Legalizing Gay Marriage. By Michael Mello. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004; pp. xiv + 337. $68.50 cloth; $22.95 paper.
Michael Mello's Legalizing Gay Marriage reminds us that oftentimes our best scholarly work steins from our own everyday experiences. As a law professor at the University of Vermont, Mello's account of Vermont's long road to civil unions is uniquely informed by his access to local, small circulation newspapers and personal interactions with the players in this socio-legal drama. The end result is an accessible analysis of not only Baker v. Vermont, the case that forced Vermont's legislature and Governor Howard Dean to enact civil unions, but also the cultural conditions surrounding the decision. Mello's narrative employs a wider lens than most as he "want[s] to add" to the existing literature "the story of the war zone outside the legislative chambers, because those events drove events within the legislature" (23).
While Vermont is a blue state, it is not immune from the culture wars, and the battle over gay marriage exposed the fault lines between the "two Vermonts" (18). The first kind of Vermonter has deep roots in the state and "with many exceptions, this Vermont tends to be conservative, traditional, and rooted in the values of rural America" (18). The second kind of Vermonter probably is not born in the state and "tends to be liberal, nontraditional, and rooted in the ethos of the city" (19). By breaking the legal hermeneutical seal and moving beyond the internal logic of the legal decision, Mello recounts the tale of these two Vermonts in order to provide a cautionary tale for advocates of gay and lesbian rights. The final result is a grounded work that complements the largely theoretical literature on gay and lesbian legal strategies.
Before moving on to some suggested uses of this book, let me first outline its structure. The introductory chapter contextualizes the material in two ways. Mello first grounds his discussion of Vermont in relation to Massachusetts' decision to legalize gay marriage and highlights the differences between gay marriage and civil unions. Mello also uses this chapter to complicate our idealized notions about Vermont's social attitudes. The second chapter succinctly summarizes Baker in less than twenty pages (the complete decision appears in an appendix). The next chapter, "Backlash Against Gays and Lesbians," chronicles the local reaction to the decision in newspaper articles, editorials, and letters to the editor. The fourth chapter (and the longest at 67 pages) recounts, in detail, the legislative response to the court's decree. Included in this chapter are selections from the floor debates and the arguments advanced by anti same-sex marriage organizations outside the legislative chambers. Mello's fifth chapter critiques the legal remedy of civil unions and advocates an alternative remedy that includes full recognition of same-sex relationships as marriages. In a refreshing move of transparency, Mello implicates his advocacy in his own heterosexual privilege and acknowledges that his arguments have to be tempered against the wishes of gay and lesbian citizens. These chapters coalesce to create a clearer picture of the cultural (re)negotiations present in this legal struggle.
Mello's work is intended for both a general audience and for scholars interested in the cultural contestation of the meaning of marriage. On my reading, Mello successfully addresses both of these audiences. Mello consciously avoided making the law "mysterious, inaccessible, and incomprehensible" (25) through his careful explanations of the legal principles involved in this case including Vermont's Common Benefits Clause. At the same time, for scholars interested in a legalistic analysis of the Baker decision, Mello provides a careful reading of Baker which he then uses as a platform to advocate gay marriages in lieu of civil unions. While Mello's interests lay in reaching the public in its broadest sense of the word, my interest in this book rests with its pedagogical potential. …