Dear Hawaii, your RSVP is late — really late.

We all know that a special session of the Hawaii Legislature is looking to elevate Hawaii to the ranks of states that offer equal treatment to adults who want to marry each other, regardless of a couple’s differing or similar anatomies.

The surprise is that these laid-back islands famed for tolerance and a love of celebration — and home to the gayest population in the U.S. — will be the 15th state to let more people say “I do.”

Yes, 15th. Iowans — hardly known as a flock of godless cultural revolutionaries — can marry someone of the same sex. People in Hawaii, no. Think about that.

But forget about the rest of the United States. If you want to know how safe Hawaii’s politicians have played things on gay marriage — and how the legislative debate might play out — a more global perspective might be helpful.

Gay Marriage World

The gay marriage revolution began in 2000 in the Netherlands, a nation famous for hash-reeking tax-paying “coffee shops,” pharmacies that have long distributed medical marijuana, and state-sanctioned and monitored red light districts.

It was only after the more sedate neighboring Belgium followed three years later that Pope John Paul II began a major push-back campaign. “Homosexual relationships are immoral and deviant, and only traditional marriages can fulfill God’s plan for the reproduction of the human race,” read a portion of a 12-page set of Vatican guidelines signed by the Pope.

The following year, Noël Mamère, the mayor of the French town of Begles, announced that he would oversee a gay marriage ceremony, regardless of the French government’s official stance against it. When I interviewed Mamère for an article for Newsweek magazine in 2004, he insisted that the opinions of France’s national leaders were irrelevant and it was an equality issue that only judges could decide on. As a result of his plans — which he later went through with — Mamère told me that he received thousands of calls, letters of complaint, death threats and even a mail parcel “full of excrement.” (A French court later dismissed the legality of the marriage that the mayor oversaw.)

Over the next nine years, 15 other countries have allowed people of the same sex to walk down the aisle nationwide.

Yes, the socially liberal Scandinavian countries beat Hawaii to the gay punch in the last half-decade, but many people don’t realize that legendarily Catholic Spain was a much earlier adapter (2004). Similarly Catholic and even more traditionalist Portugal later followed suit (2010). All Canadians have been able to marry since 2005.

There have been greater surprises. In Africa, 38 out of 53 countries have criminalized homosexuality, often with sizable prison sentences. (Early this year, I sat down with a lawyer in Cameroon who faced death threats and political persecution because he was defending a man accused of purchasing a gay porn DVD. The film seller, engaging in entrapment, reported the buyer to police, leaving the man to face years in prison.) Yet, despite the repression of gay rights in so many nearby countries, South Africa gave the go-ahead to gay marriage in 2006 — just 12 years after the legal end of Apartheid.

Elsewhere, it has often taken politicians much longer than the people to come to grips with marriage equality. The parliament of Iceland voted unanimously in favor of gay marriage in 2010 which, soon after, allowed its Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir to marry her longtime female partner.

The idea that full homosexual equality is a left-right issue is increasingly being undermined by governments and polls. Britain’s conservative government oversaw passage of gay marriage this summer.

Even in a deeply Catholic country like Argentina, that furnished Pope Francis to the Vatican, homosexuals have had the right to marry since 2010. Brazil then followed, making it the most populous country with gay marriages nationwide. (Parts of Mexico also allow gay marriage.)

French Lessons for Hawaii

But Hawaii, while you are tardy, you aren’t alone in being surprisingly late to this party.

It also took the famously libertine French until this year to allow gay marriages.

There, a surprisingly noisy and visible minority engaged in some stunning acts of resistance to marriage equality. There were flash-mob public prayers in the nation where so many have declared that “God is Dead,” an intentional traffic-jam rally, and protest marches that brought out hundreds of thousands of people — with some of the more vociferous opponents overturning cars and engaging in pitched battles with police, who fired tear gas in return (as I wrote for Foreign Policy early this year).

While I don’t expect such intense passions on the streets of Honolulu, the way things went down in France might offer some useful insights for Hawaii.

The sizable minority against gay marriage in France became as vocal as it did because the movement never had much chance of success. Gay marriage was brought forward after 17 years of conservative presidencies in a country where politicians’ sex lives have had to get pretty extreme — and illegal — before they become fodder for the French media.

France’s hardcore Catholic traditionalists, who made up the lion’s share of the protesters, are actually a fairly small national minority. They were bolstered by some far-right politicians and and a decent number of older people of many political stripes who have a particularly passionate traditionalist streak. But they were never going to get majority support and the pragmatic main conservative opposition forces knew better than to waste their energies trying. In fact, about six French people in 10 backed gay marriage, while 39 percent were against.

This all meant that protest leaders had little incentive to temper their most extreme — and, in some cases hateful — supporters because the middle-of-the-road people who had the potential to make the anti crowd into a victorious mass movement, had already decided against them.

But when France held its special session, plenty of individual politicians, whether out of personal conviction or out of political point-scoring with their own electorates, raised as many obstacles as they could in the face of certain defeat. French conservatives who were opposed to gay marriage — and a good number were not — introduced 5,000 amendments as a de facto filibuster. This led to a marathon legislative session lasting 96 hours.

By the time “marriage for all” had passed, the French were sick of the debate — 72 percent said it went on too long — and most people wanted the government to move onto more palpable issues, like improving the economy.

Groundhog’s Day

There is an echo chamber element to debates about gay marriage, whether in other states or in other countries. Neither side of the issue is inventing the wheel at this point. Spain’s top cop Jorge Fernandez Diaz suggested that gay marriage risks undermining the “survival of our species” — as though straight people will just start turning gay across the planet if homosexuals can marry, leaving no one to reproduce.

The French city of Lyon’s Roman Catholic archbishop, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, brought out the old classic trope about same-sex marriage paving a road toward incest and polygamy, apparently missing the fact that these issues have been rife throughout history (including in the Church) in the absence of gay marriage.

As Civil Beat has reported, similar remarks have been made by prominent religious figures here in Hawaii in recent weeks and months, and the coming days may bring more.

But provocation is sure to play out on both sides of the debate, if history offers any guidance. I highlighted some notable pro-gay marriage rally signs from the French debate for Foreign Policy. Here are some attention-grabbers:

“Adam and Yves.”

“Our marriage won’t make you gay.”

“The gay wedding registry is going to jump-start the economy.”

And the most provocative:

“Jesus had two fathers and a surrogate mother.”

The Future

Another notable trend that is following the arrival of marriage equality is that when conservatives reclaim power in states or countries where marriage equality laws have been passed by people on the left or in the center, leaders on the right — as well as the courts — ultimately accept the new legal reality as the new normal.

Ultimately Hawaii has always been likely to follow the growing momentum toward allowing any consenting grown-ups to marry each other. The main reason for the delay may be a question of age. National polls in the US, as in most other countries that have broadened the legal definition of marriage, show that younger people are far more likely to support it than older people of the same political stripes.

So, while Hawaii may be among the most Democrat-voting states in America and the gayest, it is also, as we can see around us, among the grayest. In other words the liberalism and progressiveness of the state’s politics might finally be counterbalancing the cultural traditionalism of much of Hawaii’s older population. So it is no wonder that as younger generations grow into an ever-growing voting force many politicians are adjusting their own official stances on gay rights to be in sync with the momentum.

As Mayor Mamère told me in France in 2004, “We will see the same debates as we did with the Civil Unions … and we will end up with the same result; most people supporting it. In four or five years this will all seem quite banal.” In France, he was right — it just took a little longer than he expected.

But perhaps he’d tell Hawaii that what matters isn’t when you join the gay marriage party; it is that you show up while it is still going on.

Eric Pape was a Paris-based Special Correspondent for Newsweek magazine, covering politics and culture around mainland Europe from 2003 until 2008. He continued to contribute to Newsweek, while also working as a frequent contributor to The Daily Beast, Foreign Policy, The Los Angeles Times, Spin magazine and other publications. He moved to Honolulu in May.


Discussion question: Is it surprising to you that Hawaii has gone this long without legalizing gay marriage? Why do you think this is the case?

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