Exclusive: Why Rep. Jo Jordan voted against Marriage Equality
Photo: Diane Lee
Hawaii state Rep. Jo Jordan made national news yesterday as the first openly gay lawmaker to vote against marriage equality. HONOLULU Magazine sat down to chat with Jordan late Thursday about the reasoning behind her decision to vote against the measure.
Rep. Jordan, you had a passionate speech on the floor. Could you tell me what was going through your mind?
First of all, I didn’t write it down. I really didn’t have time to prepare, because we pretty much went from hearings, hearings, hearings, go home, shower, sleep for three hours. But you really didn’t have time to process. Now we get into the hearing itself, make the decision. Now it’s ready to hit the floor. I really didn’t have any time to write anything down.
I just decided I’ll take it as it goes. It was really how I was feeling, what was I internalizing from all the 57 hours of testimony. And not just in the room, but when you’re outside the room and seeing people waiting three, four days to stand up there for two minutes. That spoke volumes to me. People coming back day after day, waiting for their chance when they got missed.
When I stepped into this position, as an appointee in January 2011, I felt I wasn’t worthy of being here. Because you’ve got lawyers, really brilliant people with huge college degrees. And this and that—whew, I’m just Jo from Waianae and I’ve got some street smarts and a fast mouth. When I walked in here, I said, all I have is my integrity, to do my best I can. And I’ve kept myself grounded in that. When this issue started arising, I had to think to myself, you need to stay grounded in what your root beliefs are. I’ve won an election, and sworn to uphold the constitution of the state as well as the United States. You have an obligation to this institution. You really have to think differently, because you are being watched and it is a position that you need to respect even while sitting in your seat.
I always have taken my personal hat off, my personal beliefs away from it, and said, "Look at the substance, what is the measure, have you heard all the dialogue, have you vetted everything? Have all your questions been answered? And are you willing to make a decision for the 1.4 million people in the state?" For your constituents, but also for the whole state.
I know who I am, I’m grounded in who I am, I’ve never hid who I am. And when I walked in this door, the GLBT community came knocking on my door and they said, "We’re so glad you’re here. Come on in here." And I’m like, “I’m Jo, I’m a legislator, those are my hats first.”
I know what it meant to step in this room for a kid from Waianae, who graduated from public school, who has no background, to be a female and to be GLBT on top of that. And I didn’t want to come up the gate saying, "Look at me, here I am." Because it would distract from anything that I worked on. I have never waved my flag. I don’t wear it across my chest.
They were very good at respecting that. And even last year, when they engaged. Let’s vet some bills last November. I saw some stuff I wasn’t pleased with; it was more like, a national group coming down. And that’s when you start tearing at my other side. We don’t need a lot of Mainlanders coming and telling us what we gotta do. And you’ll hear that going on. I said, "You know what, I’m here with my legislative hat, not my personal hat. You guys move forward with whatever you’re doing, and I don’t want to be a participant in that." I stepped out of it.
As DOMA [section] 3 fell, I was like, this is going to be big. Many of the larger groups, Equality Hawaii and national groups came to me, when stuff started bubbling up, and the governor called the special session. Then it came: "We want you to attend this meeting. We want you to be the face." I was honest with them: "That’s not what I want to do."
I’m a legislator first and foremost, and I’m not here to promote your pride. I’ve got to do my duty first and I don’t want to seem biased. And they had respectfully said, "OK, cool."
It’s about your work. Vet all the issues, put your personal stuff aside and let’s see where we’re going with this measure.
People are calling you the first openly gay legislator to vote against same-sex marriage.
I’m choosing not to look at the news, but I hear I’m being blasted pretty bad.
As soon as I got off the floor, probably within the first half hour… (makes explosion noises) I want to have faith that it’s the Mainland and it’s not here. I’m like, "You don’t know who I am, No. 1, because obviously you weren’t in those hearings."
I totally thought I was going to get blasted by the religious community. When I walked into the hearings, I was like, those faith-based guys are going to come out. And not one of them said anything. They were more about, "Thank you, thank you for listening." And they didn’t know who I was. Outside, I was Rep. Jordan sitting at the table. They had no idea who I was, or my lifestyle, and that’s why I like it. Can we get to know each other before you know the rest of the stuff?
I was blasted by the GLBT community on Saturday, outside the door. That took me aback. At the time, I hadn’t stated my position, and I was still undecided. These were testifiers the day before, saying, “How can you be undecided? You should be a 'yes.' Do you know what this means?” And I politely engaged with them: "I have some problems with SB1." I explained the issues and they slammed me again. “It’s good. Just vote yes.” They started getting boisterous. My natural instinct is, I’m going to fly some words at you. But you can’t, so I’m like, "Thank you."
It has been interesting. I am not part of any faith-based group, so I walked in thinking those were going to be the ones going, grrrr, grrrr. But unfortunately, it’s been coming from my community during the hearing. I was like, “Wow, so much for minorities that have been suppressed.” But I’ve got to look at it this way: Maybe they feel they’ve been suppressed for so long that they no longer can contain it and they are just going to lash out at anything without thinking first. But I have to keep that faith to help me not take it personally. It’s not about who is right and who is wrong. It’s about, are we creating a measure that meets the needs of all?
I had come to the decision that SB1 needed to amended. It wasn’t protective enough for everybody. And I truly know, my GLBT community is not going to go somewhere where they are not welcome. They are not going to go, "Pastor, you need to marry us, even though it is against your grain." Because they want their happy day to be a happy day. A couple isn’t going to step into something that’s not warm and welcoming. We’re really looking at those fringe guys, those ones that pop up on the edges that say, "You’re treading on my rights, so I’m going to come and challenge you."
When you look at a measure, you have to consider, how do we make this the golden standard, as bulletproof as possible? My major concerns on SB1 was, first, the parental maternal rights, 57-2c, that wasn’t healthy. That definitely needed to be fixed. The religious exemption was not adequate enough. And the divorce portion in there is not fair. We’re talking about creating equity. They have made a provision here where you don’t have to domicile here. And I totally get what they’re saying, but I have some serious problems with that. We should at least make some sort of domicile in our state, so they can file for divorce here.
I really am not happy with the exemptions. Too narrow.
I’m not here to protect the big churches or the little churches, I’m saying we can’t erode what’s currently out there. We don’t want to scratch at the religious protections at all, because if we don’t create a measure that’s bulletproof, or as close to bulletproof as possible, then the measure will go to the courts. And they will interpret it however that may be. A judge will make assumptions and make a ruling, and that will become the law of the land. So you really want us to create the legislation.
I haven’t figured out why I felt so compelled to fight for the religious exemptions, to not erode Constitutional rights. I don’t belong to any particular denomination. I don’t wear one of those hats. I take religion out of everything. My religion is the mountain, the aina and spiritual. Everybody finds their own religion somewhere. I have the same values as they do, but it’s just a little different. When I walked into this session, that rose to the surface. Why me? Why am I trying to protect your religious rights?
I’m still trying to figure out. I’ve always followed paths. I don’t find the path. The path finds me. This, obviously, is a path I’m supposed to go. You’re not supposed to question. Just ‘OK.’
At the end of the day, the way SB1 HD1 is written right now, walking into the third reading I can’t say it is written the best that we can provide to all. If that’s at the risk of not allowing same-gender couples to get married on Dec. 2, I can’t stop that, I’m sorry. We want to make sure it’s good. It’s not about who gets to the finish line first. It’s just not.