SALISBURY — On Tuesday morning, Pennsylvania residents Pat Murray and Jenn Dilworth marked Vermont’s historic decision to legalize same-sex marriage with a small ceremony on the dock of Dilworth’s parents’ summer home in Salisbury.
On a crisp, sunny morning, and against the backdrop of the picturesque Lake Dunmore, Dilworth, 35, and Murray, 50, exchanged vows officiated by Middlebury justice of the peace Peg Martin, joining some of the first same-sex couples in the state to tie the knot this week.
The Vermont Legislature paved the way for same-sex marriages in April, when lawmakers voted to override Gov. Jim Douglas’ veto of same-sex marriage legislation. When the law took effect Tuesday, Vermont joined Connecticut, Massachusetts and Iowa as the only states in the country to offer same-sex marriage. New Hampshire will join that list on Jan. 1, and Maine’s adoption of same-sex marriage is entangled in a legal dispute.
Vermont was the first state that has OK’d same-sex marriage through legislative, and not court, action.
For Murray, the newly earned right to wed marked an occasion she thought she would never see in her lifetime.
“I’ve been around the gay lifestyle my whole life, and we had nothing. There was no marriage, there was no civil union, there was nothing. You had to just know that no one else was going to recognize you,” Murray said. “You just accepted that. That’s just the way it was.”
Now, that’s changing. But when laws first began to change — most notably in 2000, when Vermont became the first state in the country to allow same-sex civil unions — Murray didn’t pay much attention.
“I never thought that it would apply to me,” she said. “I had given up for a long time on finding anyone that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I just felt like, well, that’s never going to happen for me.”
But, as Dilworth chimed in, love hits when one least expects it.
Dilworth and Murray, who were introduced by a mutual friend, have been a couple for nearly three years. They celebrated a civil union last summer in Middlebury. At the time, they said, they wanted to celebrate their commitment to one another despite the fact that their civil union would not be recognized in Pennsylvania.
“Pennsylvania doesn’t recognize anything,” Murray said. “Our greatest concern was that … we wanted to be able to speak for each other in sickness, and be able to take care of each other. We realized that the sad truth is that, in the eyes of the law in many states, I’m nobody to Jenn.”
So the couple discussed getting a civil union in Vermont. Murray officially proposed to Dilworth on a trip to Kansas, where the couple attended a cousin’s wedding.
They were out running errands when Murray secretly purchased a ring at a department store. She couldn’t wait to pop the question, and pulled out the ring as soon as the two women were back in their car.
“I couldn’t help myself,” Murray said. “I just wanted her to know that I wanted us to be together the rest of our lives.”
The civil union was a much larger affair than their wedding this week: “the whole nine yards,” Dilworth said. More than 100 friends and family attended the ceremony and reception at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Middlebury.
For this week’s ceremony, the couple wore the same wedding dresses they donned for last August’s civil union. This time, just a few family members were present when the two said their vows.
“So I should cancel the high school band, then?” quipped Jan Dilworth, Jenn’s mother, the day before the wedding.
Later that evening, Dilworth and Murray joined other members of the gay community at the “Small State, Big Heart” reception at The Essex resort in Essex, a party planned by the Vermont Gay Tourism Association.
For the two women, the civil union and wedding haven’t changed much about the way they view their relationship. But after throwing a large party to mark their commitment last year, the couple said that “this time is for us.”
“We feel committed in our hearts,” Dilworth said.
COUPLES CONSIDER MARRIAGE
So far, many town clerks in the area have said they haven’t seen the same rush for marriage licenses this year that they saw for civil unions in 2000.
Bill Dick, the town clerk in Brandon for 15 years, was around in 2000 and saw that rush firsthand. Border towns like Brattleboro saw huge demand for civil unions, but even towns like Middlebury and Brandon performed more civil unions in 2000 than they did in any of the following years.
So far, that hasn’t been matched by a similar stampede for marriage licenses.
Dick thinks that might be in part because other states in the region, namely Massachusetts and Connecticut, are also performing same-sex marriages.
Meanwhile, couples who have already obtained civil unions say they have to think long and hard about whether or not they want to obtain marriages, too.
Monkton residents Naomi and Madeleine Winterfalcon (their last name a combination of their maiden names) ultimately decided to do just that, and they will marry in January, on the couple’s 25th anniversary.
Paradoxically, Naomi said she and Madeleine were certain they would marry right up until the time the legislation passed in April. Then, once the bill was signed legalizing their right to wed, the two had occasion to pause.
“We really had to consider what that meant,” Naomi said. “(We didn’t) want to do it by rote. I think there’s still some ambivalence, but on a basic level we knew we wanted to get married. It was (a question of) how to do it in a way that is going to be meaningful.”
She also said that she didn’t feel the same urgency to marry that she felt when Vermont legalized civil unions. At that point, she and her partner were living in Maine. They traveled to Vermont in August 2000, a month and a half after the state began issuing civil unions, and obtained one themselves.
“At that point, we’d been together for 15 years,” Naomi said. She saw other couples celebrating marriages as community events, and yearned for something similar. “It really felt like, when Vermont passed civil unions, that we were being welcomed to the planet. (I felt) this intense sense of gratitude and acknowledgement that we hadn’t had before.”
For some couples, the right to marry won’t dissolve all of their legal questions.
According to the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force, there’s still some legal ambiguity about civil unions and same-sex marriages. (In Vermont, no more civil unions will be issued after Sept. 1, but couples who obtained civil unions before the cut-off date will remain legally joined in a civil union.)
In the short run, the task force says, some states might recognize a same-sex couple’s marriage but not their civil union, while others would recognize a civil union and not a marriage.
Still other states — like Pennsylvania, where Dilworth and Murray live — recognize neither. But the couple opted for both in the hopes that more places might recognize their commitment to one another.
They also hope to relocate to Vermont soon, and Murray is interviewing for new jobs in state. In addition to all of the reasons they love the state — Dilworth, standing on her parents’ dock, said, “These are my mountains” — the pair said Vermont is more welcoming to gay individuals than many other parts of the country.
Here, Murray said, she wouldn’t feel uncomfortable taking Dilworth to a company picnic or speaking about her private life in the office — something that might not hold true elsewhere. On interviews, she said, she’s not afraid to tell potential employers that she’s wandering north because her partner “is a Vermonter in her heart.”
By joining other couples choosing to marry on the historic first day the new law is in affect, Dilworth and Murray hope they are sending a message to both gay and straight individuals.
Donning wedding dresses, Murray said, is a way of saying that the pair doesn’t have to “skulk away,” and can be public about their marriage and their commitment.
“We just love differently, that’s all it is,” Dilworth said. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Right now, for a couple that marks the date of their relationship’s inauguration, their civil union, and now their marriage, the biggest question left is when to celebrate their anniversary.
Jan Dilworth laughed at that. Her daughter, she said, has always loved a party.
Now there’s even more occasion to celebrate.