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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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Timeline of Same-Sex Marriage (25 Years)


Dec. 17, 1990

Three same-sex couples—Ninia Baehr and Genora Dancel, Patrick Lagon and Joseph Melillo, Tammy Rodrigues and Antoinette Pregil—apply for marriage licenses at the state Department of Health. Officials deny the couples’ requests.


May 1, 1991

The couples’ attorney, Dan Foley, files a complaint in Hawai‘i Circuit Court, asking the court to direct the state to issue marriage licenses to the three same-sex couples.


Oct. 1, 1991

Circuit Court Judge Robert Klein rules that same-sex couples have no fundamental right to marry. The case is appealed to the Hawai‘i Supreme Court.


Oct. 13, 1992

Hawai‘i state Supreme Court hears oral arguments in Baehr v. Lewin.


May 5, 1993

Hawai‘i state Supreme Court rules that denying same-sex couples the right to marry violates the equal protection clause of the state Constitution, unless the state can prove “compelling state interest.” The case returns to Circuit Court for trial.


Sep.–Nov., 1993

Hearings on same-sex marriage are held on Maui, Kaua‘i, Hawai‘i Island and O‘ahu. The hearings galvanize both support and opposition.


April 25, 1994

Hawai‘i State Legislature passes legislation that limits marriage to one man and one woman, asserts the Legislature’s right to define marriage, and establishes a commission to study the issue. Then-Gov. John Waihe‘e signs the bill into law.


Dec. 8, 1995    

Commission on Sexual Orientation and the Law releases its report to the Legislature, recommending that same-sex couples be allowed to marry, and that the state allow for comprehensive domestic partnership.


Sept. 10, 1996

Hawai‘i Circuit Court hears the nation’s first trial on same-sex marriage. The two-week trial covers whether the state has a compelling interest in denying same-sex couples the right to marry.


Sept. 10–21, 1996

U.S. Congress passes the Defense of Marriage Act, signed by President Bill Clinton, which limits federal benefits to opposite-sex couples and allows states to invalidate same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.


Dec. 3, 1996

Hawai‘i Circuit Court Judge Kevin Chang issues a decision that same-sex couples have the right to marry. After Chang’s ruling, the state appeals to the Supreme Court.


April 16, 1997

Legislature passes two bills. One sets the stage for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, the second provides many of the rights of marriage to couples who are unable to legally marry.


Nov. 3, 1998

Hawai‘i voters approve by 70 percent a constitutional amendment allowing the Legislature to ban same-sex marriage.


Dec. 9, 1999

Hawai‘i Supreme Court dismisses the case, stating that the matter was given to the Legislature.


May 17, 2004

Massachusetts legalizes same-sex marriage, following a high court ruling in 2003 upholding the constitutional right of gays and lesbians
to marry.


Feb. 16, 2011

Hawai‘i Legislature passes a bill, signed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie, establishing civil unions.


Nov. 13, 2013

Gov. Neil Abercrombie signs SB1 legalizing same-sex marriage. Hawai‘i becomes the 15th state in the nation to do so.


June 26, 2015

U.S. Supreme Court recognizes that same-sex couples have the right to marry in the United States. 


Ninia’s Journey

Photo: Jeannemarie Photography


On the morning of June 26, 2015, Ninia Baehr was aboard the Staten Island ferry headed to Manhattan when a fleet of boats, all flying rainbow-colored flags, caught her eye. She wondered about the display, but shrugged it off as another salute to Gay Pride month. It wasn’t until she later saw the flood of texts and emails on her cell phone that Baehr realized the boats were indeed heralding a historic victory. The U.S. Supreme Court had just issued its opinion recognizing the right of same-sex couple to marry. 


It was a triumphant moment. Baehr, who lives in New York and is married to long-time partner, Lori Hiris, phoned Dancel later that day to exchange congratulations. “It was great,” Baehr says. “We both felt such a sense of completion. We thought, Oh, my God, 25 years and here we are.”


Baehr understood the magnitude of the victory, having devoted her career to helping underserved communities, where success is achieved incrementally, if at all. In Baltimore during the late 1990s, she worked with homeless people before overseeing a program in New York that aided victims of torture. In 2004, Baehr moved to Montana, where she managed a statewide public health program. She later worked for ACLU Montana, and is currently finishing up her Ph.D. in American Studies from Montana State University.  


Baehr, who was born in Hawai‘i, traces her commitment to social justice to her parents and to the values of her Quaker upbringing. Today, she works as a community outreach research coordinator for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. 


At home, she enjoys a quiet life with Hiris, a laboratory technician at the College of Staten Island, and their labradoodle, Ida Mae Tarbell. During the height of the same-sex marriage debate, Baehr had dreamed of getting married atop Haleakalā, dressed in a long, flowing gown. Her wedding, which took place on Christmas Day 2014 at the couple’s Montana home, turned out to be more down to earth. “We shoveled snow off the driveway so that people could get in,” Baehr recalls, adding that her mother, C.J., was visiting at the time. “Then we got married right in front of the Christmas tree in our pajamas.”


About the Author 

Writer Carlyn Tani witnessed firsthand the turbulent battle for same-sex marriage in Hawai‘i, as the wife of associate judge Dan Foley, who filed the original lawsuit in 1991. Carlyn has worked as a communications director, a modern dancer and a documentary filmmaker. She and Dan live a block from the beach in Kailua, where they raised two sons.


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