How Two Hawai‘i Women Helped Ignite the National Movement For Same-Sex Marriage
Twenty-five years ago, Genora Dancel was thrusted into the center of a controversial Hawai‘i case. We spoke with Dancel about her experiences.
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Genora Dancel and Ninia Baehr, in the 1990s.
Photos: Courtesy of Genora Dancel
Twenty-five years ago this month, three gay and lesbian couples walked into the state Department of Health offices on Punchbowl Street and applied for licenses to get married. Back then, Genora Dancel was a quiet Campbell High graduate thrust to the center of a controversial Hawai‘i case that ignited a national movement for same-sex marriage. HONOLULU Magazine asked the low-key Dancel how the sudden spotlight took her from unknown to Time, Newsweek and Oprah; lessons learned from the journey; and what it’s like to emerge now as a role model for the next generation.
In the summer of 1990, Genora Dancel was working as a broadcast engineer and living in her three-bedroom home in Waipahu when she fell madly in love. At 30, she’d dated other women before, but none like Ninia Baehr, who was outspoken, funny and fully out as a lesbian. Dancel was swept off her feet and, within months, proposed to Baehr, despite the fact that same-sex marriage was little more than a quixotic dream. “Maybe I was just living in fantasyland, but, when you want to marry someone, that’s all you think about,” Dancel recalls.
The couple discovered the limitations of being unmarried. When Baehr developed a painful ear infection and needed health insurance coverage, she phoned the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Honolulu to see if she could register as a domestic partner on Dancel’s health plan. Executive director Bill Woods told her she couldn’t, but encouraged the couple to join a lawsuit he was organizing to challenge Hawai‘i state law against same-sex unions. It was an audacious idea at the time. No country in the world recognized gay marriage; Denmark had just legalized domestic partnership but not marriage. Even the gay community, which was focused on fighting discrimination in employment, housing and the military, tended to view the issue as a futile distraction.
Baehr left the final decision to her partner. It was an emotional choice for Dancel, who had led a private and largely closeted existence. “My life flashed in front of me,” she says, remembering weighing the risks of losing her two full-time jobs, her home and her family, who were unaware of her sexual orientation. But the relentless sting of being treated “like a second-class citizen” spurred her into a leap of faith. “I called Bill Woods back,” Dancel recalls, “and I said, ‘We’ll be there.’”
Baehr and Dancel.
On the morning of Dec. 17, 1990, Dancel and Baehr, along with two other couples, walked into the state Department of Health in Honolulu to apply for marriage licenses. Their request, which was denied, laid the foundation for Baehr v. Lewin (Miike), the case that triggered a 23-year battle for same-sex marriage in Hawai‘i and transformed the landscape for gay rights in America. The case also had a transformative effect on Dancel, catapulting this “accidental activist” from anonymity to national fame and leading her to find her voice. Her story is emblematic of how the movement sprang from the courage and tenacity of everyday people, who ultimately convinced America that love and equality were values worth fighting for.
Dancel projects a natural reserve and warmth that draws others easily into conversation. She listens intently and speaks with earnest candor about her life. Dancel grew up in ‘Ewa Beach, the youngest of three children. Her father, an ordnance specialist at Pearl Harbor, and her Moloka‘i-born mother raised their children in a Catholic household. From an early age, Dancel’s father encouraged her mechanical aptitude. “He’d take apart the carburetor and line up all the parts on the sidewalk and make me put it back together in the right sequence,” she remembers. A blend of Filipino, Spanish, Italian, Japanese and Chinese, Dancel attended Pōhākea Elementary, Ilima Middle School and James Campbell High School. Former classmates describe her as smart, self-assured and independent. At Campbell, she ran track, served as president of the Medical Careers Club, and worked as a yearbook photographer and sports editor.
Dancel was coming of age at a time when gays and lesbians were coming out across America. Still, the 1970s remained a treacherous time for homosexuals. The Hawai‘i Legislature repealed the state’s anti-sodomy statute in 1972, but gays and lesbians remained vulnerable to discrimination. They also became the target of vitriolic attacks by conservative religious groups. In 1977, Anita Bryant waged a crusade in Dade County, Florida, against a proposed ordinance to ban discrimination against gays, which fueled a nationwide anti-gay backlash. Dancel knew she was gay from an early age, but, during her high school years, “Nobody was out at the time, especially in Hawai‘i.”
She focused on her career, becoming the first female broadcast engineer at KHNL and at Hawai‘i Public Television. She had found a comfortable niche, working behind the scenes to turn the spotlight on other people. But that all changed when she met Ninia Baehr.