05/08/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Vermont Passes Gay Marriage: How Far We've Come

Right after the Vermont legislature voted (100 to 49, precisely the 2/3 needed) to over-ride Governor Jim Douglas' veto this morning of a law permitting gay marriage, my daughter got a text message, "Yeah, Vermont!"

She was not the only one cheering when the vote was announced. I felt an elation that surprised me. These men and women in the legislature are not professional politicians; they are citizen legislators representing small districts where voters know who they are, meet them at the general store and chat with them at the gas station. The grass roots support that was evident in today's vote signifies strong support for equal rights for our gay and lesbian relatives, friends and neighbors to a degree that has not happened before.

Vermont is the fourth state to enact gay marriage but it is the first state to do so by a vote of the legislature. The three others (Iowa, most recently) did so only as a result of narrow decisions by their state Supreme Courts.

I cannot help but think how far we have come in such a short time to guarantee respect to gay and lesbian Americans. I remember when I was in my second term as Governor I was the only politician to speak at one of the first gay pride parades in Burlington. I stood on the steps of the Unitarian church under a broad banner that said "Gay Pride." The newspaper made certain that both my photo and the banner fit into the picture that was featured on the front page the next day. I later learned that that photo was scotch taped to several cash registers in stores with a red circle and a red slash.

Almost ten years ago Vermont was the first state to enact a law that permitted civil unions, by a margin of one vote. The fact that this law was enacted by two-thirds of the legislators is one indicator of how much has changed. At that time, a dozen legislators who voted for the law lost their seats in the next election. There was a severe back lash, complete with yard signs that read, "Take Back Vermont."

In the public hearings held in 2000, many Vermonters learned for the first time that gay and lesbian Vermonters were their neighbors, not simply "the other." This time, we learned that they are worthy of full citizenship. Not every gay or lesbian person will want to get married, but every gay and lesbian person can feel a little more safe, experience a little more dignity, and most important of all, feel proud -- proud not only for themselves (gay pride), but for the citizens of this small state which has had the good sense to do the right thing.

This was originally posted at Chelsea Green.

Madeleine M. Kunin is the former Governor of Vermont and was the state's first woman governor. She served as Ambassador to Switzerland for President Clinton, and was on the three-person panel that chose Al Gore to be Clinton's VP. She is the author of Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead from Chelsea Green Publishing.