How Two Hawai‘i Women Helped Ignite the National Movement For Same-Sex Marriage
Twenty-five years ago, Genora Dancel was thrusted into the center of a controversial Hawai‘i case. We spoke with Dancel about her experiences.
Genora Dancel and Ninia Baehr, in the 1990s.
Photos: Courtesy of Genora Dancel
Twenty-five years ago this month, three gay and lesbian couples walked into the state Department of Health offices on Punchbowl Street and applied for licenses to get married. Back then, Genora Dancel was a quiet Campbell High graduate thrust to the center of a controversial Hawai‘i case that ignited a national movement for same-sex marriage. HONOLULU Magazine asked the low-key Dancel how the sudden spotlight took her from unknown to Time, Newsweek and Oprah; lessons learned from the journey; and what it’s like to emerge now as a role model for the next generation.
In the summer of 1990, Genora Dancel was working as a broadcast engineer and living in her three-bedroom home in Waipahu when she fell madly in love. At 30, she’d dated other women before, but none like Ninia Baehr, who was outspoken, funny and fully out as a lesbian. Dancel was swept off her feet and, within months, proposed to Baehr, despite the fact that same-sex marriage was little more than a quixotic dream. “Maybe I was just living in fantasyland, but, when you want to marry someone, that’s all you think about,” Dancel recalls.
The couple discovered the limitations of being unmarried. When Baehr developed a painful ear infection and needed health insurance coverage, she phoned the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Honolulu to see if she could register as a domestic partner on Dancel’s health plan. Executive director Bill Woods told her she couldn’t, but encouraged the couple to join a lawsuit he was organizing to challenge Hawai‘i state law against same-sex unions. It was an audacious idea at the time. No country in the world recognized gay marriage; Denmark had just legalized domestic partnership but not marriage. Even the gay community, which was focused on fighting discrimination in employment, housing and the military, tended to view the issue as a futile distraction.
Baehr left the final decision to her partner. It was an emotional choice for Dancel, who had led a private and largely closeted existence. “My life flashed in front of me,” she says, remembering weighing the risks of losing her two full-time jobs, her home and her family, who were unaware of her sexual orientation. But the relentless sting of being treated “like a second-class citizen” spurred her into a leap of faith. “I called Bill Woods back,” Dancel recalls, “and I said, ‘We’ll be there.’”
Baehr and Dancel.
On the morning of Dec. 17, 1990, Dancel and Baehr, along with two other couples, walked into the state Department of Health in Honolulu to apply for marriage licenses. Their request, which was denied, laid the foundation for Baehr v. Lewin (Miike), the case that triggered a 23-year battle for same-sex marriage in Hawai‘i and transformed the landscape for gay rights in America. The case also had a transformative effect on Dancel, catapulting this “accidental activist” from anonymity to national fame and leading her to find her voice. Her story is emblematic of how the movement sprang from the courage and tenacity of everyday people, who ultimately convinced America that love and equality were values worth fighting for.
Dancel projects a natural reserve and warmth that draws others easily into conversation. She listens intently and speaks with earnest candor about her life. Dancel grew up in ‘Ewa Beach, the youngest of three children. Her father, an ordnance specialist at Pearl Harbor, and her Moloka‘i-born mother raised their children in a Catholic household. From an early age, Dancel’s father encouraged her mechanical aptitude. “He’d take apart the carburetor and line up all the parts on the sidewalk and make me put it back together in the right sequence,” she remembers. A blend of Filipino, Spanish, Italian, Japanese and Chinese, Dancel attended Pōhākea Elementary, Ilima Middle School and James Campbell High School. Former classmates describe her as smart, self-assured and independent. At Campbell, she ran track, served as president of the Medical Careers Club, and worked as a yearbook photographer and sports editor.
Dancel was coming of age at a time when gays and lesbians were coming out across America. Still, the 1970s remained a treacherous time for homosexuals. The Hawai‘i Legislature repealed the state’s anti-sodomy statute in 1972, but gays and lesbians remained vulnerable to discrimination. They also became the target of vitriolic attacks by conservative religious groups. In 1977, Anita Bryant waged a crusade in Dade County, Florida, against a proposed ordinance to ban discrimination against gays, which fueled a nationwide anti-gay backlash. Dancel knew she was gay from an early age, but, during her high school years, “Nobody was out at the time, especially in Hawai‘i.”
She focused on her career, becoming the first female broadcast engineer at KHNL and at Hawai‘i Public Television. She had found a comfortable niche, working behind the scenes to turn the spotlight on other people. But that all changed when she met Ninia Baehr.
Dancel and Baehr, with civil rights attorney Evan Wolfson.
Photo: Courtesy of Genora Dancel
They were introduced by Ninia’s mother, C.J. Baehr, who was Dancel’s boss at public television, and the two women hit it off immediately. Their first date stretched into a nine-hour odyssey that took them from Waikīkī to Tantalus to Kailua, with Dancel driving her silver Porsche 928. At Tantalus, while Baehr stepped out to admire the view, Dancel popped the hood to show off her engine. They fell in love and, in six months, had joined two other couples—Joe Melillo and Patrick Lagon, and Antoinette Pregil and Tammy Rodrigues—in challenging Hawai‘i state law. When the couples marched into the Department of Health, Dancel wore a pair of oversize, nonprescription glasses to obscure her face. The glasses did little to mask that she was about to come out on television.
The event garnered extensive news coverage, but Dancel’s fears about reprisals at work never materialized. Her parents also reacted with equanimity. Her mother asked her in surprise, “What are you doing getting married with those other gay people?” but Dancel remembers that she also “would buy extra papers and give them to all her friends.” Even though her father’s military co-workers harassed him about his lesbian daughter, he would drive around to the newsstands, collecting extra issues of the paper for his wife. They never questioned their daughter’s decision to come out so publicly.
Meanwhile, the ragtag group couldn’t find an organization to represent them. The ACLU and LAMBDA Legal Defense and Education Fund declined the case, citing other priorities. “Nobody wanted to talk about gay marriage, they were more focused on gays in the military,” Dancel says. She still bristles at the memory. “When you ask for marriage, you ask for everything. When you say, ‘I do,’ there are hundreds of rights and benefits that you now have. You get everything.”
Civil rights attorney Dan Foley, the former legal director of ACLU Hawai‘i, took the case in March 1991. While he didn’t expect to win, Foley felt the couples deserved their day in court. “I had never thought of marriage as anything other than a man and woman,” he told HONOLULU Magazine in 1995. “But, I felt, being married, having the rights and benefits of marriage, who am I to say no to them?” Two months, later Foley filed the case in Circuit Court, where it was dismissed. He then appealed to the Hawai‘i state Supreme Court.
On the morning of Oct. 13, 1992, an overflow crowd filled the koa-paneled courtroom. Two of the three couples—Dancel and Baehr, and Melillo and Lagon—were seated in the front row, wearing pink, double carnation lei. During the state’s argument, Judge James Burns, sitting in for Chief Justice Herman Lum, threw out a scenario to the deputy attorney general. “A male and a female walk in, and they’re not married, they want a license, you give it to them. A male and a male walk in, you won’t give it to them. You’re discriminating against them,” Burns said pointedly. “Our position is, that is permissible discrimination,” the deputy replied.
With that exchange, the couples realized the court was giving serious consideration to their case. The women looked at each other and, Dancel says, “We had to refrain from jumping up and down, we were so happy.” In the heady optimism of the moment, few could have envisioned the backlash that was to come.
In a 1993 statewide poll, Honolulu Star-Bulletin found that 61 percent of Hawai‘i residents opposed same-sex marriage while 30 percent approved; nationally, a Gallup poll in 1996 showed 68 percent opposition. Recognizing the need to cultivate broad support within the community, Dancel and Baehr began to speak at events and in schools. Baehr, an ardent feminist and co-director of the UH Women’s Center, was accustomed to the activist role. Dancel, on the other hand, had never been to a gay bar or a political rally before she met Baehr. “I never saw myself as a spokesperson,” she admits, “but this case really thrust me forward.”
She found her voice by speaking in schools. During presentations at the University of Hawai‘i, King Intermediate School, La Pietra and other schools, she saw how well students responded to her. “The local kids would look at Genora and they would immediately connect with her,” recalls Baehr. “And afterward they would come up and say to her, ‘I didn’t want to say it in class, but I might be like that.’” Students asked questions such as, “Were you ever bullied?” “How did you first know you were gay?” and “Why can’t you guys just be friends?” When the couple explained they wanted to build a life together, the response was, “Oh, yeah, I have an aunt like that.”
On May 5, 1993, the Hawai‘i state Supreme Court issued its landmark decision. The opinion, written by Justice Steven Levinson, ruled that same-sex couples had the right to marry under the equal protection clause of Hawai‘i’s Constitution, unless the state could prove “compelling state interest” in upholding the ban. The case, which was sent back to the lower court for trial, sparked national headlines as the first high-court ruling to recognize the marriage rights of gays and lesbians. It also foreshadowed legal battles in other states seeking to pre-emptively block recognition of any same-sex marriages that might be performed in Hawai‘i.
While Dancel and Baehr started to plan their wedding, opponents organized against them. The Roman Catholic and Mormon Churches and evangelical groups mounted well-financed media and advocacy campaigns. The 2,000-member Hawai‘i’s Future Today lobbied legislators to wrest the issue away from the courts through a constitutional amendment. State House Judiciary Chairman Terrance Tom scheduled statewide hearings in fall 1993 that galvanized both support and bitter opposition. More than 500 people signed up to testify at the O‘ahu hearing, many in fierce opposition. “People were saying that Hurricane ‘Iniki happened because God was against gay marriage,” Baehr recalls. “They said we were going to go to hell. They talked about child molestation.” The battle had just begun. The Legislature would go on to wrestle with the rancorous issue for the next 20 years.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF GENORA DANCEL
Public pressure took its toll on the couple and, in 1993, they moved to Baltimore to start fresh. Dancel enrolled in pre-medical courses at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine while Baehr worked at a nonprofit. Their plans for a quiet life quickly unraveled, however, as the issue of same-sex marriage moved to the forefront of national debate. The Hawai‘i ruling had generated a wave of anti-gay legislation that swept the country.
Lambda, which by now had joined the legal case, launched a media offensive with Dancel and Baehr that landed the pair on Oprah and in Newsweek, Time magazine and USA Today. With their photo-genic looks, conventional middle-class aspirations and compelling love story, the couple helped personalize the political cause. “If same-sex marriages gain legal recognition anytime soon, it will be because of two women from Hawai‘i named Ninia Baehr and Genora Dancel …” wrote USA Today in 1996. They were the main attraction at a slew of fundraising events and rallies from San Francisco to Fire Island, New York, but their efforts could not stem a rising tide of opposition.
By the end of 1996, 16 states had adopted legislation to block same-sex marriages sanctioned in other states. Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal benefits to same-sex couples and allowed states to ignore gay marriages performed elsewhere. Before President Bill Clinton signed the act into law, Dancel and Baehr spoke against the legislation at a rally held in front of the U.S. Capitol. The enactment of DOMA hit them hard. “A lot of people accused us of destroying the chances for marriage down the road,” Dancel recalls. “It was very political and very painful.”
Another painful development was underway in Hawai‘i. After Judge Kevin Chang ruled against the state in Circuit Court, the Legislature proposed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. In November 1998, 69 percent of Hawai‘i voters approved the amendment. Despite Hawai‘i’s progressive record as the first state to approve abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment, and the third to protect gays from discrimination in public and private employment, Massachusetts would become the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2004.
IN DECEMBER 2013, GENORA MARRIED HER LONGTIME PARTNER, KATHRYN DENNIS.
PHOTOS: NINIA BAEHR AND Jeannemarie Photography
After seven years together, Dancel and Baehr discovered their relationship was irreparably fractured. In 1997, they made the painful decision to separate. Dancel refuses to blame media pressure for the breakup, saying, “It was our own personal issues that drove us apart.” She moved to another neighborhood in Baltimore, returned to her career as a broadcast engineer and stepped away from the spotlight.
Meanwhile, shifts in the American cultural and political landscape were propelling same-sex marriage to a tipping point. Popular TV comedies Roseanne and Friends featured main characters committing to gay unions. An increasing number of major corporations, cities and municipalities offered domestic partnership benefits to their employees. Most importantly, more gays and lesbians were coming out, affirming they were part of the everyday fabric of life. By 2010, five states and the District of Columbia had legalized same-sex marriage and, two years later, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder declared that the Obama administration would no longer enforce DOMA. When Hawai‘i Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed SB1 into law in November 2013, Hawai‘i became the 15th state to recognize gay marriage. Dancel, who attended the signing with Kathryn Dennis, her partner of 15 years, felt mixed emotions. She recalls thinking: “Hawai‘i should’ve been the first. But now I can finally get married in my home state.”
A month later, on Dec. 17, 2013, Dancel and Dennis exchanged wedding vows in the same courtroom where the case was argued before the Supreme Court 21 years before. Their former attorney, Dan Foley, now a judge on the Intermediate Court of Appeals, performed the ceremony while retired Justice Steven Levinson, author of the pivotal Hawai‘i Supreme Court decision, was a special guest.
Today, Dancel and Dennis share a thriving life in Royal Kunia. Dancel works as an electronic technician for the city’s wastewater division while Dennis is an editor for NOAA’s Fishery Bulletin. Dancel and Baehr stay in touch and continue to receive accolades for their unique role in history. The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate features them in its
display, “People Who Made a Difference,” and Dancel sometimes receives notes from strangers whose lives she has touched. One 22-year-old who had just married her partner wrote to say, “None of this would have happened if it weren’t for you two standing up for the right to marry in Hawai‘i. I will never know the fight, the tears shed, the anguish or the [fatigue] that came with your battle, and for that, I thank you.”
On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. The final triumph, capping a dramatic, 25-year legal struggle that originated in Hawai‘i, felt almost anticlimactic for Dancel, who always believed that same-sex marriage would happen within her lifetime.
She tells the story that, when she and Dennis went to the Department of Health for their marriage license, the same clerk who had denied the license in 1990 was only too happy to comply. Behind them, two other same-sex couples were waiting in line to register for their licenses. Dancel glanced at the couples, flashing back to a similar scene 23 years before and thought, “Wow, this is cool. People can get married now.”
Timeline of Same-Sex Marriage (25 Years)
Dec. 17, 1990
Three same-sex couples—Ninia Baehr and Genora Dancel, Patrick Lagon and Joseph Melillo, Tammy Rodrigues and Antoinette Pregil—apply for marriage licenses at the state Department of Health. Officials deny the couples’ requests.
May 1, 1991
The couples’ attorney, Dan Foley, files a complaint in Hawai‘i Circuit Court, asking the court to direct the state to issue marriage licenses to the three same-sex couples.
Oct. 1, 1991
Circuit Court Judge Robert Klein rules that same-sex couples have no fundamental right to marry. The case is appealed to the Hawai‘i Supreme Court.
Oct. 13, 1992
Hawai‘i state Supreme Court hears oral arguments in Baehr v. Lewin.
May 5, 1993
Hawai‘i state Supreme Court rules that denying same-sex couples the right to marry violates the equal protection clause of the state Constitution, unless the state can prove “compelling state interest.” The case returns to Circuit Court for trial.
Hearings on same-sex marriage are held on Maui, Kaua‘i, Hawai‘i Island and O‘ahu. The hearings galvanize both support and opposition.
April 25, 1994
Hawai‘i State Legislature passes legislation that limits marriage to one man and one woman, asserts the Legislature’s right to define marriage, and establishes a commission to study the issue. Then-Gov. John Waihe‘e signs the bill into law.
Dec. 8, 1995
Commission on Sexual Orientation and the Law releases its report to the Legislature, recommending that same-sex couples be allowed to marry, and that the state allow for comprehensive domestic partnership.
Sept. 10, 1996
Hawai‘i Circuit Court hears the nation’s first trial on same-sex marriage. The two-week trial covers whether the state has a compelling interest in denying same-sex couples the right to marry.
Sept. 10–21, 1996
U.S. Congress passes the Defense of Marriage Act, signed by President Bill Clinton, which limits federal benefits to opposite-sex couples and allows states to invalidate same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.
Dec. 3, 1996
Hawai‘i Circuit Court Judge Kevin Chang issues a decision that same-sex couples have the right to marry. After Chang’s ruling, the state appeals to the Supreme Court.
April 16, 1997
Legislature passes two bills. One sets the stage for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, the second provides many of the rights of marriage to couples who are unable to legally marry.
Nov. 3, 1998
Hawai‘i voters approve by 70 percent a constitutional amendment allowing the Legislature to ban same-sex marriage.
Dec. 9, 1999
Hawai‘i Supreme Court dismisses the case, stating that the matter was given to the Legislature.
May 17, 2004
Massachusetts legalizes same-sex marriage, following a high court ruling in 2003 upholding the constitutional right of gays and lesbians
Feb. 16, 2011
Hawai‘i Legislature passes a bill, signed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie, establishing civil unions.
Nov. 13, 2013
Gov. Neil Abercrombie signs SB1 legalizing same-sex marriage. Hawai‘i becomes the 15th state in the nation to do so.
June 26, 2015
U.S. Supreme Court recognizes that same-sex couples have the right to marry in the United States.
Photo: Jeannemarie Photography
On the morning of June 26, 2015, Ninia Baehr was aboard the Staten Island ferry headed to Manhattan when a fleet of boats, all flying rainbow-colored flags, caught her eye. She wondered about the display, but shrugged it off as another salute to Gay Pride month. It wasn’t until she later saw the flood of texts and emails on her cell phone that Baehr realized the boats were indeed heralding a historic victory. The U.S. Supreme Court had just issued its opinion recognizing the right of same-sex couple to marry.
It was a triumphant moment. Baehr, who lives in New York and is married to long-time partner, Lori Hiris, phoned Dancel later that day to exchange congratulations. “It was great,” Baehr says. “We both felt such a sense of completion. We thought, Oh, my God, 25 years and here we are.”
Baehr understood the magnitude of the victory, having devoted her career to helping underserved communities, where success is achieved incrementally, if at all. In Baltimore during the late 1990s, she worked with homeless people before overseeing a program in New York that aided victims of torture. In 2004, Baehr moved to Montana, where she managed a statewide public health program. She later worked for ACLU Montana, and is currently finishing up her Ph.D. in American Studies from Montana State University.
Baehr, who was born in Hawai‘i, traces her commitment to social justice to her parents and to the values of her Quaker upbringing. Today, she works as a community outreach research coordinator for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
At home, she enjoys a quiet life with Hiris, a laboratory technician at the College of Staten Island, and their labradoodle, Ida Mae Tarbell. During the height of the same-sex marriage debate, Baehr had dreamed of getting married atop Haleakalā, dressed in a long, flowing gown. Her wedding, which took place on Christmas Day 2014 at the couple’s Montana home, turned out to be more down to earth. “We shoveled snow off the driveway so that people could get in,” Baehr recalls, adding that her mother, C.J., was visiting at the time. “Then we got married right in front of the Christmas tree in our pajamas.”
About the Author
Writer Carlyn Tani witnessed firsthand the turbulent battle for same-sex marriage in Hawai‘i, as the wife of associate judge Dan Foley, who filed the original lawsuit in 1991. Carlyn has worked as a communications director, a modern dancer and a documentary filmmaker. She and Dan live a block from the beach in Kailua, where they raised two sons.