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The Painful Path to Same-Sex Marriage in Hawaii

A first-person account of the saga.


(page 3 of 4)

The campaigns for and against Amendment 2 were ugly and patronizing. Proponents pleaded for the sanctity of the status quo, for “traditional” families and “traditional” marriage. They printed up scary brochures with pictures of two men embracing. Mike Gabbard, now a state senator, made a name for himself opposing gay rights, and was behind TV ads that wondered whether one might be allowed to marry one’s dog.

Meanwhile,  the “No on 2” campaign obfuscated the issue of sanctioning same-sex love and intimacy with abstract fear-mongering about the measure’s threat to constitutional governance and civil rights generally. Focus groups were deployed in which Americans of Japanese ancestry were found to respond to the civil rights argument when reminded of AJA wartime internment. The pro-gay marriage bumper sticker urged voters to “Protect Our Constitution!” in dull colors. The first time I saw one, I wondered why it didn’t just say, “Let gays get married!” in, you know, BRIGHT colors.

Former state Rep. Jackie Young was a key organizer of the “No on 2” campaign. Now a grandmother, she remembers how nasty the ’98 campaign got. “I had no idea of the depth of homophobia in our society,” she told me in a phone interview. “People threw rubbish and shouted ‘fags’ at our sign-wavers. I was just stunned at the amount of prejudice and hate. It was staggering to me.”   

On Nov. 3, 1998, Amendment 2 was approved 70-30 by the voters with a turnout of 68 percent.

The decisive defeat hit gay Honolulu hard.

“People felt disappointed in Hawaii,” Young tells me. “To be gay in Hawaii and have that vote come in ... It must have been crushing. I was crushed as a straight person.” She was right: I was saddened.

Young says one result of the vote was that many of the prominent gay people she knew from her fundraising efforts withdrew and grew skittish about being known as gay.

Maybe it was revived homophobia, maybe it was AIDS or maybe it was pure economics, but no one saved Hula’s that year, either. The local institution, along with its banyan and banana trees, was flattened to make way for a luxury retail mall. (The bar itself relocated to the second floor of a hotel on Kapahulu.) No one protested as the entire Kuhio district that had grown up next to Hula’s—the charming warren of shops, bars, clubs and hotel that served thousands of residents and tourists daily as Waikiki’s gay village—was taken apart, piece by piece.

The Speedo crowd at Queen’s Surf beach dwindled, too, crowded off the beach by oblivious tourists and rising tides, and off the lawns by the indigent and homeless. It was like gay people suddenly had cooties, and the ’98 vote rubbed it in. There was a chill in the air.

The scholar Robert Morris, who had done so much groundbreaking work to revive Hawaiian cultural pride in its legacy of same-sex relationships, tells me he was so discouraged by the vote that he left Hawaii permanently in 2000.

He remembers, “There were many [gays] who didn’t care about marriage at all, and so they were not interested in working for marriage equality as a general principle. They didn’t see the political and social power of marriage as today’s generation does.” There were others, such as Dr. David McEwen, who “carried on brilliantly for years,” he says.

“Back in ’98 it was very scary, and you really had to stick your neck out,” Jackie Young says, comparing the political mood around the ’98 election to last fall’s legislative showdown in special session, when she rejoined the fray as a lobbyist for the group Hawaii United for Marriage.

“People were a lot more accepting and understanding this time around,” she says. “They were looking at it as a civil rights issue. Even people like [Vice Speaker of the House] John Mizuno and Rep. K. Mark Takai said they’re evolving. Everyone says they’re evolving, so I guess that means they’re becoming more tolerant and more open and they see things clearer now—even the president evolved.

“I thought the deliberations were very civil, except for that police union guy—that was more ’98.” Young is referring to SHOPO president Tenari Maafala, who testified to a House panel they would have to kill him before he’d enforce a same-sex marriage law.

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Honolulu Magazine August 2020
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