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Hawaii: Coming Full Circle on Gay Families?

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Feb 21, 2011
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I lived and worked for a time on the Big Island of Hawaii. My husband, whose job had taken him to Cambridge, England, grumbled that I was off to paradise, leaving him stranded in "bloody Blighty" as the winter months closed in. I was the lucky one, he’d assure me during our weekly 10-minute phone conversations, which had to be brief because they were so expensive, and had to take place in the early morning my time because of a 12-hour time difference. He’d have done anything, he’d continue, for such a plum job as the one I had, in perpetual sunshine.

I hated to spoil the myth he was creating, but the "perpetual" sunshine was not so perpetual at all. I was working in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which was located way upland in what was, essentially, a rain forest--so called because there was plenty of precipitation. There were plenty of sunny days, but they weren’t crystal clear; often, they were veiled in "vog," a mixture of volcanic gases (mainly sulfur) and fog. As for the "job," I was a volunteer working for a $7-per-day stipend. I was attached to the culture resources department of the park service, thanks to my background in archaeology. The work, at least, was interesting, and I buried myself in it for ten hours a day, six days a week.

My husband refused to believe this: he wanted to hear about the long days I was spending at the beach. But I was in no mood to go sunning on the sand or frolicking in the water: I missed my husband, and I was angry that we were, once again, separated for no reason other than we were a same-sex couple.

The fact was, I hadn’t come to "paradise" by choice. I was there because at the time, in 1995, England would not recognize our relationship, and we were left to manage with six-month windows of time together--the so-called "tourist visa," though no actual document (other than a stamp in my passport) was involved.

The English immigration officials showed no understanding whatsoever. I was grilled and raked over the coals every time I re-entered the country. "Why were you here for five months?" a woman with a Swedish accent asked me as she picked through every item in my luggage. "Who is paying for your expenses while you are here? Why do you keep coming back to our country?"

Our country, you Nordic Nazi?--I felt like asking her. And how, exactly, is England your country? Do you want to tell me about your British husband and how you are here because Her Majesty’s government extends special rights to heterosexuals, rights that are denied to me and my life partner? I wanted to say all that, but I bit my tongue. We weren’t here for her Majesty’s guard dog to explain herself to me. We were here for her to pick over my luggage, and my life, with her intrusive, insulting questions and her high-handed manner because I was the one under suspicion. Why, who knew but that I, a citizen of the world’s sole remaining superpower, was looking to enter and abide in a second-world nation because of the irresistible lure of tea and crumpets!

The one thing I thought I would celebrate out of all this was not the weather or the beaches, but the fact that I was an American coming home to the land of the free, where I would not be cast under a cloud of suspicion because I was "other." As it turned out, I was quickly disabused of this notion.

In 1993, Hawaii’s Supreme Court had ruled that a state law denying same-sex couples marriage equality was contrary to the state’s constitution. I scarcely in the Aloha State for a few days when, reading the local newspaper’s op-ed pages, I came to understand that the struggle over the rights of gay and lesbian families--families like my own--were taking on an increasingly nasty tone.

Opponents of marriage equality--that is to say, people who seemed to think that they had some (literally) God-given right to meddle in my private life and in my family matters--filled the Letter to the Editor page with all the rhetorical devices that have become wearyingly familiar over the last couple of decades. Gays were out to "recruit" innocent little children, they claimed; gays were out to "destroy" the family by "undermining" marriage. (The method of attack used by those stealthy, promiscuous gays who were determined to annihilate humanity’s most ancient, crucial institution? Why, entering into marriage themselves! Clearly, this was nothing more than a "full frontal assault" that would flash-incinerate all that was good, true, and holy and leave only cinders behind!)

That was only the tip of the iceberg. All the other wild, overstated (and irrelevant) rhetorical claims also cropped up. If gays could mary other gays, why, then, people would soon start marrying their dogs... or their siblings... or their motorcycles! Children would grow up without fathers! (Somehow, the fact that children were already growing up without fathers never entered these arguments. Somehow, foes of gays marrying never got around to "defending" marriage by banning divorce or requiring men and women to undergo stringent screening for compatibility and personal psychological stability before allowing them to set foot within marriage’s sacred temple walls.) From the start, the issue of committed gay and lesbian couples was obfuscated by comparisons of gays with zoophiles, pedophiles, and God alone knew what else.

Defenders of marriage equality--including people who came out in print to declare themselves gay--stated their arguments plainly and simply. They were not pedophiles. They were not into incest or bestiality. In fact, their sexual conduct was not, from their point of view, the issue at all. They didn’t want to talk about sexual technique. They wanted to talk about love, devotion, and baseline human rights--the right to build family connections, the right to create a home and a life with another person.

The argument that came back in answer? "Protect the children!"

In 1995, in Hawaii, all the rhetoric and wild lies about gay families that resound even now across the nation were at full blare. Last week, Hawaii’s same-sex families finally won civil unions. How far have we really come?

Sure. But from what? Us? And who was going to protect our children from those seeking to deny our families legal existence?

No one, as it turned out. Not in Hawaii, and not in a number of other states. either. Not the Mormon Church, which even then was working behind the scenes to make sure that gays and lesbians were never accorded civil and legal equality. How it helped children to see their mothers and fathers excoriated and lumped together with sexual criminals is something that those who set out to "defend" marriage out of faith, or tradition, or simple creeping dread, never bothered to explain.

It was all a matter of voodoo and black magic: somehow, allowing those filthy and promiscuous gays to enter into the personal legal contract called marriage was going to poison all heterosexual marriages and level all of Western civilization. (How was it better to allow gay families to keep living in conditions that deprived them of rights? That deprived children of medical coverage? If there was an answer to this, those who knew it weren’t telling. They just shouted the louder about "protecting" those children who were left to suffer, and "defending" marriage from people who wanted nothing but to participate in its social and legal protections and obligations.)

Hawaii eventually put its citizens’ rights up to a popular vote, and--as often happens when an ill-informed majority with no real, practical, or material stake in the outcome exercises intrusive, abusive control over the lives of a minority--those rights were curtailed. That abrogation of rights was written into the state’s bedrock law in the form of a constitutional amendment.

By then, a tsunami of such amendments had already risen and swept across the nation: out of a fear that courts would note and rule on similar inconsistencies between state laws and state constitutions, thirty states eventually wrote similar anti-gay language into the documents that formed the core of their laws. Some of them go further than denying marriage to same-sex families: some of them even strip from gays the possibility of domestic partnerships and civil unions, second-rate substitutes for marriage equality that they are.

Even the federal government struck out at the illusory menace of gay families with a 1996 law, the so-called "Defense of Marriage" Act--a piece of legislation that protected not one single heterosexual marriage in any true or meaningful sense, but did incalculable damage to innumerable families and the individuals in them by enshrining fear-based (and faith-based) prejudice in the fabric of our nation’s legal framework.

A decade and a half later, things are little better. There are a few bright spots: families in five states and in the District of Columbia can marry. But that brightness is smudged with a kind of mental and moral vog than still blankets the country. The arguments against our families are as specious as they ever were; the rights of sexual minorities are still subject to the whim of the heterosexual majority; and prejudice continues to emanate from churches and church-backed groups such as the Mormon-affiliated National Organization for Marriage.

Far from the literal implications of its name, NOM exists solely to deny marriage to gays and lesbians. The group does little to address divorce or its underlying causes--economic hardship, for instance, or issues of compatibility between people who might have been better served not to have married one another in the first place. That’s because the heterosexual majority won’t stand for anyone (not government, not religion) meddling in their own sacred right to marry and divorce whom and when they might please, regardless of the costs to their children or to society at large. Divorce between straights is up to over 50%, but that’s not the driving issue to NOM, which spends millions around the country to deny gays their fundamental right to family. The house of marriage may be burning, but NOM and its ilk are determined to fiddle with the most personal details of gay and lesbian lives.

And to think that all of this--DOMA, all those shamefully amended state constitutions, California’s Proposition 8--which actually rescinded the rights of a minority at the behest of a bare majority--started with Hawaii. If the Aloha State had reacted differently--embracing its gay and lesbian taxpayers, supporting them and their families instead of vilifying them and trying to erase them from legal existence--would the last decade and a half have been different? Would it have been easier for families like mine? Would giving gays marriage rights back in 1993 have side-stepped some of the suffering and stress that gay and lesbian families, and their children, have endured in state after state where their lives have been subjected to public scrutiny, hysterical distortions, politically motivated lies, and--the ultimate humiliation--a public vote?

Last year, Hawaii’s then-governor, Linda Lingle, vetoed a state legislature-approved law to provide the state’s gay and lesbian families with civil unions. She did it with words on her lips that mocked her action, saying that the issue was "too important" to be decided by government.

Last week, Hawaii’s current governor, Neil Abercrombie, signed similar legislation, granting the state’s same-sex families a measure of legal recognition and protection long at last--eighteen years after the initial court ruling that set off a deeply divisive, deeply injuring, and utterly unnecessary and fear-based assault on the core values of American democracy: values that tell us all people are created equal and deserve to be treated equally before the law.

Has Hawaii come full circle on marriage equality? No. Civil unions are not marriage. Only marriage is marriage, and two people whose hearts, souls, an lives are entangled are already married in the truest sense of the word. It may take some time yet, but the laws will catch up to this reality. The granting of civil unions is a good first step, but let’s not mistake it for an arrival.

The nation, and families like mine, continue the long, hard trudge toward justice and equality. We’re getting there, but we have a ways to go. Today, in too many states--and on a federal level--the law still punishes our families. I believe the day will come when the law protects and serves our families, just as it does the families of heterosexuals. Then we’ll be free to make the same commitments, the same demands--and the same mistakes--that the straight majority today reserves as a special right for itself alone.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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