Activity 6

I Now Pronounce You...

Same-Sex Marriage Legislation

This activity is taken from At Issue: Marriage, Exploring the Debate over Marriage Rights for Same-Sex Couples published by GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. The complete curriculum is available through the GLSEN Bookstore (800/247-6553 or


In December 1999 Vermont became the first U.S. state to rule that the benefits and protections of marriage be conferred on same-sex couples. The Vermont legislature is currently deciding whether this decision will be fulfilled through full civil marriage or a separate but equal system, a painfully familiar dilemma within the context of American civil rights history. The Vermont legislature is not the first governing body - regional or national -to grapple with the question of same-sex marriage. Over the past 11 years, more than 20 countries worldwide have enacted some form of legislation that impacts same-sex couples. In this activity, students will apply the history of "separate but equal,"taken from the era of racial segregation, to the question before the Vermont legislature today. Students will then assume the role of advisors, making recommendations to the Vermont legislature based upon international human rights practices and the current regulations of other nations.



  • To understand the recent Vermont decision and the question currently before the legislature
  • To apply historical learnings about "separate but equal" to the same-sex marriage debate
  • To consider international human rights practices as one criterion by which a decision in Vermont might be reached
  • To consider the practices of other nations in formulating a recommendation for the Vermont State Legislature

Part 1: Setting the Stage

Read the overview of this activity to students to provide background information on Baker v. State of Vermont, the landmark 1999 decision that ruled the benefits and protections of marriage be extended to same-sex couples. Emphasize that the Vermont Supreme Court decision establishes the rights of same-sex couples, but not the system by which those rights will be delivered. The Vermont legislature has been charged with this weighty task and is expected to begin hearings in 2000. Thousands of citizens from across the nation have already bombarded the legislature with demands that access to full civil marriage be granted or denied to same-sex couples. Some of those opposed to full marriage rights are pressuring the legislature to implement a "separate but equal" system of registered partnership like the ones adopted by at least seven nations to date (Denmark, Norway, Greenland, Sweden, Iceland, the Netherlands, and France).

Inform students that during this exercise they will be assuming the role of advisory panel members appointed by the Vermont legislature to study the same-sex marriage issue and make informed recommendations. In order to accomplish this task, they will consider three areas:

  • Historical parallels to the notion of "separate but equal"; specifically, lessons learned from the era of racial segregation;
  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and just practices within the context of international humanitarian standards;
  • The practices of other nations that have enacted legislation regarding same-sex unions-learning from their successes and mistakes.

Select six students to act as the Vermont legislature, a group that will be charged with hearing recommendations and raising questions. Divide the remaining students into groups of four and inform them that each group represents an advisory unit that will present its recommendations at the end of the activity.

Part 2: Looking Back, Looking Forth: Historical Parallels to "Separate but Equal"

Tell students that the Vermont case is not the first instance in which a separate but equal” system of justice has been debated. A legal precedent for "separate but equal" - with regard to racial segregation - was established in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and was not reversed until the Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954). Distribute Handout 1: Separate but Equal? and allow students time to read the case summaries (if they have not already done so for homework).

Direct the groups toward Handout 2: What Does Separate but Equal Look Like?” Instruct each group to consider the practical or day-to-day ramifications of a separate but equal” system. On the left side of the sheet they should list what "separate but equal" looked like for African Americans living between the Plessy and Brown decisions, paying special attention to the social and emotional consequences of such a system. For example, students might indicate that young people had to travel great distances to reach a "colored" school or that African Americans had to remain thirsty - even with a fountain nearby - until a "colored" fountain could be found. They might also think about what this system looked like for white Americans, who may never have had opportunities to relate to people who looked different from themselves.

On the right side of the worksheet, students should list what "separate but equal" would be like for same-sex couples living under a system of registered partnership instead of marriage. This column will be significantly more challenging to complete as most of us have never been asked to consider the lives of sexual minorities with as much thought as we have been asked to reflect upon the experiences of racial minorities. Students might write that same-sex couples would be limited in terms of where, when, and to whom they could go to secure a separate but equal” partnership license. In addition, couples might find that the alternative designation results in fewer religious leaders willing to perform a ceremony, and fewer friends and family members acknowledging that they are as "married" as different sex couples.

The group of six representing the state legislature should participate in this activity, but should generate questions raised by the separate but equal” issue that they can later pose to the advisory panel. For example:

  • If same-sex couples receive full marriage rights, then how are they harmed by a separate designation for their relationships?
  • If there is no difference in the benefits conferred, then why should we [the legislators] entertain the notion of a separate system for conferring those rights?

Part 3: An International Human Rights Perspective

Ask groups to turn next to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Emphasize that, as opposed to civil or legal rights, human rights are defined as those basic standards people need to live in dignity. Human rights are the rights people have simply because they are human.

Ask groups to consider whether or not they feel that the spirit of the UDHR compels governments to extend full marriage rights to all people, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender couples. Instruct each group to survey the documents and discuss this question. Groups will likely notice that Article 16 asserts the right to marriage and family; encourage groups to look for other articles that might also relate to the issue of same-sex marriage, such as the right to equality (Article 1), freedom from discrimination (Article 2), and other relevant articles. Remind students that their ultimate goal is to make an informed recommendation to the legislature, so they should take notes and begin to articulate their thoughts. As stated earlier, the six legislators should discuss the documents and record important questions in anticipation of the presentations to come.

Part 4: Think Globally, Act Locally

Tell students that many countries have been grappling with the issue of same-sex marriage for years. Each group will therefore be asked to study the same-sex union practices of two or three nations in an attempt to understand better the issue at hand and to make a more informed recommendation to Vermont lawmakers. Cut Handout 3: International Recognition of Same-Sex Relationships into strips, one country per strip - 12 countries are represented here, though there are at least a dozen more that have enacted some sort of same-sex couple legislation. Distribute two or three strips (countries) to each group for consideration. Instruct students to discuss the pros and cons of each country's laws and to extract ideas that can be incorporated into their presentations to the legislature. The six legislators should review all 12 summaries and search for patterns, confusions, and potential problems that they can later bring up. It is important for all groups to note that no country has yet provided full marriage equality. While registered partnership provides most of the benefits, it differs from marriage in that:

  • registered partners usually cannot adopt non-related children, or even each other's children
  • registered partners usually cannot have an "official" church wedding in the country's established national church
  • one of the two registered partners must be a citizen of the country in which the partnership is contracted
  • registered partnerships are not recognized outside of the country in which the partnership is contracted (except for the small union of Scandinavian nations)

These issues - particularly adoption, citizenship, and movement between countries - should be given special attention during small group discussion and the presentations that will follow shortly.

Part 5: Group Presentations

In preparation for their presentations, give each group some time to review its notes and develop recommendations. Inform each group that they will have five minutes to present, and that their recommendations should include learnings from each of the three tasks they were asked to complete. Direct groups to decide if they will elect a spokesperson or divide the presentation amongst group members. When the groups are ready, ask the six legislators to sit at the front of the classroom in order to preside over the proceedings. Make sure that each advisory group keeps to its five-minute limit and allow the legislators to pose only two or three questions to each group.

When all the groups have presented, direct the six legislators to retire to their chambers (the corridor outside your classroom will do) in order to draft a plan based upon the advisory panel's recommendations. While they are working, conduct a debriefing conversation with the class. Ask them to comment upon what they have learned and the process in which they have participated. Ask students what they think the Vermont legislature should do based on their new knowledge. When the six legislators are ready, invite them in to share their plan. Encourage students to follow the news and look for updates on the situation in Vermont. You might also want to have them formally write up the plan and send it directly to Vermont lawmakers.


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