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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PHOTO: COURTESY OF GENORA DANCEL
Public pressure took its toll on the couple and, in 1993, they moved to Baltimore to start fresh. Dancel enrolled in pre-medical courses at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine while Baehr worked at a nonprofit. Their plans for a quiet life quickly unraveled, however, as the issue of same-sex marriage moved to the forefront of national debate. The Hawai‘i ruling had generated a wave of anti-gay legislation that swept the country.
Lambda, which by now had joined the legal case, launched a media offensive with Dancel and Baehr that landed the pair on Oprah and in Newsweek, Time magazine and USA Today. With their photo-genic looks, conventional middle-class aspirations and compelling love story, the couple helped personalize the political cause. “If same-sex marriages gain legal recognition anytime soon, it will be because of two women from Hawai‘i named Ninia Baehr and Genora Dancel ...” wrote USA Today in 1996. They were the main attraction at a slew of fundraising events and rallies from San Francisco to Fire Island, New York, but their efforts could not stem a rising tide of opposition.
By the end of 1996, 16 states had adopted legislation to block same-sex marriages sanctioned in other states. Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal benefits to same-sex couples and allowed states to ignore gay marriages performed elsewhere. Before President Bill Clinton signed the act into law, Dancel and Baehr spoke against the legislation at a rally held in front of the U.S. Capitol. The enactment of DOMA hit them hard. “A lot of people accused us of destroying the chances for marriage down the road,” Dancel recalls. “It was very political and very painful.”
Another painful development was underway in Hawai‘i. After Judge Kevin Chang ruled against the state in Circuit Court, the Legislature proposed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. In November 1998, 69 percent of Hawai‘i voters approved the amendment. Despite Hawai‘i’s progressive record as the first state to approve abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment, and the third to protect gays from discrimination in public and private employment, Massachusetts would become the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2004.
IN DECEMBER 2013, GENORA MARRIED HER LONGTIME PARTNER, KATHRYN DENNIS.
PHOTOS: NINIA BAEHR AND Jeannemarie Photography
After seven years together, Dancel and Baehr discovered their relationship was irreparably fractured. In 1997, they made the painful decision to separate. Dancel refuses to blame media pressure for the breakup, saying, “It was our own personal issues that drove us apart.” She moved to another neighborhood in Baltimore, returned to her career as a broadcast engineer and stepped away from the spotlight.
Meanwhile, shifts in the American cultural and political landscape were propelling same-sex marriage to a tipping point. Popular TV comedies Roseanne and Friends featured main characters committing to gay unions. An increasing number of major corporations, cities and municipalities offered domestic partnership benefits to their employees. Most importantly, more gays and lesbians were coming out, affirming they were part of the everyday fabric of life. By 2010, five states and the District of Columbia had legalized same-sex marriage and, two years later, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder declared that the Obama administration would no longer enforce DOMA. When Hawai‘i Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed SB1 into law in November 2013, Hawai‘i became the 15th state to recognize gay marriage. Dancel, who attended the signing with Kathryn Dennis, her partner of 15 years, felt mixed emotions. She recalls thinking: “Hawai‘i should’ve been the first. But now I can finally get married in my home state.”
A month later, on Dec. 17, 2013, Dancel and Dennis exchanged wedding vows in the same courtroom where the case was argued before the Supreme Court 21 years before. Their former attorney, Dan Foley, now a judge on the Intermediate Court of Appeals, performed the ceremony while retired Justice Steven Levinson, author of the pivotal Hawai‘i Supreme Court decision, was a special guest.
Today, Dancel and Dennis share a thriving life in Royal Kunia. Dancel works as an electronic technician for the city’s wastewater division while Dennis is an editor for NOAA’s Fishery Bulletin. Dancel and Baehr stay in touch and continue to receive accolades for their unique role in history. The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate features them in its
display, “People Who Made a Difference,” and Dancel sometimes receives notes from strangers whose lives she has touched. One 22-year-old who had just married her partner wrote to say, “None of this would have happened if it weren’t for you two standing up for the right to marry in Hawai‘i. I will never know the fight, the tears shed, the anguish or the [fatigue] that came with your battle, and for that, I thank you.”
On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. The final triumph, capping a dramatic, 25-year legal struggle that originated in Hawai‘i, felt almost anticlimactic for Dancel, who always believed that same-sex marriage would happen within her lifetime.
She tells the story that, when she and Dennis went to the Department of Health for their marriage license, the same clerk who had denied the license in 1990 was only too happy to comply. Behind them, two other same-sex couples were waiting in line to register for their licenses. Dancel glanced at the couples, flashing back to a similar scene 23 years before and thought, “Wow, this is cool. People can get married now.”