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One Step Forward, One Step Back? Mixed News on Gay Marriage Rights

By L. K. Regan

It was a joyful first of September in Vermont this week as the state's first legal same-sex marriages were performed. There is troubling news, however, from the opposite coast, where anti-gay marriage activists have mustered enough signatures to force a November ballot measure on the state's recently legalized domestic partner benefits. Sometimes it feels like it's one step forward, one step back in the gay marriage battle. Here are the highs and lows from this week.

In 2000, the state of Vermont was the first to legalize civil unions, a legal category that attempted to form a kind of marital parallel track. Because the state was the first to offer any kind of legal status whatsoever to gay couples, it was initially flooded by couples eager to tie as much of the knot as they were allowed. Earlier this year, Vermont became one of five states to offer legal marriage—without an asterisk or any reservations—to gay couples. Massachusetts, Connecticut and Iowa already have legal same-sex marriages; New Hampshire will begin performing them on New Year's Day of 2010. Today, Vermonters had their first weddings—but in a sign of the changing times, the availability of gay marriages in nearby states means that what was once a mad rush toward civil union has become an ordinary trickle. The AP reports that Vermont officials report only a handful of requests from gay couples for licenses leading up to September first.

In Washington, on the other hand, the situation is rapidly deteriorating. In May of this year, Washington legislators approved an expansion to the state's domestic partner law that came to be called the "Everything but Marriage" law. Since 2007, Washington has had domestic partnerships that grant hospital visitation, funeral and organ donation decisions, and inheritance rights to registered couples. In 2008, the law was expanded to include more shared property rights and parental guardianship. The May expansion added extending benefits to partners of public employees and adoption and child support rights. These rights and benefits of marriage—minus the actual designation of marriage, of course—would apply to the nearly 6,000 domestic partners legally registered in the state.

We say "would apply" because, while the new law was supposed to go into effect this July, it has been held up by efforts to submit it to a referendum by election ballot. According to state law, this would require 120,000 signatures. This week, it was announced that that magic number has been reached, and the signatures authenticated. Though legal challenges remain, it appears likely that the "Everything but Marriage" law will appear on the November ballot as Referendum 71, promising another colossal legal fight bringing in huge political contributions, if the experience of Proposition 8 in California is any kind of guide.

We want to leave you on a hopeful note, however. For the month of September, Ben & Jerry's popular ice cream "Chubby Hubby" when sold in Vermont will be renamed (and repackaged) as "Hubby Hubby." That's peanut butter-filled pretzels covered in fudge and surrounded by a vanilla-malt ice cream with fudge and peanut butter ripples. We'd marry that.