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April, 2000, Volume 7 Nr. 8, Issue 80,

THE IDES OF MARCH

by Jozef Hand-Boniakowski

"Beware the Ides of March" has an ominous ring.  Julius Caesar was killed on this day by a conspiracy led by Marcus Iunius Brutus.  The Ides of March is just another day in the Roman calendar, though not one of Caesar's more fortunate.  The  phrase has taken on a particular "ominous" historic significance through the ages.  In Vermont, the Ides of March, 2000, goes down not in infamy, but, rather in history as gay and lesbian civil rights rights legislation  cleared the Vermont House on that day.

It is almost a 200-mile round-trip drive from our home to Montpelier, the Capital of Vermont. Hundreds of people gathered late in the evening on the steps of the Statehouse as the Legislature debated and voted on a same gender civil union bill.  This Ides of March was cold and a bit wet.   An occasional and light drizzle fell - a drizzle never quite strong enough to extinguish the candles of vigil participants listening to speakers that included Vermont State Auditor Ed Flanagan, an openly gay man running for a Vermont U.S. Senate seat; Dick McCormack, State Senator; Progressive Party Candidate for governor, Anthony Pollina; plaintiff couples Stacey Jolles and Nina Beck and their 4-month old son, Seth; Peter Harrington and Stan Baker, plaintiffs in the discrimination suit against the State of Vermont; and many supporting straight people including clergy.  The same gender couples' legal challenges  led to the Vermont Supreme Court discrimination review process and conclusion, the so-called "Baker Decision."  Inside the Vermont Statehouse, the Legislature debated the "civil union" bill which would give same gender couples the same legal rights and protections of "traditional" marriage without using the word, "marriage."  

Almost twenty-years ago, major life changes drew JeanneE and I together.  We decided to begin a family.  We questioned marriage as an institution.  It was not the concept of long-term commitment that gave us pause for one can have one without the other and vice versa.    We questioned the need for State approval.  We felt that such commitment, replete with some personalized ritual, attended by family and friends as solemnizing witnesses was enough.  We questioned  "marriage" as an historic, legal entity, which throughout history,  as binding parchment, placed women and children in the category of property to be owned by men.

The reality of life in 21st century USA is that there are benefits and obligations under the law which married people (even if their commitment has fallen apart) have that unmarried couples (even with their commitments intact) do not.  These include (but are not limited to) disposition of property and assets upon death, healthcare coverage and visitation rights during hospitalization. 

There we were, JeanneE and I, about to have our first child, Guinnevere, at home.  One weekend, just shy of two weeks before her birth, we asked our friend and Unitarian Universalist minister, Harold Dean, of the First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Lincroft, NJ, if he would officiate a wedding ceremony the following Saturday.  On that day, October 11, 1981, in an impromptu ceremony with parents, brothers and sisters, their partners or spouses present, in the eyes of the State, we were married.  Ten days later, our daughter was born into my loving hands.  The truth is we "married" each other in our own eyes over a year prior to.  The point that I am trying to make is that marriage, as defined and recognized by the State of New Jersey (where we lived), gave us as a couple and as individuals, and our soon-to-be daughter important legal entitlements.  At that time, without marriage, it was not completely clear whether my insurance plan would cover healthcare for JeanneE or our daughter.   What if the mother died, etc.?  

For two decades, JeanneE and I have been growing together and as individuals.  Times have been easier.  Times have been tougher.  Times have been wildly ecstatic, and, they have been painful.  During that time, our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters whose relationships as couples are every bit as valuable as ours, did not, and continue not to have, the same equal protections under the law within marriage.  Now, in Vermont, they almost do.  With two steps left, that is, the passing of the civil union bill in the Vermont Senate and the signing of it by Governor Dean, they will finally get, not as the press often calls it, "expanded rights", but, many equal rights.  I fail to see how "life as we know it in Vermont", as one legislator put it, "will end" with the passage and signing of a same gender civil union law.  It won't.  I also don't see thousands of gay and lesbian people moving up north to the wonderfully frigid winters of Vermont where it is difficult making a living, as was the concern expressed at a public forum at  the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Rutland, VT.  In reply, I proffer, "Vermont was the first state to ban slavery and we are not that black - 1%."   We should offer the welcome mat to all people of good will. 

Working on this issue with JeanneE through the Vermont Freedom to Marry Action Committee, the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force, and the Vermont National Education Association's Human/Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Friends and Allies Committee, has shown me that the hatred espoused by those who would thrust their religious beliefs as road blocks to others' civil rights comes  from a position of fear.  That fear, often built upon  ignorance, becomes the projection of the universe that they see through the lens of an ego bent upon protecting some nebulous notion of safety engendered through the familiarity of a tradition, religion and/or upbringing.  To deny someone else's civil rights becomes the rationale for protecting one's own.  It's the same zero-sum game that people and nations play with each other placing them in positions where one's gain is associated with the other's loss.  It is an old way of thinking responsible for much tragedy and destruction - one, which I believe the planet had better move beyond if it is to survive much into the 21st millenium.   Thank you Vermont for taking a small step in that direction.

It is difficult to put into words the feelings I found on the steps of the Statehouse while  listening to music by, Greg, Rachel Bissex, Tammy Fletcher and the Vermont Gay Men's Chorus (who call themselves "the Vocal Minority") in-between the speeches at the candle light vigil.  While at a loss for finding the adequate vocabulary of expression for this event and action, it is easy to acknowledge the distinguishing characteristics between this diverse group of dedicated activists and supporters, and the opposition.  I asked myself: from which direction does the hate come?  From which side does the threat of violence emanate?   Which side engenders compassion and which exclusivity?  Which side is threatened by the civil rights of the other?  I could not help asking myself which side engenders the teachings of the Prince of Peace, love and understanding?  Which side presupposes to speak for God?  Which finds it necessary to protect that God, the Almighty and the most powerful entity in the Universe, from those who love someone of their own gender?   It seems to me that God can take take of him or herself. 

Her?  I should stop lest I blaspheme even more by suggesting that there may just be nothing to take care of, that is except, each other.   Throughout time, the concept of god in one form(s) or another, has been used as the justifying context for drawing up mechanisms suppressing, oppressing and otherwise obviating the differences seen in other people by those who do not understand them and/or are threatened by them.  I for one, could never come to see the logic nor the rationale that that which I believe is somehow diminished by the beliefs of others.  My faith in the ideals I hold is not threatened by another's differing viewpoints, though I may passionately disagree.    Disagreement brings discourse and debate.   From that, we learn from one another.  In these modern times, we grown away from talk with each other.   Instead, we hurl video rhetoric, sound-bites and invective, hoping that the tuned-in masses, or at least some of them, will sway their position in our direction. 

Fear brings hatred, intolerance and, often, hostile reaction.  If Jesus were alive today where would he be?  Would we see him holding a candle lighting up the chilly Montpelier night sky?  Or, as happened far too often in the House chamber, would he spout the venomous, degrading and insulting remarks that many of those who claimed to speak on his behalf put forth?  I'm inclined to think there would be a candle in hand, love in his heart, kindness in his voice and compassion on his mind.   From those who support civil rights for same gender civil union, I heard only love,  kindness and compassion coming forth.  I cannot say as much for many on the other side of the divide.  Why not?   I believe that is an important question people need to ask themselves.   To them I would offer, look inside.  There is nothing to fear from the Ides of March. 

The Vermont struggle for civil rights for gay and lesbian people is bringing out homophobia in places least expected.  Homophobia takes on many forms and often disguises itself as reasonable protection of and for the status quo.  That status quo is more a matter of personal comfort than substance.  That is, one's discomfort level, based upon ignorance and fear of gay people, fuels the ego's perception that it will lose something worthwhile as others attain it.  An administrator recently told me that the idea of political correctness had been taken to such an extent that he feared  there would no longer exist traditional anything.  He used the correct word, "fear."  He then added that he was raised with a mother and father in a traditional family.  I did not ask whether this was his nor his wife's first marriage?  It did not seem relevant.  Yet, there are some who would say, that having children with different spouses as a result of divorce is not "traditional marriage."  Do we then call the new family arrangement "serially traditional marriage"?  One could then argue under the rubric of orthodoxy, that children of second marriages do not deserve equal protection under the law as they are not products of "traditional marriage."  This argument is specious and ludicrous.  So is the notion that gay and lesbian marriage threatens anyone's relationship or family.  The truth is, that marriage is only threatened from within the relationship itself.  Arguments to the contrary reflect  insecurity.   The project fear onto others through the false perception of threats to our well- being.  "Nothing real" can be threatened, and nothing unreal exits (as A Course in Miracles teaches.) 

I could not help wondering whether if any of this administrators children turned out to be gay, would that no longer constitute a "traditional family"?  Is not the argument for a traditional family inclusive of the children?  That is, do the children have to be straight in order to have a traditional family?  If they are gay, does not the premise (according to that way of thinking) preclude traditionality?  What would these gay children say years from now when asked about their family of origin?  Would they say they were brought up in a traditional family with a father and mother, parents who produced a new generation of "degenerate" offspring who are "biologically defective"?   Would they alter the perception and definition of their family life as being non-traditional, but politically correct?  Would the parents concede to producing an "aberration"?   Would they dismiss themselves as good parents responsible for yet another "sick deviation" from the norms of humanity?  Would they deny their children the same basic civil rights to marry the person they love?  These are, unfortunatley, the words and vocabulary becoming more common in Vermont. 

It is the non-commonality of human experience which expedites our fears.  That is, we fear most that which we know least.   If we know it not at all, the fear can be encompassing.  When such ignorance combines with the overwhelming influence of religious fervor, bigotry masquerades as righteousness.  Anyone who would deny that religion influences national views hasn't looked at U.S. currency lately which states, "In God We Trust."  Everyone else is suspect.  Nor, have they noticed that federal tax dollars pay for chaplains in Congress or that the City of New York has a Police Department chaplain, both, on the taxpayers' dole.  Those who criticize gay civil union are all too willing to subject others to "religious invocations" at school graduations in their attempts at being "religiously  correct."  The issue is not political nor religious correctness.  The issue is civil rights. 

One hears the argument that town clerks may not, because of personal beliefs, be able to issue civil union licenses to gay couples.  Thus, the concept of "certificate" versus "license" is being discussed.  Odd. Teachers instruct gay people.  How would we respond to an instructor refusing to educate a gay young person using the grounds that homosexuality is evil and they wanted nothing to do with that individual?  How would we respond if a gay couple were refused an apartment or the purchase of a house?  Would we refuse to sell a yacht to a wealtrhy gay couple?   Do we only support legislation that protects our own personal comfort level?  Is it not our responsibility to protect the civil rights of all people?  That is in fact, what the Baker Decision is all about.  That is why I believe that Vermont will lead the nation again by providing gay and lesbian couples equal protection under the law giving them the same civil rights as entitled by marriage as heterosexual couple receive.  Well done Vermont.

History Sidenote:  When I was child a teacher taught me how to easily remember which months of the year had 31 days and which did not.  To this day, rather then use the standard poem to figure out the number of days, I place two clenched fists with knuckles up side-by-side.  From left-to-right, starting with the pinky's knuckle and the valleys between them I read off the names of the months.  January is on a knuckle.  February is in a valley between, and so on.  There is no valley between hands thus there are two knuckles side-by-side for the months of July and August, the only two months having 31 days back to back.

Early on, the Romans indicated which day of the month any given day was by naming them. Three days had names. The first of every month was called the Kalends (hence the "calendar").  The 5th or the 7th were called the Nones.  The 13th or the 15th were called the Ides.   Whether the nones fell on the 5th or 7th and whether the Ides fell on the 13th or 15th depended upon which month it was.   Then, like now, the Romans used a rhyme to help them remember.  Ides of March, May, July and October fall on the 15th.  The Romans dated events by these reference points always thinking "before" them rather than "after."   For example, Tax Day in the United States is April 15.  The Ides of April, however, fall on the 13th.  For a Roman filing taxes on this day, tax filing day would be "16 days before the kalends of May."  A deadline of July 22 would be stated as ten days before the Kalends of August.  My birthday, being the same as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, falls on 17 days before the Kalends of February.

2000 Jozef Hand-Boniakowski

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