By Chris Bull
Originally published on Advocate.com March 17 2003 1:00 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
No one is saying churches should be forced to hold
marriage ceremonies. The argument is that the
state should recognize gay people’s
marriages, wherever they take place.
Well, when same-sex marriages take place in
Vermont, legally it’s called a civil union,
because the definition of marriage is between a man and a
You’ve created a circular argument. Why should
separate but equal be acceptable?
There are people in the gay community who think
that’s second-class citizenship. I don’t
agree, because in fact there is every right in a civil
union there is in a marriage. It is true that it’s a
separate institution, but it is still equal.
Why not just go all the way? Why not just support
same-sex marriage and the reform of marriage laws?
Well, because it wouldn’t be possible. Politics
is the art of the possible.
I still don’t understand why you don’t
support marriage rights for gay people. Do you
have a religious objection?
No, I don’t. I just feel that we dealt with the
question of equal rights under the law. I’ve
had this same argument many times. My argument is that
the state’s obligation is to make sure that everyone
is equal under the law.
If elected, what would you do about the Defense of
I believe it is unconstitutional. Congress can’t
override the reciprocity clause of the Constitution.
What I would probably do is wait for the appropriate
But if the courts don’t overturn DOMA, you would
have to take the case back to Congress.
I wouldn’t be scared to make that
argument, though I don’t know how successful
I’d be. It’s the same problem as with
“don’t ask, don’t tell.”
People who serve their country should be proud of who they
are. I think President Bush has hurt the war against
terrorism by firing six Arab-language translators
because they happen to be gay. It’s
exceptionally foolish, and it hurts our ability to defend
our country. I would have to negotiate with Congress
to get rid of the policy.
President Clinton offered more than he was able to
deliver on the military ban. How would you deliver
on that promise? Why would you be more effective
than other Democrats?
I appreciate the sentiments of all the other
candidates, but I’m the only one who has
actually done anything like that. I’m the only one
who’s ever had to take the heat. I’m the
only one who has signed a civil union law.
Clinton ran into problems with the Pentagon and the joint
chiefs of staff. As governor of Arkansas, he was
seen as an outsider by the military. Why would you
fare any better?
President Clinton jumped into the issue too quickly. My
first priority would be balancing the budget and
making sure everyone has health insurance. Then
I’d deal with the military by talking to the joint
chiefs first. But the real issue is Congress. I’d
make the arguments that there are many gay people in
the military and they are doing a great job and the
military in many cases knows they are there. If you are
willing to get shot for your country, you ought to be
able to say who you are.
No presidential candidate in history has spent so much
time campaigning in the gay community. Is there a
political advantage to it?
The gay and lesbian community has been very
willing to raise money for me because they know what
I’ve done. Like every community, they have been
promised many things but have not seen them delivered.
I’ve delivered ahead of time. They know I will
pay a political price for them, and they know
I’m out there talking about an issue that other
people are reluctant to talk about.
Does it have the political clout to put you over the top?
If the gay community is united, it’s very
powerful. I expect to get the lion’s share of
support. I’m not aware of who is supporting Edwards
or Kerry, for that matter. I know that David Mixner signed
up for Gephardt because he has a long-standing
friendship. These are good people, but I don’t
think they can make much of an argument. I remember
one of the candidates—I won’t say who, except
it wasn’t Gephardt—who came to Stonewall
Democrats and never mentioned the word “gay”
As a relative unknown on the national level, are you electable?
I don’t think we can beat George Bush with
someone from inside Washington. There is too much
shading of positions to follow the polls.
That’s not going to win this time around.
In his State of the Union address, the president outlined
a global AIDS initiative that would include $15
billion in new funds over a five-year period. As
both a medical doctor and a presidential candidate,
what do you think of the proposal?
I thought it was a disgrace. Not three weeks
before what he said in the State of the Union, the
U.S. delegation to the population control delegation
in Bangkok tried to get condoms taken out of international
family planning. This is a president with no commitment to
HIV or AIDS. If you can’t discuss condoms and
you take them off the Web site of the [Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention], you are part of the
problem. The speech was hypocritical, cynical, and
What would you do differently?
The first thing I would do is fund nongovernmental
organizations, which do a much better job than
governments. I would enhance public outreach efforts
dramatically in hot spots, which are mostly in Africa
and Asia and a growing problem in Eastern Europe. I would
also make drug therapies available, though you have to
be careful when you go down that road because
it’s not prevention. Prevention is clearly the area
where we should be putting our money.
Even though HIV infection rates are increasing among some
groups of gay men, Bush has pushed a prevention
message based almost entirely on abstinence until
marriage, a message that does not apply to gay people,
especially since we can’t legally marry.
That’s the most preposterous HIV program
I’ve ever heard of. We need to reach gay men
through groups like Gay Men’s Health Crisis,
stressing condom use, stressing the dangers of HIV and
AIDS. We need to start over again with young gay men.
For some reason, because of the development of
triple-drug therapies, HIV doesn’t seem like such a
big deal any more. We need to send people who are on
the therapies into the community and tell these young
men what it’s really like.
Let’s say you were still a practicing physician. A
gay man reveals to you that he’s not always
practicing safe sex. What would you tell him?
I would tell him he’s endangering many
people’s lives and what he’s doing is
You would put it in moral rather than medical terms?
Yes. It is immoral. If you refuse to practice
safe sex and you are HIV-positive, you’re
basically sentencing other people to a lifetime of
hell. That’s not right. Of course, I’d also
put it in health terms, which comes first, and then
talk about people’s responsibility to each other.
Bush has put a number of religious conservatives on his
council on HIV/AIDS, one of whom had to withdraw
his nomination to the council when his antigay
past was revealed. Do they have a stranglehold over the
Administration’s AIDS policy?
I think so. This is the most conservative and
ideological president I’ve seen in my lifetime.
Both in domestic and foreign policy, he’s
substituted ideology for thoughtful policy. This is a
reckless president. People who believe that
homosexuality is something that must be punished by
God have no business in HIV/AIDS. Only people who understand
GLBT issues with a deep commitment to humane values
should play a role in AIDS prevention.
As a medical doctor, what do you think of sexual
orientation “conversion” therapy?
It has no basis in science. When all the
evidence is in, it will be shown that being gay has a
significant genetic component. The idea that you can
change sexual orientation is laughable. It just goes to show
the ignorance of the right wing.
There were dozens of openly gay appointees in the Clinton
administration, and while the number is far smaller,
Bush also has made such appointments. But no
openly gay person has ever reached a cabinet-level
post. Is that something you would consider?
I’d certainly consider it, but I’m
not going to make any promises.
You’ve talked about how much you learned from
African-American roommates when you were in
college. Do you have an equivalent person from the
No. The interesting thing is that I didn’t have
much of an understanding of the gay community until
after I signed the civil unions bill. Back when I was
in medical school in the 1970s, there was someone who
told me he was gay, and the hair stood up on the back of my
neck. I was as ignorant as everyone else. We had a gay
liaison in the governor’s office, of course,
and we had discussions with the community. But it was
never a community I got to know really well until the bill
came along. And then I became more and more determined
to get the civil union bill done, the more vicious the
reaction became. The average Vermonter was just
horrified by the vituperative outpouring of hatred. A lot of
people said, “My God, I had no idea that gay
people had to face this kind of stuff. I guess I
better vote for it.”
What do you mean by the hair standing up on the back of
your neck? Was there a time when you were insensitive?
Oh, sure. I was just as foolish about people who were
gay as a lot of people are. Back in high school in the
’60s, I used epithets. Back then no one would
consider saying they were gay. Today, gay students come out
in high school.
What have you learned about gays?
It’s been a wonderful experience for me. I got to
know couples who were really committed to each other.
As I became more familiar, I realized the GLBT
community is like every other one. The only thing
different is sexual orientation. They just wanted better
health care, better job opportunities. They are
worried about the economy; they are worried about
their own families and their kids. Once I realized this, I
was determined to get the bill through.
On a personal note, how would you react if one of your
kids came out?
It wouldn’t bother me a bit. I would say,
“Be who you are” and “Live how
you were brought up.” Through the civil union bill, I
got to know a lot of parents of gays. They were
effective when they went to the legislature and
explained their experience of having gay kids. After parents
get over their initial shock, they almost always say,
“I love my gay children just as much as, if not
more than, I ever did.” That’s how I would