Name a Woman: Marriage Equality Hero Susan Murray

The Vermont lawyer won a groundbreaking case in the early days of the fight for marriage equality in the U.S.

In honor of Women’s History Month, NewNowNext is spotlighting five LGBTQ women whose contributions to society and culture changed the course of history. By the end of this week, you’ll be able to name a woman—and an LGBTQ pioneer, no less—without breaking a sweat.

From the time Susan Murray was very young, she knew that there was something different about her.

She was… an attorney.

“I don’t really know how else to describe it except that it always made me really angry when something was unfair or unjust in my very small childhood life,” Murray tells NewNowNext. “That feeling stuck with me.”

Once she was old enough to practice law, Murray’s commitment to justice would inspire her to set an important LGBTQ precedent: In December 1999, she and her then-law partner Beth Robinson won a groundbreaking case at the Vermont Supreme Court (Baker v. Vermont) that led to the first same-sex civil unions in the U.S.

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The Vermont capitol building in Montpelier.

The majority decision from the Court said that extending equal legal benefits to same-sex couples was “a recognition of our common humanity” and an acknowledgment of LGBTQ Vermonters who had formed “intimate and lasting human relationship[s]”—but it stopped short of ordering the marriage licenses that Murray and Robinson had originally sought for their plaintiffs. Still, Vermont’s early civil unions were key stepping stones on the path toward full marriage equality.

But the legacy of that fight is too often forgotten. After Massachusetts became the first state in the country to allow same-sex marriage in 2004, the terrain of the LGBTQ legal battle shifted, and Vermont’s neighbor to the south overshadowed its first-in-the-nation reputation. Not that Murray harbored any ill will over the victory. “We were nothing except delighted and thrilled that a state had finally broken through,” she remembers.

In fact, Mary Bonauto, an attorney with the GLBTQ Advocates and Defender (GLAD) who worked alongside Murray and Robinson during Baker v. Vermont, was lead counsel in the Massachusetts Supreme Court case that led to that monumental 2004 marriage decision. But there are still important lessons to be learned from the Vermont civil unions case—and from a woman like Murray who stood at its center.

Murray didn’t initially set out to establish the legality of same-sex civil unions. But she fell into family law after graduating, and then, in 1989, ran across a news story that would change the course of her career: Two women and a baby traveling by car had gotten into a tragic accident that claimed the life of one of the women. Reading between the lines, Murray immediately recognized fellow members of the LGBTQ community: This was a lesbian couple—and now the child’s grandparents were seeking custody. The surviving partner was not the child’s biological parent, but Murray knew that shouldn’t matter.

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“Here is a woman who has just lost her partner and was obviously co-parenting this child,” Murray remembers. “And now she’s going to lose her child and, on top of that, she has severe injuries.”

Unable to take her mind off the injustice of the situation, Murray took on the case herself, ultimately securing a settlement in which the surviving woman got custody while still accommodating the grandparents. That kicked off her LGBTQ legal advocacy in earnest: “My name got in the paper a lot and, as a result of that, I started getting calls.”

In 1993, after the Vermont Supreme Court ruled in favor of a lesbian woman seeking full parental rights for her partner’s biological children, Murray got involved in the effort to formally reform the state’s adoption laws, bringing large groups of LGBTQ people to public hearings so that they could share personal parenting stories with their representatives. Even though the Vermont legislature was undertaking a comprehensive review of the state’s adoption statute, almost no one showed up to talk to the committee about the ramifications of the law except for the LGBTQ community.

“The only people who ever showed up at any of those public hearings was us,” says Murray. “The committee was kind of overwhelmed by the fact that we could organize that way.”

The Vermont legislature ultimately amended the adoption law, but Murray and company were just getting started. Murray thought of her LGBTQ legal work as an upside-down triangle, with two same-sex partners at the top and their child at the bottom. The state of Vermont now recognized the legal rights of both partners vis-à-vis the child, but it still didn’t recognize the relationship between the partners. The top of the triangle, legally speaking, was disconnected.

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So, in 1996, Murray and Beth Robinson formed the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force, taking on a task that would have been unthinkable only a few years prior. Clients of Murray’s wanted to file lawsuits right away, but the Freedom to Marry Task Force opted for a different approach, according to Murray: “We rejected those clients, frankly, and focused on driving all over creation in the state of Vermont, meeting anybody who would meet with us to talk about the issues and let them ask questions in what felt like a safe way.”

First, they talked to LGBTQ organizations. Then, to LGBTQ-friendly organizations, like the ACLU of Vermont. Then they went broader, talking to religious organizations and lawmakers. One of the politicians that the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force met with in those early days would go on to become a household name: Bernie Sanders, then a member of the House of Representatives, and now the preferred presidential candidate among LGBTQ voters, according to a recent Morning Consult poll.

Back in 1996, the Task Force asked Sanders to vote against the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which sought to define marriage as being exclusively between a man and a woman. Sanders was one of only 67 members of the House who voted against DOMA, breaking from the 118 Democrats and 224 Republicans who supported it.

The outreach was “time-consuming but really beneficial in the end,” Murray remembers.” By the time she and Robinson filed their lawsuit in July 1997, the Freedom to Marry Task Force had already made significant cultural inroads to back up their judicial efforts. Murray suspects that Vermont’s small size also helped them make a big impact in a relatively short amount of time.

As the legal case unfolded, working its way up to the state Supreme Court, Murray says she tried to keep her head down stay focused on her plaintiffs, even though it was clear that Baker v. Vermont could have national significance. Robinson argued the case before the Vermont Supreme Court—and LGBTQ Vermonters held their breath, awaiting a decision. When the Court decided, in essence, that same-sex couples should have the benefits of marriage without the word “marriage,” Murray was a little disappointed.

“It was kind of like they got all the way to the edge and said they didn’t want to jump over,” she says. But she knows how consequential civil unions were, both for the couples who benefited from them and for the ensuing marriage equality fight. In the end, Murray feels “blessed” to have been part of that early history.

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Most lawyers, Murray says, end up doing things that aren’t very “glamorous” but are still necessary for the basic functioning of a civil society. “I got to do a constitutional law case,” says Murray. “Very few lawyers get to do that.” (Robinson, for her part, became a judge and now serves on the Vermont Supreme Court.)

Above all, Murray believes that she and her fellow advocates in Vermont set an important example for LGBTQ advocacy writ large: When you invest in public education and personal storytelling, you win. When you don’t, you lose. That’s a pattern that LGBTQ activists have witnessed all over the country, whether in the passage of Proposition 8 in California, the failed defense of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or the successful passage of a New Hampshire transgender rights bill after a misfire the previous year. When LGBTQ advocates do the same kind of immersive, community-based advocacy that Murray and Robinson did, they change hearts and minds.

After Baker v. Vermont, Murray almost certainly could have pursued work at a national LGBTQ nonprofit like GLAD or Lambda Legal. But Murray was never tempted to leave home.

“I love Vermont,” she says. “I love the work I do. I love the people I do it with. I was living in an old farmhouse with views of the Adirondacks and views of the Green Mountains and had a very settled life with my partner and all of our social circle there, so it’s a very special place, and I never would have considered leaving it.”

Today, Murray works at the same law firm she joined in 1984. She has twice won Vermont’s Family Lawyer of the Year award from The Best Lawyers in America. She may not be the highest-profile name in the history of marriage equality, and there were cases besides Baker v. Vermont that proved to be more consequential. But Murray’s story is a reminder that one person with a distaste for injustice can change laws, win court cases, and help build a movement. She became the attorney she always knew she was, and so much more.

Samantha Allen is the author of "Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States" and a GLAAD Award-winning LGBTQ journalist.
@SLAWrites