State of the Unions



Late one night last summer Vermont resident Robert Dostis hurt his back, and his lover, Chuck Kletecka, hurried him to the local emergency room. When it appeared Dostis would need an overnight stay, Kletecka went to the admissions desk to fill out the necessary paperwork. But Kletecka was turned away. “You’re not the next of kin,” he was told.

In rushing to get Dostis to the hospital, it never occurred to Kletecka to grab the medical power of attorney sitting in an filing cabinet upstairs in their Waterbury Center home. Without the document, Kletecka was left powerless to advocate for his lover at the hospital.

“Fifteen years together,” Kletecka recalls, “and at that moment it meant nothing without a power of attorney in my back pocket.”

The memory of that night is just one reason Kletecka and Dostis plan to make their relationship official later this year when the newly passed Vermont law on gay and lesbian relationships kicks in this July. The “civil unions” law is the first of its kind in the nation to legally recognize gay and lesbian relationships and grant them every state-sanctioned privilege that married couples enjoy, with one notable exception: a marriage certificate.

The sweeping law will affect everything from inheritance to parenthood to state income tax returns—including the ability as the next of kin to make medical decisions, if necessary, for a hospitalized partner.

The new law “is something unprecedented from any court or legislature,” says Mary Bonauto of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, a Boston-based legal group. “It changes everything.” Bonauto is the cocounsel in Baker v. State of Vermont, the case that led the state supreme court in December to order that same-sex couples be given the same rights and protections as married couples. Under the new law, a direct result of the Baker decision, registered gay and lesbian couples can take advantage of more than 300 Vermont statutes that previously bestowed benefits only on married couples.

“That’s the practical part of it,” says Stan Baker, one of the six plaintiffs in the case and the man whose name graces the landmark state supreme court ruling. As well as the material gains, Baker says, gays and lesbians win “public recognition that our relationships are valid and worth officially recognizing. So in addition to the tangible benefits are the social benefits.”

How tangible the results will be to gays and lesbians outside of Vermont is another question. Because the bill covers Vermont laws only, the effect of the legislation stops at the state border and carries no weight in other states. Because there is no residency requirement in the bill, gay and lesbian couples from other states can register their relationships in Vermont when they visit.

Still, gays and lesbians elsewhere will also reap many of the social benefits of the law. “When all the screaming, gnashing of teeth, and breast-beating is done, people across the country will come to see that only one thing has changed in Vermont: Life will be a little better for gay and lesbian citizens,” says Dick McCormack, vice chairman of the Vermont senate judiciary committee and the senate’s majority leader. When gay and lesbian advocates advance similar legislation in other states, they “will be able to point to Vermont as an example of how foolish all the hysteria [from the opposition] is.”