New film highlights locals’ role in nation’s move to same-sex marriage

BURLINGTON — On Saturday evening in Burlington a film made by a former Middlebury resident will make its Vermont premiere, a documentary that, in part, highlights Middlebury’s pivotal role in making same-sex marriage the law of the land.
“The State of Marriage,” written and directed by former Vermont radio journalist Jeffrey Kaufman, brings to life the story of how Middlebury lawyers Beth Robinson and Susan Murray worked with Massachusetts attorney Mary Bonauto to develop a strategy that, according to Kaufman, succeeded on a nationwide basis.
“One of the brilliant things Susan and Beth did in Vermont early, early on, in the mid-1990s, is they realized this had to be not just a legal case, not just a political case, but a case that really brought it to the people and really created a community conversation and made it about who these people are and how they are our neighbors and why they deserve equal protection,” said Kaufman in a recent interview with the Independent.
“And that conversation sparked. It really spread to the whole country,” added Kaufman, now a California documentary filmmaker. “That process that they invented and was used state by state all around the country really started in Vermont.”
Kaufman, 60, produced the film with his partner, Marcia Ross. They have seen the film open to acclaim. In July,  Entertainment Weekly called it one of the “Top 20 Pop Culture Moments in Hollywood’s Road to Marriage Equality,” and earlier this year, the Hollywood Reporter’s review of the movie concluded: 
“Kaufman and his editor, Asher Bingham, make it a suspenseful nail-biter right up to the feel-good ending. Full of illuminating insights into the U.S. political and judicial systems, the film ultimately is a very American story of people fighting the good fight, enriched by personal stories that illustrate how a gay issue won widespread support by arguing in favor of the civil rights of all citizens.”
Those who wish to pass their own judgment on Kaufman’s film may view it on Saturday at the Main Street Landing and Performing Arts Center at 60 Lake St. in Burlington. The evening, hosted by the Pride Center of Vermont, will begin with a 5:30 p.m. pre-screening cocktail reception with light appetizers and a cash bar.
IN A STILL from the film “The State of Marriage” Susan Murray, Beth Robinson and Mary Bonauto walk along a Vermont dirt road and discuss their role in the civil union and same-sex marriage laws in Vermont. / Courtesy photo
After a welcoming address, the film will screen at 6:45 p.m., followed by a panel discussion from 8:15 to 9 p.m. Scheduled to participate are Murray, Bill Lippert, Vermont Speaker of the House of Representatives Shap Smith and activist Sherry Corbin.
Kaufman said he plans to attend the event. Admission is $25, with all proceeds to benefit the Pride Center.
“We want to support our friends at the Pride Center,” he said.
Kaufman left Vermont about a decade-and-a-half ago, and stuck with radio for another year-and-a-half in California before transitioning into film. Some earlier efforts he remembers more fondly — documentaries for the Discovery and History channels — than others — “some horrible reality shows,” including “Most Outrageous Car Crashes.”
Ultimately, he started “thinking how I could do some things that were more personal and that I believed in.” He left television behind and did one film on an artist he appreciated, other works for Amnesty International, and another piece on Ella Fitzgerald that debuted at the New York Film Festival.
Along the way his marriage ended, and he met Marcia Ross. They were working on a documentary project in Haiti they had to halt, and Kaufman spoke to her about making a film about what he had learned during his experience as a radio journalist covering the Vermont civil unions issue in the late 1990s.
“It was something that was important to her, too, and we decided to do it together,” he said.
It proved to be a wonderful experience, Kaufman said.
“To work on a film about people being in love with each other and about what real love is, and to work on that with the person you feel that way about is amazing,” he said.
Kaufman remembered those days in Vermont when the outcome was far from certain. He was broadcasting from the Statehouse, and knew all the players on both sides.
“To see something of such historical significance and to see it swirl around you is such a powerful experience,” Kaufman said. “And it was such an amazing grassroots effort, I thought it was an important story to preserve and pass on.”
“THE STATE OF Marriage,” a film produced by former Middlebury resident Jeff Kaufmann, will be screened in Burlington Saturday night at the Main Street Landing and Performing Arts Center. / Courtesy photo
He also felt that the significance of what happened in Vermont has been sold short in some quarters.
“There have recently been some books and some documentaries that try to jumpstart the timeline about 15 years ago, and forget there were pioneers. And I think that’s really a historical crime,” Kaufman said. 
The movie, which features interviews with 30 people on both sides of the marriage debate, quotes civil rights pioneer and now Congressman John Lewis in its preamble.
“He said, in his own words, there’s a direct connection between the civil rights and the marriage equality movements,” Kaufman said. “He said what Beth and Susan did is similar to what Rosa Parks did.”
And the epicenter is Addison County’s shire town. Kaufman credits the Middlebury law firm of Langrock, Parker, Sperry and Wool, where Murray and Robinson worked, and principal Peter Langrock, for backing the lengthy legal fight.
“Middlebury is the spiritual home of the film, and I think has a real place in the history of marriage equality,” Kaufman said.
And he credits Murray, Robinson and Bonauto — who won the 2003 Massachusetts Supreme Court case that made that state the first to allow same-sex couples to wed — for their belief that they had to focus not on just the legality of the question, but to put human faces on the issue, to make folks realize the people being affected by the unfairness of the laws were their neighbors, friends and family members.
“Mary, Beth and Susan had a strategy right from the beginning that it wasn’t good enough just to make good legal points, that they had to engage the community,” he said, adding, “Mary then later gives the legal underpinnings and social strategy in Vermont credit for what she was able to do in Massachusetts. And it spread all around the country. So you can point a finger at Middlebury and go from there.”
Kaufman also hopes “The State of Marriage” carries a universal message.
“These two small-town lawyers from Middlebury, Beth and Susan, being part of something that changed the world, I hope that would inspire not only a young gay, lesbian or transgender kid, but anybody who wants to get involved in social change,” he said. “I think that’s a really amazing example.”
A trailer for “The State of Marriage” may be seen at https://youtu.be/efPjdjozlAQ.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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