Vermonter Bill Lippert reflects on attending President Biden’s State of the Union address
Each member of Congress is allowed to invite one special guest to the president’s State of the Union address. First-term Democrat Becca Balint of Vermont invited retired state legislator Bill Lippert. He served in the Vermont House for three decades and when first elected was its only openly gay member. He is the founder of the Samara Fund, which supports the state’s LGBTQ residents, and a founding board member of Outright Vermont, which helps queer youth. Balint says Lippert’s “...fearless championing of equality paved the way for LGBTQ leaders like me to run for office.” Lippert tells WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley he was surprised and excited by the invitation.
Well I have to say when Becca called I was, first of all I was totally surprised that she was actually calling me because even though I know Becca, we worked together when she was Senate Pro-Tem and in the Senate and I was in the House, we didn’t see each other all that much. But I also supported her campaign and went to events. But I was totally surprised when the phone rang and I answered it and it was Becca. And she said I want to ask you if you can do something for me. And I said sure. And she said I get to have one guest to the State of the Union address and I’d like you to be my guest. And I was just like oh, that’s amazing. And she said I want you to be my guest because without all the work that you’ve done over the years for gay and lesbian rights in Vermont and having Vermont be a welcoming and safe place for gay and lesbian people, without all the work you’ve done over these years, I would not be here. I would not have been able to run for Congress and be elected as an openly gay woman in Vermont. And so I was deeply touched, honored, deeply touched and excited. And so of course I was delighted to accept her invitation to be her special guest.
Have you ever had a chance to attend a State of the Union or any event like this before?
Oh, never the State of the Union. No, in fact, I've learned now that each member of Congress gets to invite one guest. The guests sit in the gallery above the floor. And so many of us are sitting next to each other and we all pretty much realized that we were someone's special guest. I decided why just sit there, why not introduce ourselves? So I started talking to the people sitting next to me. And the person to my right, I told him who I was, I'm from Vermont, where are you from? Oh, I'm from Hawaii. And he said, oh, I'm the governor of Hawaii. And I was Just like okay! And he was someone’s special guest as was I. And the woman sitting to my left was from Ukraine. And she was from Albuquerque, New Mexico. And she was the congressman from Albuquerque’s special guest. I mean, it was just, it was both exciting and it was amazing to be part of it and to be present looking down from the gallery seeing, in person, all of these people that I watch on television, including the President, of course, and the Vice President, Kamala Harris. And it was very powerful. And I was more than excited to be there.
Obviously you know Becca Balint and have met with Becca Balint. Did you get a chance to meet with any of the other representatives or senators while you were there?
Not from Vermont. The senators are in separate office buildings on the other side of the Capitol. I mostly spend time with Becca, which was delightful. And also got to, as we went to receptions, I got to meet the new Minority Leader Representative Jeffries. And walking down the hall and passing in the hall was Nancy Pelosi. It’s just like, and oh, yes let me introduce you to Adam Schiff. It was just, it was, I realized that this is the center of the political universe, which is so obvious. But I was so excited to have Becca be here representing Vermont. Being here as an openly gay woman, as Vermont's first woman in our congressional delegation. And to remember or to recognize what an impact it makes her being here, being who she is. Being her full, authentic self, not having to hide any part of her. It's very powerful. As I was waiting to go into her office, I was standing outside and this woman stopped me and said, Oh, there's a book outside that Congresswoman, or that Congressperson's, office. They must be really welcoming of people. Because Becca had a book where you could sign in, as did a number of others, but not all of them. And I said, oh, well, that's my Congresswoman, Becca Balint the first woman and openly gay woman to be coming from Vermont. And the woman said to me, oh, why did she invite you to be her guest? She persisted in asking me and so told her because of the work I've done around LGBTQ issues in Vermont, trying to make Vermont a safe and welcoming place. And she looked at me and she said, oh, I'm from Missouri. Things are not so good there. And then she paused and she said I have a trans grandchild and I'm not sure what I can do to help. And I thought, I mean, I knew what she meant to that grandchild, or had to mean, and I told her, I said, you are so important in that child's life. It makes such a difference to have a grandparent who is supportive and caring and loving. And she just turned me and she said thank you. Thank you for reminding me how important this is, for me to be their grandmother. And I just realized in that moment that I hadn't even yet met with Becca. But the fact that I, in turn, was open about talking about who she is had touched this other woman's life. And in turn, I think, helped her continue to feel connected to her trans grandchild. So that was like one of many, many moments. And I think having Becca represent Vermont is, like I couldn't be more proud.
Bill Lippert, many times a representative will ask a guest to come to the State of the Union because they're trying to send a message. Do you think that by you attending that there was a message, so to speak, that Vermont is sending to Congress?
Well, we're in the midst of some pretty nasty attacks on LGBTQ folks across the country. And we have some happening in Vermont as well. And at the same time, I think we have worked so hard over the years to create Vermont as an ultimately a welcoming and safe space for LGBTQ young people, adults and families. And I think, I mean Becca would need to speak for herself, but I think there's a message that we are committed to this. We are proud of our gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender Vermonters. And dare I say she was appreciative of the work, not just myself, and I felt like I was representing many other Vermonters, many other LGBTQ Vermonters, who have worked together over the years to do so many, to take risks and to make it possible for new generations of queer Vermonters, however they identify, trans Vermonters young people to have a sense that they’re a role model. I think Becca’s an incredible role model and is just by her presence having a profound impact. Not to mention, of course, her commitment to issues that are well beyond LGBTQ issues. Not to demean or diminish in any way that she's a single issue person which she’s not, but to not take anything away from the impact and importance of her being her full, authentic LGBTQ. now, Congresswoman.
Bill, you were invited to watch the State of the Union and you've talked about being in the gallery and some of the other things that you did. What did you make of the President's speech?
Well, I'm a big supporter of President Joe Biden. I think he is really working for our country in a way that is very, very important especially at this time. And as Congresswoman Balint has said, there's no bigger issue in front of us now than fighting to sustain our democracy. And I appreciate his elevating that issue. Putting it right out there, particularly in a chamber where there are those election deniers, people putting forward wild conspiracy theories still. And I'm very proud to have a president who is willing to stand there and say we're fighting for our democracy and this is a good thing.
Were you disappointed that some of the Republicans did not maintain, I guess, some of the traditional decorum that's expected during the speech?
Disappointed but not terribly surprised. Unfortunately I think there is and I don't want to attribute this to all Republicans because I know it's not the case. In fact, I read something in the news about Senator Romney accosting I'll have to say so-called Congressman George Santos about his own, I mean, he's such an outlier. But it was disappointing. I think as former Speaker Pelosi said, I heard her publicly say how disappointed she was that there was a lack of respect for the institution of Congress by the way that many things have transpired in the recent weeks. And so I was disappointed. I was a little surprised because I had actually read something that Speaker McCarthy had encouraged his caucus to be civil. But there certainly were times when decorum was not maintained.
But I take it, it didn't really detract from your overall excitement.
No, not a bit, not a bit. I couldn't be more thrilled to have been the special guest for Congresswoman Becca Balint.
Bill Lippert was a primary sponsor of Vermont’s first-in-the-nation civil unions law in 2000, which granted marriage benefits to same-sex couples and in 2009 was a key proponent for passage of the state’s same-sex marriage rights bill.