Two Views: Moats on Milk and marriage

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(HOST) In the first of Two Views on the marriage rights debate, commenator David Moats considers the film about the life – and legacy – of Harvey Milk.

(MOATS) If you’ve seen the movie "Milk," you know that Sean Penn’s Oscar for his portrayal of Harvey Milk was well-deserved.

Milk was the San Francisco city and county supervisor who was murdered, along with San Francisco’s mayor, George Moscone, in 1978. Milk was also an inspiring figure in the gay rights movement and the first openly gay officeholder in America.

You might remember that when the killer, Dan White, was convicted of manslaughter, receiving the lightest possible sentence, the city exploded in flames. As the movie reminds us, however, on the night of the murders, there was a different reaction. Forty thousand people, many carrying candles, marched down Market Street to City Hall for a peaceful, grief-stricken vigil. There was a sea of candle flames.

It made me think of Vermont’s struggle nine years ago to pass a law to establish civil unions for gay and lesbian couples.

On the night in March 2000 when the Vermont House finally approved the civil unions bill, House members looking out of the upstairs windows saw a crowd gathered in the darkness in front of the Statehouse, holding candles. As on that night in San Francisco, those candles expressed the sorrow of the years, combined with hope for a new future.

Now the Vermont Legislature is taking up a bill to grant the full rights of marriage to same-sex couples. It doesn’t seem like so long ago that Vermont experienced the civil unions struggle, which everyone remembers as one of the most tumultuous, rending conflicts to beset the state. The experience was painful on all sides, but in the end Vermont was changed beyond the changes in the law.

One of the great breakthroughs pioneered by Harvey Milk was to urge gay people everywhere to step out of the closet and to reveal to friends and family the truth about themselves.

That was the only way, he said, that they could be truly free.

He calculated, correctly, that a straight American needed just one gay acquaintance – a neighbor, family member, co-worker – to put a human face on a reality that, left in the dark, would perpetuate fear and injustice.

The civil unions experience changed Vermont forever because so many of our gay and lesbian friends and neighbors stepped forward openly, bravely, and Vermonters stopped being afraid.

The new marriage rights bill will create controversy in the Legislature. Opponents still oppose, many on the basis of heartfelt moral convictions. But the issue of equality remains. Marriage equality does not yet exist.

Marriage has meaning, which is why the issue still burns, and is why gay and lesbian Vermonters and their supporters have come back asking us to finish the business of 2000.

The struggle for which Harvey Milk gave his life continues.

The candles are still lit.

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