Members of the civil rights organization that led the Hawaii fight for civil unions say the New York Legislature’s historic vote to legalize same-sex marriage will “serve as a catalyst” for gay marriage locally.

“Our goal is to achieve full marriage equality in Hawaii for same-sex couples,” Alan Spector, Equality Hawaii co-chair, told Civil Beat. “Civil unions are an important step in that process, but they don’t represent full social and legal equality.”

Hawaii civil unions — which provide the benefits and responsibilities of marriage — don’t even go into effect until next January.

But, with Friday’s New York vote part of a national tide on gay rights, including the lifting of the ban on military service, local gay rights advocates already have their sights on the larger prize.

“We anticipate that this will serve as a catalyst as we move forward in our quest to achieve full marriage equality in Hawaii,” said Valerie Smith, Equality Hawaii co-chair, in a statement.

Meanwhile, a chief opponent of civil unions says a push toward gay marriage comes as no surprise.

“We have always contended that the majority of people don’t want gay marriage here, but we have always said one small step leads to another,” said Garret Hashimoto, chairman of the Hawaii Christian Coalition. “We would oppose that very strongly.”

Influential Legislation

Both Spector and Hashimoto agree that Hawaii is in a wait-and see mode following the New York decision.

Five states — Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Iowa and Vermont as well as the District of Columbia — already allow gay marriage.

What’s different about New York is the sheer size of the state — it doubles the number of Americans living in same-sex marriage states — and its influence. The 1969 Stone Wall riots in New York City effectively launched the gay-rights movement in the U.S.

As well, New York is the first state to legislatively pass marriage without first passing civil unions as a stepping stone to gay marriage.

And, while it was a Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, who took the lead in passing the bill, it passed a Republican-controlled state Senate in a heavily Catholic state.

Seven other states offer civil unions, domestic partnerships or the equivalent: Nevada, New Jersey, California, Illinois, Oregon, Delaware and Washington. Three others — Maine, Wisconsin and Colorado — offer limited rights and benefits.

The Associated Press reports Monday that Minnesota could be the next state to permit gay marriage.

That said, the AP also observes, “Thirty states have passed amendments banning gay marriage, while Maine voters in 2009 overturned a bill passed by the Legislature that would have legalized the practice.”

Hawaii Leaders Mum on New York

It’s unclear whether Hawaii lawmakers and leaders will take up the gay marriage issue, in part because it has been a highly divisive issue (until this year, anyway) and also because 2012 is a big election year.

In spite of its relevance to the state, there was nary a peep locally in reaction to New York’s action.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie — a Buffalo, N.Y., native — did not respond to Civil Beat’s request for comment.

State Rep. Blake Oshiro, the architect of Hawaii’s civil unions law, was traveling and could not be reached Monday.

Nationally, however, there has been a sea change in gay rights in only a short time.

They include the Obama administration’s announcement that it will no longer defend the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the pending repeal of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for homosexuals serving in the military and the likelihood that California’s Proposition 8 banning gay marriage is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Supporters of gay marriage include former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney, who has a gay daughter. And President Barack Obama, a Democrat, is said to be reconsidering his opposition to gay marriage.

Even Hawaii has seen a sea change of its own.

It was not even a year ago — July 6, 2010 — that then-Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed House Bill 444, a civil unions measure, Lingle argued that such an emotional issue should be left to voters.

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