Marriage, Hawaiian Style



In a way, the debate over same-sex marriage might never have happened without John Travolta.

It was 1977 when Joseph Melillo, a New Jersey native transplanted to Hawaii, offered to help a friend with a dance class on Saturday mornings. Since the film Saturday Night Fever was sweeping the country, the students, most of them senior citizens, wanted to learn to disco. Unbeknownst to Melillo, the teacher had also recruited Patrick Lagon to help with the class after seeing him do the freak, a disco dance, one night at a local club.
“I was busy with the students,” Melillo recalls. “Then I turned and looked at him, and he looked at me. We instantly fell in love. We’ve been together ever since.”

Their commitment led Melillo and Lagon to seek a marriage license in 1990—along with two lesbian couples, Tammy Rodrigues and Antoinette Pregil, and Ninia Baehr and Genora Dancel—and, when they were denied the license, to sue the state of Hawaii. The upshot: a ruling by circuit court judge Kevin Chang on December 3 declaring the state’s ban on same-sex marriages
to be unconstitutional under state law.

Now the question is whether that legal victory will ultimately prevail or whether same-sex marriage will be a passing fad, the disco of the 1990s. The next several months will see a bruising battle to determine the outcome. While mainland gays and lesbians are awaiting the outcome—too passively in the eyes of many Hawaii activists—opponents of same-sex marriage are preparing a series of measures to prevent the ruling from ever taking effect.

Yet in the meantime, what was once unthinkable looks increasingly inevitable. If Chang’s ruling is upheld by the state supreme court, as most predict it will be, the only thing that could stop same-sex marriage in Hawaii is an amendment to the state constitution. And while a movement to amend the constitution is under way, such an action could not be effected before the end of 1998. Thus, Hawaii will probably start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples by the end of this year.

“I didn’t plan this, and I didn’t predict it,” says Dan Foley, the attorney who filed the lawsuit for the three couples in 1991. “But right now it looks like we’re on the road to civil rights.”