Same-sex Marriage 20 Years Later

On Oct. 28, state House Speaker Joe Souki and Senate President Donna Mercado Kim will gavel the members of their respective bodies into special session to consider a bill to legalize same-sex marriage. They will do so at the behest of Gov. Neil Abercrombie and in the wake of United States Supreme Court decisions favorable to gay marriage.

According to Honolulu Star-Advertiser political reporter Derrick DePledge, the votes are there to pass a gay-marriage bill in the Senate, 21 to four, and probably there in the House, where 27 representatives favor it, 17 oppose and seven remain undecided. Twenty-six votes are needed for passage in the House.

It’s time. Twenty years ago, Hawaii Associate Justice Steven Levinson wrote the majority opinion in Baehr v. Lewin, declaring that the denial of marriage licenses to three same-sex couples infringed on their constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law. The state Supreme Court’s decision in Baehr propelled Hawaii into national leadership in the gay marriage debate.

It also set off a firestorm at the Capitol. Hawaii’s pastors led their flocks in what seemed like a daily demonstration against same-sex marriage. Out of the furor, a constitutional amendment emerged, giving legislators the power to define marriage as between a man and a woman. They did so with dispatch in 1998.

There matters stood until 2010, when a controversial civil unions bill made it out of the state Legislature. Gov. Linda Lingle pondered it at length, then vetoed it. During the gubernatorial election campaign that fall, Democrat Abercrombie promised to sign a civil unions bill the moment it reached his desk; Republican Duke Aiona opposed it. Abercrombie won, his fellow Democrats sent him a bill and it became law in 2011.

From Baehr to Hawaii’s 1998 constitutional amendment, from passage of the civil unions bill to the upcoming special session, much has transpired. Thirteen states plus the District of Columbia have legalized gay marriage, and Hawaii has drifted from the forefront of the marriage debate to somewhere in the middle of the pack.

But more important, Hawaii and the country have changed dramatically. America’s divorce rate has remained high, somewhere between 40 percent and 50 percent, depending on who’s doing the counting. Part of the variability has been attributed to the country’s youths increasingly forgoing marriage altogether: Cohabitation, yes, but not marriage.

Being gay has changed as well. The closet doors behind which gays have felt it necessary to hide have opened wide in the past two decades: in the media, in sports, in school hallways and, most important, in our own families: Auntie This, Uncle That, cousin so-and-so, our sons, our daughters.

And we’ve come to recognize that the gay family members and friends we love have relationships – relationships that are loving and lasting, sometimes for decades, often for lifetimes, “till death do they part.” They are marriages, whether the pastors and their flocks care to acknowledge them or not.

So our legislators and judges must. Pastors may deny those marriages – the so-called religious exemption being proposed for churches that don’t wish to marry gays – but Justice Levinson couldn’t 20 years ago and neither can the 76 state lawmakers who will gather Oct. 28 in the Capitol.