Marriage, Hawaiian Style



Even small spats take on enormous import. “The stress got to us one day, and we were arguing,” says Lagon. “My sister-in-law said, ‘You guys have to work it out because we’re all looking to you.’ ”

The earliest ruling in the lawsuit dismissed the challenge to state marriage law out of hand on the grounds that the existing law was “obviously designed to promote the general welfare interests of the community by sanctioning traditional man-woman family units and procreation.” It wasn’t until May 1993 that the case finally took off when the state supreme court returned it to a lower court for trial, with the strong suggestion that the ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.

In the meantime, the couples found little sympathy from national gay groups or indeed from many gays and lesbians. “They had valid concerns that we were never going to win, so why waste resources?” says Baehr. “Then there was the whole debate that maybe we shouldn’t ape heterosexuals. Then there was another argument that maybe we shouldn’t win because it would make the right wing angry and there would be a terrible backlash.”
For the couples, who endured more than two years tilting at the marriage windmill with little support, attitudes toward them changed overnight with the state supreme court ruling. “The day after the decision, we agreed to have a strategy meeting in my office,” Baehr says. “When I walked in, there were 40 people, most of whom I didn’t know. It was a quick transition from feeling very alone on this issue to having people say, ‘We’re going to tell you what to do.’ ”

That first victory in the state supreme court could have been undone by the state legislature, but so far supporters of gay marriage have succeeded in staving off any legislative moves. In its last session of 1996, the Hawaii house of representatives voted in favor of a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to couples of the opposite sex, but the state senate rejected such a measure.

The new session, which convenes in January, says Foley, promises “the toughest fight we have faced in the legislature.” While pressure is on lawmakers to do something in light of the ruling, the current political climate is so complicated, it’s difficult to know exactly what that something might be.

“We have a choice of scenarios here, none of which are going to be easy, all of which require significant resources,” says Chong. Supporters of Chang’s ruling are laboring under an initial burden as a result of last November’s election. While the outcome was, in Foley’s words, “a wash,” with equal numbers of incumbent opponents and supporters of same-sex marriage losing their elections, many legislators are nonetheless feeling the political heat. “There’s a perception that same-gender marriage is an important issue for a large part of the electorate,” says Chong. “The net result is a lot more legislators are shaking in their shoes.”