The long fight is finally over.

Four Hawaii same-sex couples celebrated civil unions just after midnight Sunday at a party in east Honolulu. The festivities were marked by a proclamation from Gov. Neil Abercrombie and Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz, a stark contrast from an event less than two years ago at the state Capitol when then-Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed a civil unions bill at a public ceremony.

The civil unions party in Aina Haina was a moment that many present feared would never come.

In fact, it almost didn’t happen.

Midway through the online application process, the server to the house computers went on the blink. Soon enough, though, others in attendance produced iPads and laptops with their own wireless connections.

In short order, the ceremony was conducted amid great cheers and tears.

“You are now legal,” said the Rev. Pam Vessels, one of four religious officiants.

Now, after a struggle that began two decades ago, same-sex couples (and heterosexuals, should they choose) can enter into civil unions and enjoy many of the same legal rights and privileges as married couples.

Lingle couldn’t stop it. Nor could Mike Gabbard, the Hawaii Family Forum, the Hawaii Christian Coalition, the Hawaii Business Roundtable, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Honolulu and — in just the last few days — a federal lawsuit.

“This is a tremendous effort that is sweeping the nation,” Tambry Young, a member of Citizens for Equal Rights, told nearly 100 celebrants at a private home in East Honolulu late New Year’s Eve.

The occasion was to remember the long struggle and celebrate the eventual triumph, making it manifest as four same-sex couples applied for civil unions through the state Department of Health’s website process.

“Congratulations,” Hawaii State Sen. Les Ihara told the four couples. “You symbolize what we have all been fighting for.”

Legislative Struggle

Ihara was one of the legislators who was instrumental in passing the controversial legislation. But, in his remarks at the Aina Haina home, he made it clear that the real credit was owed to the people of Hawaii.

Ihara recalled how he asked then-state House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro how legislators could get the bill passed in 2010.

“He said it would take broad community support,” Ihara explained.

The bill did pass, only to be vetoed by the Republican governor, Lingle. The crowd booed at the mention of her name.

But then, Ihara said, there was an historic election, and a new governor, the Democrat Abercrombie, came in pledging to sign the bill if it could pass the 2011 Legislature. It did, and Abercrombie quickly made good on his word.

“It’s one of the good things he has done,” said Ihara, which got laughs and a loud cheer from the audience.

But the fight for civil unions began in the early 1990s, when the Hawaii Supreme Court said the state would have to come up with a compelling reason to deny same-sex couples marriage rights.

Jackie Young, a Democrat and former state House vice speaker, shared the story of how civil rights groups and others failed to prevent Hawaii voters from amending the state Constitution in 1998, resulting in a ban on gay marriage.

“We gave all we could for justice and love,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes.

Now Hawaii is the eighth state in the nation with civil unions. But the quest for equal rights is unlikely to stop there.

It’s widely expected that the legality of gay marriage will land at the U.S. Supreme Court. President Barack Obama has already withdrawn support for the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Laughter, Tears, ‘A Chorus Line’

Earlier in the evening, after a short program, food was served and drinks were poured. A piano player belted out songs from “A Chorus Line.”

Meanwhile, the four couples — Donna Gedge and Monica Montgomery, Gary Bradley and Paul Perry, Lydia Pontin and Bonnie Limatoc-DePonte and Saralyn Batt and Isajah Morales — greeted and hugged friends and supporters.

They also patiently submitted to television interviews, holding hands, kissing, beaming.

“We’re so happy,” Batt and Morales told Civil Beat.

(“Oooh!” said Batt. “I follow you on Twitter!”)

Then, after midnight the couples completed the paperwork and headed to the pool area. Bradley and Perry and Gedge and Montgomery stood by tiki torches as Batt and Morales and Pontin Limatoc-DePonte walked toward them as if in a wedding procession.

The short ceremony was performed jointly by Vessels, the Rev. Kyle Lovett, the Rev. Dr. Jonipher Kwong and Carolyn Golojuch.

Lovett asked the audience if it gave the unions their blessing. She received a resounding, “We do!”

Then, the climax — the four couples held up rings and said “I do” and immediately hugged and kissed and whooped out cheers.

And then it was time to cut the cake.

An Historic Year

Civil unions are about love, of course, but they are also about equal rights. It gives couples in unions 71 benefits, responsibilities and obligations not previously enjoyed. They include things straight couples take for granted, like adoption rights, tax deductions and inheritance.

There are also 290 rights and obligations under existing state statutory provisions implicating civil unions. They include making state and county employees eligible for two hours paid leave to attend parent‐teacher conferences, for example.

The past year has been a time of great change.

Hawaii and Delaware legalized civil unions.

But the biggest development came last year when New York became the sixth and largest state yet to allow same-sex marriage.

The U.S. military’s policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” also ended. It seems the world is changing.

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a speech before the United Nations, “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”

“This is just a waystation on the way to marriage,” said Michael Golojuch, chair of Honolulu Pride.

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