While last year’s The Case Against 8 provided an emotional chronicle of the five-year battle to overthrow California’s ban on same-sex marriage, Jeff Kaufman‘s The State of Marriage assembles a similarly comprehensive account of the two-decade struggle that came before in Vermont, opening the door for other states to follow. Impassioned and yet admirably even-handed in presenting both sides of the argument, this is a densely informative record of the groundbreaking legal, political and social campaign led by two small-town lawyers. With the Supreme Court about to issue its federal ruling on marriage equality, the film serves as an invaluable record of how the movement got started.
The heroes in this uplifting story are small-town Vermont lawyers Susan Murray and Beth Robinson, and Boston attorney and civil rights advocate Mary Bonauto, who forged a path forward for marriage equality while others believed the idea was a pipe dream.
The spark occurred in the early 1990s, when a Vermont lesbian couple was involved in a car accident in which one of them was killed. Murray represented the surviving partner in a battle to retain custody of their 3-year-old son. That case heightened her awareness of the legal vulnerability of same-sex couples, prompting Murray and Robinson — who began as her intern before becoming a prominent lawyer in her own right, and later, a Vermont State Supreme Court judge — to start traveling the state to drum up grass-roots support beyond the gay community. Teaming with Bonauto brought them credibility on a national level.
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Kaufman provides a fascinating recap of how that legal team succeeded in winning the landmark 1999 ruling that made Vermont the first state to legalize gay civil unions. They marshaled three rock-solid same-sex couples to serve as plaintiffs, grounding the case in their real-life stories rather than in factoids. Using the parallel of the California Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the ban on interracial marriage as unconstitutional, they argued that marriage equality was not a question of approval but a constitutional right.
That cultural milestone became the foundation for the entire marriage equality movement, even if it was only a partial victory, legalizing civil unions without granting full marriage rights. The tenacious decision of the legal team to continue the fight proved divisive; Murray thought the compromise was as much as they could hope for while Robinson wanted to go back to the courts to see it through.
The resulting long hard struggle — in the face of fatigue, other professional and personal commitments, virulent conservative opposition and the complacency of much of the gay community, which felt its realistic goals had been achieved — is a fascinating story. Kaufman makes it all the more affecting by showing the backlash not only in its most bigoted manifestations but also via the words of moderate conservatives, many of them struggling with the issues on a human level.
Insightful commentary comes from Freedom to Marry founder Evan Wolfson, Human Rights Campaign’s Marty Rouse, from politicians including Rep. John Lewis and Howard Dean, and from gay playwright Terrence McNally, among many others. Some of the documentary’s most moving moments involve conservative interviewees describing how they came around, reversing their initial stance on gay marriage.
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Bonauto made history by representing the seven gay and lesbian couples in the 2003 Massachusetts Supreme Court case that made that state the first to allow same-sex couples to wed. That breakthrough brought renewed vigor to the campaign in Vermont, and the Green Mountain State eventually became the first to pass gay marriage through the vote of the people, not the courts.
Now, 37 states recognize gay marriage and a Supreme Court decision is due at the end of the current term that stands to make it legal in all 50 states. (Bonauto is one of the five key lawyers who argued in favor of marriage equality in the highly charged case.) The majority of people seeing this film will have at least a basic familiarity with those facts. And yet Kaufman and his editor, Asher Bingham, make it a suspenseful nail-biter right up to the feel-good ending.
Full of illuminating insights into the U.S. political and judicial systems, the film ultimately is a very American story of people fighting the good fight, enriched by personal stories that illustrate how a gay issue won widespread support by arguing in favour of the civil rights of all citizens.