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The Painful Path to Same-Sex Marriage in Hawaii

A first-person account of the saga.


(page 1 of 4)

Photo: Courtesy Hula's Bar and Lei Stand

I was a middle-aged veteran of gay liberation and the AIDS epidemic when, in early 1993, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that gay people should be allowed to marry and asked the state to come up with a compelling reason we couldn’t. The court cited the equal protection clause of the state’s Constitution, which bars discrimination based on gender. It was this simple logic that thundered across the oceans and cracked open the worldwide debate about gay marriage.

The New York Times, for one, was not surprised by the Hawaii court’s decision. “To stand on the far shore of change is a fitting role for this state,” wrote reporter Jane Gross on April 24, 1994.  She described how Hawaii is “known for a progressive public policy, a liberal state constitution, a tolerance for diversity, an acceptance of intermarriage and a culture of flourishing same-sex relationships.”

Unfortunately, the decision nearly drove my progressive, liberal, tolerant home-sweet-home crazy. The ugliness that welled up in the wake of it, our frittering and cowardly lawmakers (most of them), the upside-down betrayal of legacy—it was a fall from grace. It was painful to watch as voters mowed down talented politicians who supported gay marriage, then gay marriage itself. It was sad to say goodbye when gay men and women abandoned Honolulu, and it was appalling to listen to a Honolulu police officer actually tell a group of legislators that they’d have to kill him before he’d enforce a gay marriage law.

It was not a pretty saga. In 1993, gay marriage was inconceivable to me and, I suspect, to most people. When my curious parents asked me about it, I told them that marriage was low on my list of gay-rights priorities—after all, 14 states still had laws prohibiting what we did in our bedrooms. And, anyway, who wanted to ape heterosexual norms, really?

It had been 20 years since my generation of closeted gay men and lesbians jumped on the liberation bandwagon and came out as loud and proud during the militant, feel-good ’70s. We told our families and friends we were gay, got organized, got buffed, wrote slogans, paraded down main street, made gay bars the hippest spots in town, invented disco. I returned home to Honolulu from my first semester at college in 1974 and discovered a fabulous new outdoor bar/disco under a huge old banyan tree on a prominent corner in Waikiki called Hula’s Bar and Lei Stand, where it didn’t matter if you were straight or gay. Everyone went there. Gays were the new hippies, the new nonconformists, cultural pioneers.

Then, in 1981, while I was living in New York, a few of us suddenly got pneumonia and diarrhea and horribly thin and covered with skin lesions until we looked like unspeakable ghosts, and then we died. My friends and lovers died this way, hundreds of thousands did. The AIDS epidemic was a war with no glory. The phrase “gay liberation” itself  began to feel bitterly ironic, as illness forced many more of us out of the closet, as we begged the world for some sympathy and help. We began to organize and help ourselves. Marriage was not on our minds.

My staid parents were relieved that, since their gay son didn’t want marriage, their being opposed to it—as they were reflexively—was all right, and in Honolulu in 1993 everyone needed a position. I found myself refining mine: “But if some of us want to get married,” I told Mom and Dad, “who are you to say we can’t?”

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Honolulu Magazine July 2020
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