed. And then there it is. Anything else you want to say Brendan?

Brendan:

I mean the fact that Alan and I, well my husband, Alan, and I had our, our Holy Union way back and the way back in ’85. We’ve been together 36 years now. You know, I was the first minister of any denomination to have their relationship recognized by a state in the country. Yeah. So that, that was a special, big week. But we’d already had our wedding. We had had the big wedding already. You know, it’s, it’s very strange because we ran out to our next door neighbor who was a JP and just had her do it again. Then when they legalized marriage, we had to go do it again. Now it’s that. That’s, so it’s three times we’ve been married, now it’s no more.

Jane:

That’s what I did. I told all the couples that I did the civil union for, I said, now that it’s marriage, just bring me a license. We don’t have to do anything. Yeah, no. If it wasn’t for the Unitarian Universalists in Vermont, this would not have happened.

Brendan:

The Unitarian Universalists in Vermont supported us right from the word go. Their, their foundation of the, of all the clergy support that we had, that which was essential because the right wing clergy were out there in force. And then we, when we needed it, and without that, accountants with that counterbalance is extremely important.

Jane:

And Beth Robinson is now a member of the Vermont Supreme Court, the lawyer who tried the case.

Speaker 3:

Okay.

Brendan:

Okay.

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