As supporters of Hawaii civil unions entered Washington Place Wednesday, they were handed a small card embossed with the state seal and the words “Office of the Governor.”

Inside the card read, in part, “Mahalo for being a part of this momentous occasion. We are here today to legalize civil unions in Hawaii, a moment made possible by the hard work and civic courage of people like you as well as countless other individuals and organizations.”

The card, of course, was signed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

It was a personal note regarding the most personal, and political, of issues — the government’s recognition of the union of two people who love each other.

“Oh, what a day,” one supporter said to another.

“A good day,” said another.

Many of the dozens of guests at Washington Place had been on the front lines fighting for civil unions and same-sex marriage. Supporters of the new law say that it is not marriage, yet grants same-sex couples essentially the same rights.

They remembered the highs over the past two decades, such as the 1993 ruling by the Hawaii Supreme Court that said the state had to show a compelling reason to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples.

They remembered the lows, too, including the 1998 vote that allowed the Legislature to amend the Constitution to limit marriage to one man and one woman as well as the July 6, 2010, veto by Gov. Linda Lingle of House Bill 444.

This day, however — February 23, 2011 — was their day, and in the former home of Queen Liliuokalani they embraced each other and took photos, all dressed up as if attending a wedding.

Elsewhere, a gay-friendly hotel in Waikiki invited the public to watch the ceremony as it was live streamed. A party at Hula’s Bar and Lei Stand followed.

Even the weather cooperated, with trade winds finally, if briefly, blowing away the haze.

Adding to the sense of history was that the civil unions legislation was signed on the same day the Obama administration announced it would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.

“Can you believe it?” audience members said to each other before and after the bill signing.

Not everyone was happy.

The Hawaii Catholic Conference, for example, released a statement after the signing that argued, “Passage of this legislation is just a step towards the legalization of same-sex marriage.”

The Catholic conference, the public policy voice of the Roman Catholic Church in Hawaii, is correct. Some of the civil unions supporters at Washington Place said marriage is the next battleground.

But others talked about other things to come, too, like gay and lesbian tourists who may now see the islands in a far friendlier light.

Suzanne King and Tambry Young handed out invitations to join them and daughter Shylar at P.F. Chang’s for pupu and no-host cocktails. The photo on the invitation was from their wedding day in Massachusetts, where a sign behind the bride and bride read, “City of Salem: Waikiki Beach.”

(Yes, such a place exists, and in the first state to legalize same-sex marriage.)

Everyone at the bill signing, it can be said, was aware of the history of the moment. It was so giddy that state Sen. Clayton Hee at one point kissed the governor’s bald head, eliciting laughter and applause from the audience.

(Hee’s unexpected move was prompted by Abercrombie calling Hee “a special friend,” which triggered giggles from some who knew of the long and sometimes contentious relationship between the two men.)

Abercrombie gave pens used to sign Senate Bill 232 and turn it into Act 1 — the first law to come from the Legislature this year — to Hee and Rep. Gil Keith-Agaran, the chairs of the Senate and House judiciary committee that shepperded the legislation.

He also gave a pen to Rep. Blake Oshiro, the House majority leader and openly gay lawmaker who did more than any other legislator to make civil unions law.

The governor called the event an example of “civic courage,” and at one point he verbally slipped, calling civil unions “civic unions.”

But it fit.

Abercrombie said: “This signing today of this measure says to all of the world that they are welcome. That everyone is a brother or sister here in paradise.”

Walking out, Attorney General David Louie, who had advised amendments to SB 232, shook hands with former Associate Justice Steve Levinson, who wrote the 1993 opinion in the Baehr v. Lewin case that started the same-sex marriage movement in 1990.

“I’m a happy camper!” said Levinson, his face flush with joy.

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