The Painful Path to Same-Sex Marriage in Hawaii

A first-person account of the saga.

Photo: Courtesy Hula's Bar and Lei Stand

I was a middle-aged veteran of gay liberation and the AIDS epidemic when, in early 1993, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that gay people should be allowed to marry and asked the state to come up with a compelling reason we couldn’t. The court cited the equal protection clause of the state’s Constitution, which bars discrimination based on gender. It was this simple logic that thundered across the oceans and cracked open the worldwide debate about gay marriage.

The New York Times, for one, was not surprised by the Hawaii court’s decision. “To stand on the far shore of change is a fitting role for this state,” wrote reporter Jane Gross on April 24, 1994.  She described how Hawaii is “known for a progressive public policy, a liberal state constitution, a tolerance for diversity, an acceptance of intermarriage and a culture of flourishing same-sex relationships.”

Unfortunately, the decision nearly drove my progressive, liberal, tolerant home-sweet-home crazy. The ugliness that welled up in the wake of it, our frittering and cowardly lawmakers (most of them), the upside-down betrayal of legacy—it was a fall from grace. It was painful to watch as voters mowed down talented politicians who supported gay marriage, then gay marriage itself. It was sad to say goodbye when gay men and women abandoned Honolulu, and it was appalling to listen to a Honolulu police officer actually tell a group of legislators that they’d have to kill him before he’d enforce a gay marriage law.

It was not a pretty saga. In 1993, gay marriage was inconceivable to me and, I suspect, to most people. When my curious parents asked me about it, I told them that marriage was low on my list of gay-rights priorities—after all, 14 states still had laws prohibiting what we did in our bedrooms. And, anyway, who wanted to ape heterosexual norms, really?

It had been 20 years since my generation of closeted gay men and lesbians jumped on the liberation bandwagon and came out as loud and proud during the militant, feel-good ’70s. We told our families and friends we were gay, got organized, got buffed, wrote slogans, paraded down main street, made gay bars the hippest spots in town, invented disco. I returned home to Honolulu from my first semester at college in 1974 and discovered a fabulous new outdoor bar/disco under a huge old banyan tree on a prominent corner in Waikiki called Hula’s Bar and Lei Stand, where it didn’t matter if you were straight or gay. Everyone went there. Gays were the new hippies, the new nonconformists, cultural pioneers.

Then, in 1981, while I was living in New York, a few of us suddenly got pneumonia and diarrhea and horribly thin and covered with skin lesions until we looked like unspeakable ghosts, and then we died. My friends and lovers died this way, hundreds of thousands did. The AIDS epidemic was a war with no glory. The phrase “gay liberation” itself  began to feel bitterly ironic, as illness forced many more of us out of the closet, as we begged the world for some sympathy and help. We began to organize and help ourselves. Marriage was not on our minds.

My staid parents were relieved that, since their gay son didn’t want marriage, their being opposed to it—as they were reflexively—was all right, and in Honolulu in 1993 everyone needed a position. I found myself refining mine: “But if some of us want to get married,” I told Mom and Dad, “who are you to say we can’t?”

Opponents and supporters of gay marriage legislation gathered to voice their opinions at the state Capitol during the 2013 special legislative session.

Photos: Diane Lee

“Gay in Paradise,”  was an April 1992 cover story in HONOLULU Magazine. It detailed the growing sophistication and organization of Honolulu’s gay community, a state of affairs that writer John Heckathorn credited, at least in part, to the ongoing AIDS horror. Sure, Waikiki still festered with its cluster of “sordid,” “silly,” “radical” and “back alley” gay bars, as Heckathorn described them, but now Honolulu had its own gay magazines and newspapers, a gay yellow pages, churches and softball leagues, even a gay surf club. A gay political action committee had successfully lobbied the Legislature to prohibit employment discrimination against gays in 1991, the third state to do so. A few haole boys started a local chapter of the national militant group ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unlease Power). As activist Scott Foster told Heckathorn, “It’s when we realized that no one else cared whether we lived or died that we found our own strength.”

Still, in paradise in 1992, “It’s not easy being gay,” Heckathorn concluded. In perhaps the article’s most poignant passage, he found a young, closeted man of Japanese-American ancestry at Hula’s who related how he stopped bringing flowers to work because, he said, “It made one of my coworkers think I was gay.”

“If it was OK to be gay, if everyone in the state could deal with it, I’d be an entirely different person,” the man wistfully told Heckathorn. “So would a lot of other gays.”

Two years before Heckathorn’s story, Honolulu-based attorney and researcher Robert J. Morris quietly published an article called “Aikane: accounts of Hawaiian same-sex relationships in the journals of Captain Cook’s Third Voyage (1776-80)” in the academic Journal of Homosexuality. It was the first time anyone highlighted the multiple eyewitness accounts of unashamed homosexual relations among the Hawaiian chiefs, accounts that had been hiding in plain sight for 210 years.

To broadcast the information, I wrote a cover story about Morris’ work for the Honolulu Weekly newspaper. I titled it “Men of the First Consequence,” a phrase used by one of Cook’s journalists, James King, to describe the men he witnessed engaged in what he called “grievous” acts. The “foulest pollutions disgrace [them],” he wrote. Ship’s doctor David Samwell wrote of a young chief, Kamehameha, and the affections and acts he didn’t care to hide from anyone. On May 12, 1993, just days after the Supreme Court’s ruling, the cover story was all over Honolulu.

Meanwhile, at the State Capitol, our legislators were cooking up House Bill 2312, which would limit marriage to a man and a woman. Promoted by leadership Democrats, the bill was designed to pre-empt the state Supreme Court’s final decision in the Baehr v. Lewin case, and it easily passed the House 34-17 in February 1994. Legislators who voted against the bill faced re-election battles amid a new wave of homophobic panic kicked up by the high court’s equal-protection logic and gleefully exploited by conservative political, religious and business leaders. In 1996, state representatives Annelle Amaral, Rey Graulty, Devon Nekoba, Len Pepper and Jim Shon lost their seats to Republicans. Eve Anderson, a Republican, lost her seat to a Democrat. It was a narrow, punishing object lesson to Hawaii politicians from Hawaii voters and must be considered the point at which the great state lost its nerve.

For the next 17 years, the barons of Beretania Street floundered trying to square the circle of American “liberty and justice for all,” until, by last fall, the rest of the nation had settled it for them.

First, right after the ruling, legislators floated the idea that marriage should be limited to those who can procreate. They toyed with a commission that would determine, once and for all, whether homosexuality was a natural state or a choice. Maybe “domestic partnerships” would take care of the problem, or maybe “civil unions.” They devised a 1998 ballot measure for the voters: a proposed amendment to the state Constitution granting the legislature sole power to limit marriage to opposite-sex couples. Perfect: The voters would decide whether the rights of 10 percent of them should be constitutionally un-guaranteed.


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.


Interested In Reading More?

Check out our sister publication Mana Magazine’s current issue for a cover story on  gender and sexual identity in the Hawaiian community, including portraits of Kealii Reichel, Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu and Kaumakaiwa Kanakaole. Also, find out why “mahu” probably doesn’t mean what you think it does. On newsstands now, or visit

Young credits pop-cultural forces for the evolution, shows like Modern Family and Will & Grace, and when Ellen DeGeneres came out. “Television and Hollywood helped people understand that [gay people] are like everybody else,” she says. “They’re in our families, they are our families.”

After the dam-breaking flood of national victories for gay marriage during the previous year, Gov. Neil Abercrombie called a special legislative session to deal with the issue in September 2013."

Along with the lawmakers, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of angry citizens showed up at the Capitol, many in blue T-shirts and many of them churchgoers, who noisily demanded that the session be shut down and the issue decided by public vote. The crowd became unruly and overran a press conference organized by a group of 40 religious leaders who had shownup to express publicly their support for same-sex marriage. The ugliness backfired.

The House passed the Hawaii Marriage Equality Act, then the Senate did, and Abercrombie signed the legislation into law on Nov. 13, 2013. It had been 23 years since three same-sex couples who wanted to get married sat down with Honolulu attorney Dan Foley and together decided: Let’s ask our government.

Hawaii was the 15th state to legalize gay marriage. As Jack Law, longtime owner of Hula’s and public face of Honolulu’s gay community, ruefully told me, “At least we’re the 15th state, not the 50th.”

Just days before the climactic vote in the House, educator and kumu Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu published an op-ed in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser excoriating fellow kanaka maoli who had been waving antigay-marriage signs on the streets and going on television and claiming that only traditional Christian marriage could protect ‘ohana values.

“In truth,” she lectured, “pre-contact Hawaiians would have scoffed at the simplistic view of marriage as ‘the union of one man and one woman,’ and their family arrangements often included and even depended upon relatives in same-sex relationships.”

She closed with this: “I speak on behalf of mahu and those in aikane relationships who are too afraid, too shy or unable to articulate their profound connection to the true native concept of Hawaii—an inclusive society that unconditionally accepts, respects, and loves all people, and that values the full and wondrous diversity of our relationships and families.”


About the Author

Curt Sanburn moved to Hawaii from Connecticut with his family when he was 10 years old. He attended Iolani School and swam for the Aina Haina Swim Club. He graduated from Yale University in 1977. A former editor of the Honolulu Weekly newspaper, Curt Sanburn has been an editor at Gentlemen's Quarterly and Harper’s Bazaar magazines, and a reporter at Life magazine. Sanburn now lives in San Francisco and continues to write about Hawaii affairs.