Michael Knaapen

Profiles in Courage: Vermont's Marion Milne

Filed By Michael Knaapen | August 19, 2014 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: civil unions, Marion Milne, pro-LGBT Republicans, profiles in courage, relationship recognition, Republicans, Vermont

vermont_rainbow.gifIn his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Profiles in Courage, then-Senator John F. Kennedy wanted to write about "the problems of political courage in the face of constituent pressures." Kennedy's book showed that courageous politicians often lost their seat as a result of their bravery. This takeaway is still valid today, and no more so than in the case of Vermont's esteemed legislator from Orange County, Marion Milne.

Let's go back to 1999. In that year, a landmark case called Baker v. Vermont saw several same-sex couples demanding recognition of their relationships. The case made its way to the Vermont Supreme Court, which decided in favor of the plaintiffs. But the justices took the somewhat unusual step of enlisting the legislature to remedy the plaintiffs' grievance: lawmakers were instructed to either allow same-sex couples to marry or create an alternative mechanism providing identical legal rights to same-sex couples.

Most outsiders -- who think of Vermont as a radical left-wing stronghold, bluer than the Hope Diamond in the North Sea during an eclipse -- will hear this much of the story and assume "happily ever after" from here on out. But they're wrong: this was just the beginning. In order to understand what happened next, you need to know something about Vermont and its people.

Vermont is unique. Its politics are marked less by ideology than by a strong strain of independent-mindedness. The original state constitution outlawed slavery. Lawyers can still learn their trade there by reading the law. Special state holidays focused on Vermont history and civic responsibility are celebrated in the Green Mountain State. Vermont does not have a major sports team, not because of its size or any aversion to sports, but because Vermonters would rather do a thing themselves than sit around watching others do it.

This independent spirit ran high during the battle for civil unions - and yes, Vermonters will tell you it was the "Battle for Civil Unions" in just that way. Outside forces - both in favor of the law and against it - were largely rebuffed by Vermonters who wanted to settle the matter the way they settled everything: by talking it out amongst themselves.

Still, this issue divided the state as few others have. Neighbors debated fiercely at town halls, at the State House, and sometimes right over the fence separating one backyard from another. Longtime friendships ended and unexpected friendships were formed. Democrats feared the divisiveness would cost their party in the coming elections, and Republicans knew their constituents would never forgive them if they voted in favor of the bill.

As you probably know, enough legislators found the courage to do the right thing instead of the politically expedient thing, and civil unions were created in 2000. (Vermont passed marriage equality in 2009 with much less drama.) But this incredible stepping stone toward equality was not without its casualties, among them Marion Milne's seat in the house.

marion-milne-vermont.jpgA popular three-term legislator from the town of Washington in Orange County, Milne was one of a handful of Republicans who voted for civil unions, a vote she made entirely out of conscience. She said that a speaker at one of the debates who implored, "Please don't let the majority decide for the minority" had persuaded her.

Milne died peacefully at her home last week at age 79. Milne's son Scott, a Vermont Republican gubernatorial candidate, eulogized her with these words:

"My mother lived a life of service to others. She was a tireless advocate for what she believed. My mom's two most powerful traits are perseverance and loyalty. She always finished what she started, and once you were her friend, ally, respected colleague, or customer, she would defend you and promote you with every ounce of herself."

We read in Matthew 16:26, "For what good is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" Rep. Milne was willing to gain security for Vermont's LGBT families and lose her seat in the legislature. Her example is truly a profile in courage.


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