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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Dancel and Baehr, with civil rights attorney Evan Wolfson.
Photo: Courtesy of Genora Dancel
They were introduced by Ninia’s mother, C.J. Baehr, who was Dancel’s boss at public television, and the two women hit it off immediately. Their first date stretched into a nine-hour odyssey that took them from Waikīkī to Tantalus to Kailua, with Dancel driving her silver Porsche 928. At Tantalus, while Baehr stepped out to admire the view, Dancel popped the hood to show off her engine. They fell in love and, in six months, had joined two other couples—Joe Melillo and Patrick Lagon, and Antoinette Pregil and Tammy Rodrigues—in challenging Hawai‘i state law. When the couples marched into the Department of Health, Dancel wore a pair of oversize, nonprescription glasses to obscure her face. The glasses did little to mask that she was about to come out on television.
The event garnered extensive news coverage, but Dancel’s fears about reprisals at work never materialized. Her parents also reacted with equanimity. Her mother asked her in surprise, “What are you doing getting married with those other gay people?” but Dancel remembers that she also “would buy extra papers and give them to all her friends.” Even though her father’s military co-workers harassed him about his lesbian daughter, he would drive around to the newsstands, collecting extra issues of the paper for his wife. They never questioned their daughter’s decision to come out so publicly.
Meanwhile, the ragtag group couldn’t find an organization to represent them. The ACLU and LAMBDA Legal Defense and Education Fund declined the case, citing other priorities. “Nobody wanted to talk about gay marriage, they were more focused on gays in the military,” Dancel says. She still bristles at the memory. “When you ask for marriage, you ask for everything. When you say, ‘I do,’ there are hundreds of rights and benefits that you now have. You get everything.”
Civil rights attorney Dan Foley, the former legal director of ACLU Hawai‘i, took the case in March 1991. While he didn’t expect to win, Foley felt the couples deserved their day in court. “I had never thought of marriage as anything other than a man and woman,” he told HONOLULU Magazine in 1995. “But, I felt, being married, having the rights and benefits of marriage, who am I to say no to them?” Two months, later Foley filed the case in Circuit Court, where it was dismissed. He then appealed to the Hawai‘i state Supreme Court.
On the morning of Oct. 13, 1992, an overflow crowd filled the koa-paneled courtroom. Two of the three couples—Dancel and Baehr, and Melillo and Lagon—were seated in the front row, wearing pink, double carnation lei. During the state’s argument, Judge James Burns, sitting in for Chief Justice Herman Lum, threw out a scenario to the deputy attorney general. “A male and a female walk in, and they’re not married, they want a license, you give it to them. A male and a male walk in, you won’t give it to them. You’re discriminating against them,” Burns said pointedly. “Our position is, that is permissible discrimination,” the deputy replied.
With that exchange, the couples realized the court was giving serious consideration to their case. The women looked at each other and, Dancel says, “We had to refrain from jumping up and down, we were so happy.” In the heady optimism of the moment, few could have envisioned the backlash that was to come.
In a 1993 statewide poll, Honolulu Star-Bulletin found that 61 percent of Hawai‘i residents opposed same-sex marriage while 30 percent approved; nationally, a Gallup poll in 1996 showed 68 percent opposition. Recognizing the need to cultivate broad support within the community, Dancel and Baehr began to speak at events and in schools. Baehr, an ardent feminist and co-director of the UH Women’s Center, was accustomed to the activist role. Dancel, on the other hand, had never been to a gay bar or a political rally before she met Baehr. “I never saw myself as a spokesperson,” she admits, “but this case really thrust me forward.”
She found her voice by speaking in schools. During presentations at the University of Hawai‘i, King Intermediate School, La Pietra and other schools, she saw how well students responded to her. “The local kids would look at Genora and they would immediately connect with her,” recalls Baehr. “And afterward they would come up and say to her, ‘I didn’t want to say it in class, but I might be like that.’” Students asked questions such as, “Were you ever bullied?” “How did you first know you were gay?” and “Why can’t you guys just be friends?” When the couple explained they wanted to build a life together, the response was, “Oh, yeah, I have an aunt like that.”
On May 5, 1993, the Hawai‘i state Supreme Court issued its landmark decision. The opinion, written by Justice Steven Levinson, ruled that same-sex couples had the right to marry under the equal protection clause of Hawai‘i’s Constitution, unless the state could prove “compelling state interest” in upholding the ban. The case, which was sent back to the lower court for trial, sparked national headlines as the first high-court ruling to recognize the marriage rights of gays and lesbians. It also foreshadowed legal battles in other states seeking to pre-emptively block recognition of any same-sex marriages that might be performed in Hawai‘i.
While Dancel and Baehr started to plan their wedding, opponents organized against them. The Roman Catholic and Mormon Churches and evangelical groups mounted well-financed media and advocacy campaigns. The 2,000-member Hawai‘i’s Future Today lobbied legislators to wrest the issue away from the courts through a constitutional amendment. State House Judiciary Chairman Terrance Tom scheduled statewide hearings in fall 1993 that galvanized both support and bitter opposition. More than 500 people signed up to testify at the O‘ahu hearing, many in fierce opposition. “People were saying that Hurricane ‘Iniki happened because God was against gay marriage,” Baehr recalls. “They said we were going to go to hell. They talked about child molestation.” The battle had just begun. The Legislature would go on to wrestle with the rancorous issue for the next 20 years.