Legal pioneer on gay rights issues reflects on how far Hawaii Legislature has come since he advised state in 1995.
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The Hawaii Legislature is poised to pass a civil union bill this month. Gov. Neil Abercrombie has pledged to sign the measure into law once it reaches his desk.
The new law would grant all rights and benefits, and impose all obligations, on parties to a civil union that Hawaii state law grants to or imposes on spouses.
This law, which has the support of the LGBT community in Hawaii, has been a long time in the making. I should know. I introduced the concept to the Hawaii Legislature back in 1995.
In response to the preliminary decision of the Hawaii Supreme Court in 1993 on same-sex marriage, the state Legislature established a Commission on Sexual Orientation and the Law. The purpose of the Commission was to study the issue and to make recommendations to the Legislature on how to respond to the Supreme Court’s decision.
This is where I entered the picture. Due to years of work in the field, I had become a national legal expert on domestic partnership rights. I taught the subject at the University of Southern California Law Center, litigated the issue in appellate courts in various states, and lobbied state and local legislative bodies to enact domestic partnership legislation.
Tom Gill, Chairman of the Hawaii Commission, invited me to come to Hawaii to address Commission members on domestic partnership as one response to the Supreme Court’s decision. I did so in October 1995, and as a result, the Commission’s final report to the Legislature made two recommendations – either legalize same-sex marriage or adopt a comprehensive domestic partnership law to give registered partners equal rights and benefits to spouses under state law.
This was the first time in American history that the concept of comprehensive domestic partnership was presented to a state legislature. Most prior legislative proposals had been focused on city ordinances and a few state proposals had suggested domestic partnerships with limited rights and benefits.
I recall testifying in the Hawaii Legislature’s auditorium in January 1996, explaining the concept to a joint committee of members from both houses. Although there was considerable interest by the legislators, leaders from the gay and lesbian community were openly hostile to the idea – and to me.
I was called a traitor by some. Others suggested that I was an interloper, despite the fact that I had been invited by legislators to provide them advice on the issue.
The matter soon moved to the Senate Judiciary Committee, with Sen. Rey Graulty presiding. He invited three experts to address the committee on the issue. I was one of them.
I tried to explain to the gay and lesbian leaders that this was a legislative forum and that, due to strong public opposition to same-sex marriage, the most they would get out of the Legislature – for years to come – would be comprehensive domestic partnership. I was not opposed to same-sex marriage. After all, I am a gay man and was in a long-term committed relationship. But until public opinion were to change, and change considerably, the legalization of same-sex marriage in Hawaii would be up to the Hawaii Supreme Court.
My views were generally well received by the Senate which passed a comprehensive domestic partnership bill that year. The only part of the bill I objected to was that it was limited to same-sex couples. I had urged them to pass an equal rights bill that was open to heterosexual couples as well.
The bill died when the House Judiciary Committee, then chaired by Rep. Terrance Tom, refused to even grant it a hearing. Perhaps the outcome would have been different had the gay and lesbian community lobbied in support of the measure. But with no support from gay rights advocates, and strong opposition from the religious right, the bill died in committee.
That was then. This is now. What a difference 15 years can make.
When the voters amended the Hawaii Constitution to allow legislators to deny marriage to same-sex couples, the Hawaii Supreme Court backed off on gay marriage. The Legislature threw the gay community a few table scraps when it passed a reciprocal beneficiary law.
Meanwhile, other states began to enact comprehensive domestic partnership statutes, sometimes known as “civil union” laws. Some, such as Nevada and Illinois adopted the full concept, making the new relationship status available to heterosexual couples too.
It is a shame that it has taken Hawaii so long to get with the program. They say that “justice delayed is justice denied.” But when it comes to equal rights, I say “better now than never.”
About the author: Thomas F. Coleman is the author of “The Domino Effect: How strategic moves for gay rights, singles’ rights, and family diversity have touched the lives of millions. (2009: Spectrum Institute Press)/ dominoeeffectbook.com)
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