Marriage, Hawaiian Style



Melillo and Lagon signaled their intentions in a front-page newspaper story that appeared at the end of November 1990. Meanwhile, Woods had recruited Pregil and Rodrigues as well. The day before the two couples were scheduled to apply for the license, Woods also called Baehr and Dancel, who had previously contacted him to find out whether they were entitled to any benefits as a couple under state law. They were not.

“He called and said, ‘Two other couples are ready to apply for the marriage license tomorrow,’ ” Baehr recalls. “ ‘If you want to, you have to let me know in half an hour because I’m going to put out a press release.’ Genora was not out yet and had a lot to lose, but she decided she wanted to do this, so we called Bill back and said, ‘We’ll be there.’ ” The next morning, December 17, 1990, was the first time the three couples met.
The event itself had all the trappings of a media stunt. The couples showed up to apply with press in tow. The officials at the license bureau sought an opinion from the state attorney general, who denied the application. It was an effective action that briefly drew public attention to the inequity of the law.

Unlike other actions, however, this one refused to fade, even though it had all the earmarks of a momentary diversion from other gay rights issues. Woods and the couples sought legal help to challenge the law. For months the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union held the case under consideration before finally turning it down.

It was April 1991 when Foley accepted the case. Since then, he has, in the words of Vanessa Chong, an attorney for the ACLU and a coordinator of coalitions of pro-marriage groups, “pretty much donated his practice to the case.” A straight man and a former legal director of the ACLU, Foley had taken on gay cases in the past. In 1985, for example, he successfully sued the island of Maui when the mayor revoked a park permit for the Miss Gay Molokai Pageant, a drag festival. Foley’s commitment to fighting antigay discrimination stemmed from personal feeling: His uncle had suffered greatly at the hands of his own family because of his sexual orientation.

While Foley gave the case his all, the lawsuit took a toll on the plaintiffs as well. “I lost my family doing this,” says Pregil. “When it went public, they said, ‘Let someone else fight for it.’ Well, hello, who is going to? It’s really sad, but it’s their loss, not mine.”

“Our private life has been this public issue since basically the beginning of our relationship,” says Baehr. “We wanted to have some private life.” The couple have since moved to Baltimore, where Dancel attends medical school.