MONTPELIER, Vt. – The Vermont Human Rights Commission celebrated 30 years of service at the State House on Thursday, and Governor Phil Scott acknowledged that while Vermont has made progress in equality and justice since 1989, recent incidents show there’s still work to be done.
“A camp for transracial families was subjected to racial slurs in Stowe,” Scott said. “An African-American legislator, Kiah Morris, and her family, were harassed. A transgender candidate who ran against me for Governor received death threats. This is not, and cannot be who we are.”
The commission’s first executive director Susan Sussman said it’s been remarkable to reflect on all the legislation that was passed under her watch, but the individual moments were the most powerful.
One lawmaker’s last-minute decision to support a hate crimes act that was the first law in Vermont to include sexual orientation as a protected category still makes her emotional.
“A member of the House who was very vocally homophobic stood up on the floor of the House and said ‘Mr. Speaker, I am wrong.’ That was because he had been told by the Speaker that one of his committee members was a closeted gay man at that time,” Sussman said.
The Vermont Human Rights Commission has jurisdiction over unlawful discrimination in housing, schools, restaurants, stores, offices and government agencies. Executive Director Bor Yang said it’s no longer enough for the commission to react to discrimination – preventative action is needed.
“We have come to accept that that is the system under which we operate, and we have not been willing to question whether that is the right system,” Yang said. “It’s not enough to react to discrimination. It is time that we really engage in a conversation and how to address that system, and be willing to address that system.”