Pro-peace, pro-health care, pro-gay
BY Chris Bull
March 17 2003 12:00 AM ET
When Howard Dean
signed civil unions legislation into law, the Vermont
governor’s political future looked anything but
promising. His race for reelection in 2000 was tight
enough—Dean captured 50.5% of the vote—to
just miss having to be decided by the state legislature,
after a heated campaign against a virtually unknown
opponent. And at nearly every campaign stop the
governor was besieged by critics who screamed antigay
epithets at him. Even many gay men and lesbians, the primary
beneficiaries of the new statute, expressed disappointment
that Dean had not backed equal marriage rights instead
of a separate institution to recognize their
But just two
years later, Dean is hoping his steadfast support for civil
unions—which provide same-sex couples nearly all the
legal rights of marriage—will help take him all
the way to the White House. After spending the past
year barnstorming the nation’s gay and lesbian
communities for support, he has gone from long shot to one
of the early front-runners for the Democratic
battle over civil unions “was one of the things that
first got me thinking about a presidential
bid,” Dean says. “I realized that if I
could get through the 2000 election, I could certainly
handle what the Republicans could throw at me
nationally. And I had no doubt about the righteousness
of the cause and wanted to help take it to the rest of the
chairwoman of Vermonters of Civil Unions, says Dean may
actually be more popular among gay people outside her state
than inside it. “There is no reason to believe
that any of the candidates for the Democratic
presidential nomination would have been any more supportive
of same-sex marriage than Howard Dean,” she
says. “But on the other hand, a lot of us feel
that he fell short of our expectations for him here. A lot
of us still feel that full marriage rights were the way to
Vermonters’ mixed feelings about Dean certainly have
not hurt him nationally. President Bush is riding high
in the polls, Democratic presidential aspirants seem
to pop out of the woodwork daily, and the primaries
are still nearly a year away. But Dean is riding a crest of
positive media attention and bedrock support from gay people
eager to repay him for his stance. Some have even
compared him to Jimmy Carter, the folksy Georgia
peanut farmer who came out of nowhere to defeat
incumbent Republican president Gerald Ford in 1976.
path to the presidency is littered with obstacles. For one
thing, he faces a major fund-raising deficit to better-known
Democrats, including U.S. senators John Kerry and John
Edwards, both of whom are also gay rights supporters.
In addition, his association with civil unions and
opposition to war with Iraq may hurt him with the moderate
voters whose support he will require.
Dean is an extraordinary man,” says David Mixner, a
gay Washington, D.C., power broker who nonetheless has
endorsed another contender, former House minority
leader Dick Gephardt, a longtime friend. “But
this time around the community is blessed to have many
candidates who are good on our issues. Suddenly, it is
not enough to support the Employment
Non-Discrimination Act and hate-crime legislation. Those are
the mom-and-apple-pie issues. Now there is a much wider
range of issues, including civil unions, to consider
when evaluating candidates.”
In many ways Dean
is an unlikely standard-bearer for gay rights. A
physician by training, he was elected lieutenant governor of
Vermont in 1986 and became governor in 1991 when Gov.
Richard Snelling died of a heart attack. Though he
signed a statewide ban on antigay discrimination
shortly thereafter, by his own admission, he did not have a
particularly close relationship with the
state’s gays and lesbians until 1999, when the
Vermont supreme court ordered the state to extend the rights
of marriage to same-sex couples. What emerged was
civil unions legislation, which extends inheritance,
child visitation, and other rights to same-sex
In an exclusive
interview with The Advocate—the first of
a series with presidential aspirants—Dean was
everything he’s touted as being: plainspoken, blunt,
and willing to take unpopular stands. He went after
Bush’s AIDS policy, antigay religious
conservatives, and even gay men who have strayed from
protected sex. While he is perhaps the most
unequivocal supporter of gay rights ever to seek the
presidency, he once again stopped short of endorsing equal
marriage rights for gay men and lesbians.
How much credit for the passage of the civil unions
law do you deserve?
Credit is something for your readers to decide.
Here’s what I did. Within an hour and a half of
the court decision, I came out in favor of it. I
refused to allow a commission to be appointed to study it. I
didn’t think we should take a year to decide
that this is a civil rights issue. This was a bill
that had the majority of people against it six months
before the election. It shows I will stand up for what I
think is right no matter what the polls say. Vermont
is now the only state where all couples are treated
equally in the eyes of the law.
Passage of the bill sparked the antigay Take Back
Vermont backlash. People screamed epithets like
“queer” and “child
molester” at you in public. Were you surprised by
the vehemence of the opposition?
I was disappointed but not surprised by the
viciousness of the opposition—or, at least,
some of the opposition. There were a large number of
people who were confused and angry about it. But the people
who were really awful about it were the right wing of
the Republican Party and the fundamentalist churches.
Their behavior was unchristian.
Did you take it personally?
No. I understood that people were angry. But the
voters had their final say. I had always hoped that
that kind of behavior represented only a small
minority of people, and in the end I think it does.
Did the mainstream of the Republican Party in
Vermont, and nationally, distance themselves from the
No, they did not. They were incredibly cowardly.
And in Vermont most of them lost as a result. In one
county the GOP put four right-wing, antigay advocates
on the ballot, and all four of them lost, and the state
senate remained Democratic. Equal rights under the law
is something that almost all Americans believe in. And
the ones that don’t, know they should.
Won’t that be a lot harder to sell nationally?
I talk about it very simply. I say that civil
unions are equal rights under the law. I talk about my
own rights and how my family has hospital and
visitation rights and all the things everyone else takes for
granted. I point out that those rights are not
available to people who can’t get married. And
then I talk about making the tough decision to sign the
bill. Frankly, I’ve only been asked about it once or
twice in heterosexual audiences.
I don’t think people are that concerned about it
anymore. When it does come up, it’s usually
only positive. People take gay rights for granted.
They are more concerned about the same things everyone else
is concerned about—health care, education, the
economy, and the war.
Do nongay audiences understand the difference
between civil unions and marriage?
The Republicans keep blurring the distinction. What the
bill says is that marriage is between a man and a
woman but that same-sex couples have all the legal
rights of marriage if they enter into a civil union. So
it’s not gay marriage. The people who say it is are
either malevolent—the right wing knows how
poorly gay marriage tests in the polls—or they are
ignorant of what the statute does. The difference is really
about religion. It’s a complicated argument.
Marriage was a religious institution until the
evolution of civil law. What the legislature did,
which I thought was very smart, was to divide the concept
into civil and religious marriage. We don’t
tell churches who they can and can not marry. But we
do say with civil unions that everybody is equal.
Do you support allowing gay people to marry?
Civil unions have the legal impact we need to
achieve equal rights under the law. I don’t
think same-sex marriage is necessary.
A lot of gay people would beg to differ. They want
marriages in church settings just like their
opposite-sex counterparts. Many churches will
perform those ceremonies, but the state
won’t recognize them.
Yes, many churches will do that, including mine. [Raised
Episcopalian, Dean is now a Congregationalist.] It’s
a difficult argument to grasp, but the state will
recognize every legal right that a married person has
for a gay person in a civil union. There is no right that I
have as a married man that a gay person can’t have.
So the issue for me is not marriage but equal rights
under the law. If the Catholic Church doesn’t
want to marry gay people, I think that’s the Catholic