The Painful Path to Same-Sex Marriage in Hawaii
A first-person account of the saga.
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Opponents and supporters of gay marriage legislation gathered to voice their opinions at the state Capitol during the 2013 special legislative session.
Photos: Diane Lee
“Gay in Paradise,” was an April 1992 cover story in HONOLULU Magazine. It detailed the growing sophistication and organization of Honolulu’s gay community, a state of affairs that writer John Heckathorn credited, at least in part, to the ongoing AIDS horror. Sure, Waikiki still festered with its cluster of “sordid,” “silly,” “radical” and “back alley” gay bars, as Heckathorn described them, but now Honolulu had its own gay magazines and newspapers, a gay yellow pages, churches and softball leagues, even a gay surf club. A gay political action committee had successfully lobbied the Legislature to prohibit employment discrimination against gays in 1991, the third state to do so. A few haole boys started a local chapter of the national militant group ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unlease Power). As activist Scott Foster told Heckathorn, “It’s when we realized that no one else cared whether we lived or died that we found our own strength.”
Still, in paradise in 1992, “It’s not easy being gay,” Heckathorn concluded. In perhaps the article’s most poignant passage, he found a young, closeted man of Japanese-American ancestry at Hula’s who related how he stopped bringing flowers to work because, he said, “It made one of my coworkers think I was gay.”
“If it was OK to be gay, if everyone in the state could deal with it, I’d be an entirely different person,” the man wistfully told Heckathorn. “So would a lot of other gays.”
Two years before Heckathorn’s story, Honolulu-based attorney and researcher Robert J. Morris quietly published an article called “Aikane: accounts of Hawaiian same-sex relationships in the journals of Captain Cook’s Third Voyage (1776-80)” in the academic Journal of Homosexuality. It was the first time anyone highlighted the multiple eyewitness accounts of unashamed homosexual relations among the Hawaiian chiefs, accounts that had been hiding in plain sight for 210 years.
To broadcast the information, I wrote a cover story about Morris’ work for the Honolulu Weekly newspaper. I titled it “Men of the First Consequence,” a phrase used by one of Cook’s journalists, James King, to describe the men he witnessed engaged in what he called “grievous” acts. The “foulest pollutions disgrace [them],” he wrote. Ship’s doctor David Samwell wrote of a young chief, Kamehameha, and the affections and acts he didn’t care to hide from anyone. On May 12, 1993, just days after the Supreme Court’s ruling, the cover story was all over Honolulu.
Meanwhile, at the State Capitol, our legislators were cooking up House Bill 2312, which would limit marriage to a man and a woman. Promoted by leadership Democrats, the bill was designed to pre-empt the state Supreme Court’s final decision in the Baehr v. Lewin case, and it easily passed the House 34-17 in February 1994. Legislators who voted against the bill faced re-election battles amid a new wave of homophobic panic kicked up by the high court’s equal-protection logic and gleefully exploited by conservative political, religious and business leaders. In 1996, state representatives Annelle Amaral, Rey Graulty, Devon Nekoba, Len Pepper and Jim Shon lost their seats to Republicans. Eve Anderson, a Republican, lost her seat to a Democrat. It was a narrow, punishing object lesson to Hawaii politicians from Hawaii voters and must be considered the point at which the great state lost its nerve.
For the next 17 years, the barons of Beretania Street floundered trying to square the circle of American “liberty and justice for all,” until, by last fall, the rest of the nation had settled it for them.
First, right after the ruling, legislators floated the idea that marriage should be limited to those who can procreate. They toyed with a commission that would determine, once and for all, whether homosexuality was a natural state or a choice. Maybe “domestic partnerships” would take care of the problem, or maybe “civil unions.” They devised a 1998 ballot measure for the voters: a proposed amendment to the state Constitution granting the legislature sole power to limit marriage to opposite-sex couples. Perfect: The voters would decide whether the rights of 10 percent of them should be constitutionally un-guaranteed.