Afterthoughts: For the Love

Scenes from the special session on marriage equality.

illustration:  erik ries

When Gov. Neil Abercrombie first announced a special legislative session to consider a bill legalizing same-sex marriage, I somehow  didn’t anticipate much more than a normal bill hearing. But when it became clear that this thing was going to be a Big Deal, I started walking over on my lunch breaks and after work to take in the whole scene.

And what a scene it was. The front of the Capitol looked almost like a street fair, with scores of people waving rainbow and Hawaiian flags and bouncing around to a club music soundtrack, regularly punctuated by the honking of passing cars. People who couldn’t get into the committee hearings crowded around little CRT televisions set up in the rotunda, straining to hear the live feed of the proceedings. Volunteers handed out free pizza, chips and water to keep people sustained through the endless hours of testimony. Drag queens vamped for the cameras, and fired-up college kids paraded with cardboard signs, both heartfelt—“Love=Love”—and funny—“We Can’t All Marry Liza Minelli.”

The best part, for me, was how happy all the supporters were, just visibly glowing with excitement and pride. Sometimes, historic moments happen and are over before you even realize it, but everyone at the Capitol seemed to recognize the magnitude of the occasion unfolding around them. More than once, I overheard people gazing out over the crowd saying, “Can you believe this?”

Of course, lawmaking is a complicated, deliberative process that’s not really paced to be the lifeblood of a party—there were definitely days and hours when new developments came at an agonizingly slow pace, and the crowd had to keep chugging under its own steam. But when the final Senate vote was announced on Nov. 12, granting passage of the marriage equality bill, the whole thing came together in a climax straight out of the movies—everyone converged in the rotunda to hold hands and sing “Hawaii Ponoi.” Tears, spontaneous hugs, chee-huuus, all that good stuff. It was one of the most cathartic moments I’ve ever experienced.

But, thrilling as it was to be engulfed in a celebratory sea of people wearing rainbow lei, I was almost as moved by the crowd on the other side of the rotunda, the one opposing same-sex marriage.

Throughout the special session, this gathering hadn’t been a party, it had been a protest, and a vigil.

I spent some time on that side too, over the course of a couple of days, absorbing the somber mood, the prayer circles, the haka dances, the endless chants of, “Let the people vote! Let the people vote!” It sounds funny to say this, but I deeply appreciated the experience of walking through a crowd of people who so fundamentally and vocally disagreed with me.

Most of the time, I think, we tend to surround ourselves with people who reinforce our world views, whether it’s the church we choose to attend on Sunday morning or the bar we choose to pull up to on Friday night. And social media has made it even easier to construct our very own echo chambers. Someone posting inflammatory rhetoric on Facebook? No need to argue with them or unfriend them—just hide them from your news feed.

Here at the Capitol, though, the two sides were separated only by a few thin ropes. It’s one thing to read the results of an October poll by Civil Beat showing that 44 percent of Hawaii residents oppose legalizing same-sex marriage (compared to 44 percent in support). It’s another thing to meet a few of them in person, and be reminded that these are my neighbors, my co-workers, sometimes even my friends. I still don’t understand the objections to gay marriage, but putting a face on the opposition can only help humanize and soften the conversation.

Which we need, because it’s a conversation that’s going to continue, long after gay couples begin to marry and become more and more accepted as mainstream and normal. Consider, for example, that it wasn’t until 2000 that the state of Alabama finally struck from the lawbooks its outdated ban on interracial marriage. And even then, a full 40 percent of Alabama residents who showed up to the polls—nearly 526,000 people—voted to keep the law. Half a million people! In 2000!

Hawaii is no Alabama, of course—we’re the Aloha State, and this new marriage equality law brings us closer to the spirit of that moniker than ever. But while it represents a satisfying conclusion to a long-fought struggle, it’s also just the beginning. I’m excited for everything that comes next.