Top of mind for many who participated in Saturday’s 20th annual Honolulu LGBT Pride Parade was the fate of House Bill 444, the civil unions measure.
As parade co-sponsor Equality Hawaii reminded attendees, Gov. Linda Lingle has until June 21 to let the Hawaii Legislature know what bills she is considering for veto. Lingle then has until July 6 to veto, sign or let HB 444 become law without her signature.
Civil Beat spoke with four Hawaii couples for whom the civil unions bill could have very personal meaning.
The Racines have been together for 21 years and are parents to two adopted daughters, ages 11 and 19, and Kimi’s 24-year-old biological son.
In 1991, family and friends joined the Racines at a church ceremony in Oregon, and they have considered themselves effectively married ever since.
Except that they are not.
When the Racines moved to Hawaii in 2005, they decided against seeking reciprocal beneficiary status — a limited set of rights for same-sex and opposite-sex couples — because, as Kimi puts in, “It did not look like it had a whole lot of guts.”
The Racines, after all, once lived in Massachusetts, the first state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But the Racines did not elect to get married in the Bay State, nor to enter a domestic partnership in the Beaver State.
Now that they live in the Aloha State, the Racines haven’t made up their mind about entering a civil union, either, should HB 444 become law. But they are leaning in that direction.
“We deserve the same rights and responsibilities as heterosexuals,” said Kimi, 46, a restaurant manager. “We feel after 21 years we should get the whole package.”
“We think at this point we might end up doing it to help people get on the bandwagon — to push the movement forward,” said Diane, 51, a skills trainer. “Not a lot of people are willing to put themselves out there.”
Diane also speaks about wanting to “not justify” their relationship to others any longer, as they have had to do repeatedly over the years. By “justify” she means having to explain why their children have two mothers.
“It’s the way our culture is made up, the fact that we are not legally a family,” said Kimi. “But I feel like we have held our relationship — our marriage — with great sanctity. I hate it that some people think legalizing same-sex relationships will some how blow up marriage. It’s so silly.”
Alan Spector, 43, and Jon-Paul Bingham, 40, were married in Canada in 2005 and moved to Hawaii two years later. They registered as reciprocal beneficiaries primarily for the legal rights, though they complain of its limitations.
“It seems mostly about death and dying — like what happens to your partner if you get hit by a bus or are in the hospital,” said Spector, a licensed clinical social worker and one of the leaders of Equality Hawaii.
Equality Hawaii has led the fight for HB 444’s passage, and Spector and Bingham say they would welcome civil unions’ passage because it would recognize their marriage as a civil union.
“We can’t have second-class status,” said Bingham, a professor and researcher at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “This is about equal rights.”
Is a civil union inferior to a marriage?
“The only thing equal to marriage is marriage,” said Spector. “Civil unions is just a legal recognition to provide rights and responsibilities, benefits and obligations. But it does not have the same social meaning as marriage, which is an institution. Marriage has meaning.”
Spector continues: “Civil unions is a major step forward. I really hope Governor Lingle will sign HB 444. It is a vital piece of civil rights legislation.”
Regardless of what happens to civil unions, Spector and Bingham will continue to refer to each other as husband.
“It’s our right to use our own term,” said Spector.
Valerie Smith, 38, and Nathalie Sowers, 42, were married in Canada last Thanksgiving. They have lived in Hawaii for the past three years, and Sowers spent many of her formative years in the islands.
“For us, civil unions means we would add to the sense of community and family we have, that we would be recognized,” said Smith, who is the office manager for Sowers, a podiatrist.
Smith echoes Spector’s thoughts on the greater meaning marriage has as compared with civil unions. But she also likes the idea of filing a joint state income tax return.
“That’s certainly better than not being equal,” she said. “I hope the governor will consider the fiscal impact civil unions will have on the state. What we have now is an unfair tax burden.”
Smith says civil unions will allow her and Sowers to “protect our investment in each other — in time, love, effort, money, property. We run a business together, we live together, we’d like to start a family.”
Okabayashi, 64, and Zimmerman, have spent the past 32 years together. They met in New York where Okabayashi was a flight attendant and Zimmerman was a publishing executive.
In 2007 the two men retired to Hawaii, Okabayashi’s home state.
When asked if he and Zimmerman wanted to be in a civil union, Okabayashi at first wasn’t sure.
“We need to study it further, to talk to our accountant and lawyer,” he said.
After speaking more with his partner, however, Okabayashi told Civil Beat that the two would file for civil unions. The earlier hesitancy came from the fact that Okabayashi’s longtime employer, United Airlines, treated the couple as domestic partners with full benefits.
But Okabayashi admits being irritated at having to pay taxes on the value of imputed income for Zimmerman’s medical insurance. He says married couples do not have that extra expense to worry about.
Ultimately, Okabayashi says financial matters are secondary to equal rights.
“Civil unions would give us a sense of solidity as a couple and as individuals,” he said. “Our self-worth is not validated by the state of Hawaii.”