In 2003, I interviewed several people who were involved in the early marriage-equality movement. This piece is from my interview with Genora Dancel. She and her partner at the time, Ninia Baehr, were one of three couples who asked for a marriage license in Hawaii in 1990 - 23 years ago!
Davina: Why do you think Hawaii was the first state to get so much notoriety when there'd been marriage cases filed since the '70s?
Genora: Hawaii historically has been very out there politically. It was the first state to ratify the [Equal Rights Amendment] and the first state to have legal abortions. I think Hawaii was also one of the first states to offer equal protection at the workplace and I think that encouraged them (eventually the ACLU and Lambda) to really look at the culture of the Hawaiians. Homosexuality was part of their culture. It was not looked down upon. Homosexuality was more of a power. It was more sacred to the people of Hawaii, the real Hawaiians.
Hawaii is very open-minded and the people there pretty much do not really discriminate. They have an open mind and an open table for discussions and talking about things because so much has happened there, like with the military wars and with the culture. I think they were more accepting and more willing to understand that, so I think the arena was a better place to discuss it.
When the Hawaii Supreme Court came out with the decision in our favor, that really opened the door to discussions, and everybody thought legally that we were going to win because there was no way the state could prove otherwise. And so for once the U.S.government started to wonder, "Wow, Hawaii might win, so maybe we should develop a DOMA law."
So that's exactly what they did because they were in fear that we were going to win completely. And so it would have to be where everyone was saying that they would fly in from their home state, whether it was Massachusetts or wherever, and they would fly back to their state and sue for the right to get married because of this case.
I think it was a really big eye-opener for a lot of people. And people started to say to me, "What about gays in the military?" I'd say, "That's good too."
They'd say, "Well, why marriage now?" I would say, "Then when?" It was just an opportune time, I think - in that scale, of the calendar, in history - I think it was just everything was in the right combination and I think that's why it happened.
There were really not any kind of activities for people to get together until like the '90s, and that's when everybody, I guess, started more communities. They opened up the first women's center at the University of Hawaii, and I think from there everything was sort of up and up. And when this marriage project had come out, a lot more people got involved. There were more people than we imagined, and the people started to support us. I don't know where they all came from, but they all came out from the woodwork for some reason.
Davina: You said native Hawaiians had a sacred place for homosexuals?
Genora: When you talk about homosexuality in a Hawaiian sense, back in the ancient days of the Hawaiians, they had these leaders: They would be known as mahus. They kept the secrets of whatever the empire or who the ruler was, and they would have the ability to have sex with the male leaders and/or female. So it was kind of like a bisexual thing, but it was, you know, mostly male. So they were considered gods. And like I said, they kept the secrets of whoever was the leader, and they had special privileges or whatever you want to call them, but people did recognize them. They were very special in the administrative sense, you know? And so they were really respectable, and people do recognize that as part of the culture and as part of what the Hawaiians were.
Davina: How did you get involved with the marriage case?
Genora: I was dating Ninia Baehr at the time. I first met her in June 1990. And so we were pretty serious, and we started to look into domestic partnerships and stuff like that, because that was mentioned in some neighboring states like California. [Author's note: I love that she calls California a neighboring state to Hawaii.] So we wanted to see what was going on in our home state, because we were going to be there for a little while. We started to check in with the gay community, and we were asking questions and there was this guy named Bill Wood at the center. And he said, "I tried to do this once before, and I was thinking about doing it again. Come this day in December, I will try to assemble some people, some willing couples, to go down to the Department of Health and file for your marriage license. We assume that we're going to be let down again, and from there we march down to the ACLU office and we ask them to file suit, and we'll take it from there."
We did just that, and we did sign up for a marriage license. And what's really funny is that the woman at the counter was going to give it to us, and all of a sudden her boss came over, and he says, "Oh yeah, we were expecting you all, and we have to take you back in the back, and we have to make like we're having a meeting about this."
So they weren't really well-prepared, but neither were we. So we just did what we did that day and, before you know it, we decided to inquire more: "Yes, what kind of lawsuit do we need to do?" We decided to break away from the group because it wasn't really getting anywhere with the ACLU. So we had to find an attorney, and his name was Dan Foley. He really believed in the case, and he took us on, and he became a really good friend of ours. He filed and, before you know it, we went to circuit court.
The first appearance didn't go our way, so he appealed, and we went to the Supreme Court, and that was the big one. So we all stuck it out, and we did as many fundraisers as we could, we had to raise awareness, and that's when Ninia and I moved to Baltimore in 1993. And that's when we decided to go national because we knew it was a big deal and you can only raise so much money in Hawaii with awareness. And everybody thought that this just was going to be a huge thing, so we got in contact with Evan Wolfson. Ninia knew Evan when she used to live here in New York, and I guess they hooked up again. He heard that we needed some help and he looked into it, and became the co-attorney to the case in Hawaii.