October 23, 2000 12:00 PM

The morning milking is done, and it’s time for school. But Heidi, 7, won’t be taking the bus. “Mom wants to do home schooling,” she says glumly, opening her math workbook on the kitchen table of the family’s 150-year-old farmhouse in Topsham, Vt. Her mother, Carol Appleton, 39, is fed up with public school. The last straw was in April, when Vermont became the first state to allow civil unions between people of the same sex. In Appleton’s view, schools, as an extension of the state, teach tolerance of such unholy matrimony. “I’ve got my daughter out of school because she can be told that it’s totally acceptable,” says the mother of four. “In the Holy Bible I go by, it’s not.”

About 100 miles south of Appleton’s farm, two tiny wedding-cake brides sit on the kitchen windowsill in a ranch-style house in Brattleboro. Kathleen “KP” Peterson, 41, has the coffee on. A lift electrician at the Mount Snow ski area, it’s her day off. Her partner, Carolyn Conrad, 30, is getting ready to go to work as associate dean of students at Marlboro College. This is a historic couple. On the stroke of midnight, July 1, Conrad and Peterson became the first twosome united under the law Appleton objects to, embracing their role as poster children for civil unions despite initial misgivings. “We were both out at work, both out to our. families, both pretty normal,” says Conrad. “We were good people to do it.”

But now a civil war of sorts is brewing in Vermont. On one side, in large part, are homegrown Yankees, often lower-income traditionalists, who mistrust what they see as the current state government’s meddling ways. On the other are newcomers (or, as they call themselves, Vermonters-by-choice), many of them liberals and more prosperous urban escapees who expect elected officials to redress social ills. The uncomfortable divide began to crack open a couple of years ago, when residents fond of local control bristled over a new statewide property tax meant to support education. And the state instituted yet more environmental regulations, which loggers and family farmers said made it tougher for them to make a living. Finally, last December, the state supreme court ruled that gays are entitled to the same benefits of marriage as heterosexuals. Polls showed that a majority of Vermonters opposed same-sex marriages, so legislators had to find an alternative: the civil union. “This is an issue that the hard right has seized upon,” says Kenneth Sherrill, a political science professor at New York City’s Hunter College. “It’s a tough issue, because it really challenges the status quo—it reallocates power and respectability in society.”

It wasn’t long after the civil-union law passed that people like Appleton began putting up signs reading “Take Back Vermont.” Their target: any politician responsible for what they see as the state’s current course, whether a lowly town clerk or the once overwhelmingly popular four-term Democratic governor, Howard Dean. With Election Day nearing, the war of words has escalated on both sides, especially in rural counties near the state capital, Montpelier. Bumper stickers proclaim “Remember in November,” “If You Don’t Vote, Don’t Bitch,” “I Support the Freedom to Marry” or “Vermont. Keep It Civil.”

In addition, some of the “Take Back Vermont” signs have been plastered with pink triangles, symbols of gay pride. Others have been burned or stolen. “Just because we don’t approve of civil unions doesn’t mean we’re hateful,” Appleton insists. She herself returned from a family reunion to find her sign missing. “My husband heard the dogs, but he couldn’t get out there quick enough with his arthritis,” she says. To ensure that her message survived, she painted it on her barn in 3-ft.-high letters. “They destroy your signs,” says widow Josephine Bruleigh, 88, who lives down the street from Appleton. “We are not homophobic. I’d like to see people act like neighbors.” But since she put her own signs up, she says, “a lot of people I’ve always been friendly with, they don’t stop by anymore.”

The conflict has struck close to home for the other side as well. Linda Weiss, 53, a justice of the peace, two-time school-board member and one of the few openly lesbian residents in the area, recently removed what she calls a “nasty” antihomosexual sign from the grounds of the Waits River Valley School in Topsham. “It’s a small town, and people don’t want to be at odds,” says Weiss. “There’s a real climate of fear.” Lately, at night, when Weiss is at school-board meetings, her partner, Joyce McKeeman, 45, has kept her father’s hunting rifle next to the TV. If the dogs start barking, she slips a bullet out of her pocket and stands by the door. So far there have been no violent incidents. “It ain’t Kosovo,” concedes Weiss, “but it’s unpleasant enough for me.”

The current rift really comes down to differing family values, with Vermonters, like the rest of the nation, struggling to adjust to changes in society that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. Appleton, for one, never envisioned herself as a political activist. The fourth of five children, she was raised a Baptist in Upstate New York, where her father ran a car-repair shop and her mother worked as a beautician. Her grandparents were farmers, and she always loved the land and the animals. She moved to Vermont in 1981 after high school, worked at a metal-plating shop and a minimart, married, had Heidi, divorced and was taken on as a farmhand by bachelor Bill Appleton, now 60. The oldest boy in his family of six children, he had inherited his farm from his father and has lived there all his life. Carol worked for him six years before he thought of marriage. “You wouldn’t think anybody would go that long and then slip up, would you,” he teases. They married two years ago. Carol made him watch the midwifed home birth of the first of their children together, Ken, 3. For the next two, Nora, 2, and George, 7 months, he read magazines.

The only break the farmer ever takes from his 64 milk cows is to go hunting in the fall. But his wife believes that even this pastime is under fire. Last year, the day before deer season opened, Heidi and the other first graders were shown Bambi at school, timing her mother found egregious. And when an uncle was clearing pasture, Heidi had “a conniption about killing trees,” recalls Appleton, who believes her daughter was learning inappropriate attitudes in school. So she supports Ruth Dwyer, the conservative Republican candidate for governor, who warns of what she calls a “homosexual agenda” being promoted by some of the state’s teachers. And Appleton made up her mind that Heidi wouldn’t attend second grade with her friends. “Legalizing it is like giving your blessing on something you believe is morally wrong, like lying, stealing, cheating, doing adultery,” she says. “When the kids are older, when their hormones are going crazy, who’s to say that they aren’t going to try experimenting? They’re hearing it’s all right.”

So Heidi finishes her math problems and moves on to drawing shapes. On the table is a recent construction-paper project displaying the words “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

In fact, Kathleen Peterson and Carolyn Conrad, both of whom are surprised by the increasingly bitter controversy, are fond of their neighbors. Seeing them putting up a “Take Vermont Forward” sign in their front yard, the firefighter who lives next door with his family waves as he pulls out of his driveway. “Hey, Frank!” calls Peterson cheerfully. (“The neighbors are awesome,” she says.) The couple have received no hate mail, no crank calls, no negative feedback of any kind. Conrad, who volunteers as a medic for the local rescue squad, recalls the cops and firefighters giving her hugs when she showed up for her first postnuptial shift on the Fourth of July—though friends had to struggle to find appropriate cards of congratulation. Says Conrad: “It’s not exactly a Hallmark category.”

But recently, on her way to work at Marlboro College, Conrad noticed a “Take Back Vermont” sign. It made her sad. “I didn’t take Vermont—they don’t need to take it back from me,” she says. Adds Peterson: “I don’t understand how my life is impacting the opposition and why they want to take away some of my rights.”

Certainly their families and friends have been supportive—some sooner, some later—of their sexual preference. Conrad’s mother, a commercial-building painter, divorced when Carolyn was young and remarried, raising the girl, her three older brothers and two stepbrothers in Wakefield, Mass. “We were our own football team,” says Conrad. She never became romantically attached to a man and says, “When I started dating women seriously in college, my mother was happy for me.” After studying cultural anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, she got a master’s in student affairs at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University and in 1995 moved back to Boston. On a rock-climbing weekend with a gay-and-lesbian outdoor club, she met Peterson. “I came home, and my mother took one look at me and said, ‘You’re in love,’ ” Conrad recalls. “I said, ‘No, no.’ I wasn’t ready for the One.”

Peterson is the only child of an engineer who designed tool-and-die machinery in Hartford, Conn. “Our lifestyle is foreign to him,” she says. “But he loves us in spite of himself.” Her mother, a nurse-practitioner, died while Peterson was majoring in physical education at Ithaca College. Peterson moved back to her mother’s hometown of Brattleboro, where relatives still live, but when she began dating Conrad she moved to Boston to apprentice as an electrician. She lasted there a year, then persuaded Conrad to return to Vermont. They bought a house and settled down.

On the coffee table in the couple’s living room is a photo album of their commitment ceremony three Halloweens ago, Conrad in a traditional white wedding gown, Peterson in a tux, their families beaming. By the time civil unions were legalized this year, their lives were already entwined, with joint checking and savings accounts, joint ownership of cars and house and stacks of legal papers giving each other power of attorney. Since civil unions allow for tax and insurance benefits, next-of-kin privileges for survivors and other perquisites of marriage, many of those documents are no longer needed. “I worry less,” says Peterson. “If something happens to me at work, they call her.” Children are not an issue for them. “No biological clock,” explains Conrad. “It was left out of my makeup.”

They don’t understand how the 900 or so civil unions performed since theirs (most between out-of-staters, though other states don’t recognize their legality) detract from life in Vermont. “Religious or moral beliefs are hard to change. But who’s against fairness?” asks Conrad. “It adds to the community that two people are happy and have a commitment.” Opinion on that score was split in the September primaries when, in a record turnout, 5 out of 10 state legislators targeted for their votes in favor of civil unions lost their races. Election Day will bring another opportunity to—in the phrase that Appleton’s movement has adopted as its own—”let the people decide.”

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