Exclusive: Why Rep. Kaniela Ing voted for the Marriage Equality bill
At 24, Rep. Kaniela Ing is the youngest lawmaker in the Hawaii State Legislature. During the current special session, the freshman lawmaker from Maui has been arguing in favor of marriage rights for same-sex couples, despite his Christian background. We sat down to chat with him Monday night about his position.
PHOTO: DIANE LEE
In your speech, you mentioned your dad, who passed away when you were a kid. Could you tell me more about that?
My father was a born-again Christian. Our family, still to this day, we are very Christian, daily, nightly devotions. He made it pretty clear that the gay lifestyle was ungodly and wrong. He was an incredibly loving father and I looked up to him a lot. A lot of the decisions I make now are based on, “What would my dad do?” And that’s what made this issue difficult to grapple for me. I’m trying to figure out if his view would have evolved along with mine, or if he would have been like one of those guys holding the signs outside. If the latter were true, then I’d be going against what he would do, so that made it pretty hard.
Did you father have a big effect on your decision?
I prayed about this issue a lot. At the end of the day, I felt he would be proud of my decision. It was difficult, because people would write things like, “By the way, how was your dad?” on Facebook. The ones that threaten me, I could brush off, but that kind of shook me. That was probably the hardest part. It made me really, really, think about the issue from either side.
Did you grow up as the man of the house?
I have an older brother who went to Kamehameha on Oahu in ninth grade. My father passed away (when I was) in sixth grade. So, starting from the eighth grade, I had to watch the kids, the two younger ones—I guess so.
Some people have testified that, if you don’t have a father or mother to raise a child, that kid could grow up in a broken household.
My personal experience is contrary to what they believe. It shows that children who come from all types of family structures are not any more disadvantaged. Sometimes there’s a third variable linked to it: socioeconomic status. Kids who come from poor neighborhoods, often times, one parent leaves. But you can’t blame it on the structure of the household.
How much did listening to all the testimony weigh in your decision?
I cannot vote to deny equal rights. I made that clear. I think the testimony made me empathize with the LGBT experience a lot more, and I think for many of the people in opposition, too, it had that effect. And their testimony really humanized the issue, and that’s what I wanted my words on the floor to do as well.
I originally had these point-by-point rebuttals on the arguments. I had these five myths about the bill, but, when you look at the members of the LGBT community who came to testify and were sitting in the audience for weeks, and you look at their faces and how hurt they are from being called unnatural and the other hurtful things, I just felt like this was an opportunity to not only lift them up, but to speak to the younger generation of Christians and opponents of the bill to just be more accepting and tolerant. And that’s what I did. I think, obviously, the big part of the debate was whether or not it’s a choice to be gay. So I wanted to highlight that, and whether or not it’s a civil rights issue. I wanted to get the testimony of people who came out, and their stories of not being able to marry who they love, and how it affected them. And I put it in my testimony to be in the journal, because it would be in there forever.
Have you been receiving a lot of feedback?
These last few days, some really angry people, for sure. But generally, (it's been) really positive. It reached Huffington Post and other national blogs. The support has been nice. It’s very encouraging.
Did you get any death threats?
We get a lot of “causing a civil war” and “hope I don’t catch you in an alley,” and election threats, obviously, “enjoy your last year.” I got a lot of those too.
Any positive messages?
Lots of positive ones. The ones that mean the most to me are when a local pastor’s daughter contacts me and says, “Look, I’m a confused young Christian. And what you said really changed what I believed.” It’s heavy, because her father is the one who is coming out and rallying people. It’s a lot of pressure for me, but I don’t know if I should write back. But these churches are amazing. They lead kids on the right path and I went to the youth groups in high school and college. But I think, on this issue, I’d really like to see some evolution within the churches, and only the younger generation can do that. I wanted to speak to them and I connected with a few. I just don’t want to see the kids, who are good kids, who are really on the right track, but then see them 20 years from now pinning legislators in corners and chasing them in the elevators. I don’t think that shows much aloha.
You referenced Macklemore in your speech. Are you a fan?
It was to try to connect to that audience. To teenagers and 20-somethings. That song “Same Love” has been amazing. My little brother changed his mind on the issue just by listening to it a few times. I’m a musician, too. My senior thesis in high school was about political messaging in music. I thought that song was incredible, “Same Love.” I thought it was worth a mention.
What has your freshman year been like?
I ran as this brazen reformist who thought that the government needed a lot of transparency and openness. I still agree it could use a bit more, but I was pleasantly surprised by the level of intellect and conscious that goes into decision making, even behind closed caucus doors. And it’s still obvious there are political dynamics going on, but that’s not at the heart of the debate most of the time. And that was really heartening for me and encouraging, given that I might be here for a while, depending on the will of the people. None of the brown paper bags and smoke-filled rooms that I expected. It was really a joy working with all these super smart and passionate people.
Rep. Sharon Har argued that the younger generation would distrust the government more if lawmakers didn’t let people vote. What are your thoughts on that?
That’s why I got involved. I think this debate has clarified that certain issues shouldn’t be on the ballot, if it’s an issue about minority rights. The majority shouldn’t dictate the rights of a minority. There’s so much division from this entire process among the community that, the longer we dragged it on, the worse it got. For the most part, all the anger and passion was directed at us legislators. And that’s our job: We take the bullets. We take all the pressure. We make the decisions. And then the healing begins. I feel that if we left it to the vote, on top of the legal challenges and the religious exemptions that wouldn’t have been included if the courts decided, on top of that, all that passion and anger directed at us would just be directed to the neighbors. It would just be circulating among the people. At least if we make the vote, if it goes up, the people against can point at us. If it goes down, the people for it can point at us. It’ll be our fault and we’ll have to face the consequences come next election. And that’s how the democratic process works. And I think, at least for this issue, it works well, and I’m prepared to face the consequences of my vote.