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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

For better or worse

In Hawaii, a showdown over marriage tests the limits of gay activism

By John Cloud

TIME magazine

(TIME, Oct. 26) -- Last week, as Americans embraced the oldest and easiest part of the gay agenda--the feel-good idea that we can "outlaw" hate toward people just because they are gay--voters in one corner of the country struggled with the most difficult and radical part of that agenda: the idea that same-sex relationships should not be morally, religiously or legally any different from opposite-sex ones. Marriage is lush with symbolism--pastors and vows, rings and rice--it's the civil heart through which the blood of state and religion both flow. "Going for marriage is like shooting for the moon," says Elizabeth Birch, head of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay political group. "It's our hardest issue, but success would bring the greatest rewards."

On Nov. 3, voters in Hawaii get to decide--once and for all, they hope--whether to confer these rewards. The occasion is a constitutional amendment on the ballot, one that, if approved, would empower the state legislature to amend the constitution to ban same-sex marriages. In the most recent public poll in the Honolulu Advertiser, in September, the amendment led 52% to 40%. Still, the side that supports gay marriage has more money in the bank, and everyone expects that the campaign will end in a close vote.

The marriage issue has troubled and divided Hawaii since 1993, when the state supreme court (in its first gay case ever) declared that the state was violating its constitution in denying marriage licenses to gays and lesbians. No sanctioned same-sex weddings have yet occurred because the court's ruling hedged a bit, calling for more debate. But if the amendment is voted down next month, and the court sticks by its original reasoning (as it's expected to do), the debate ends. Hawaii will become the first jurisdiction--certainly in the U.S. and probably anywhere on the planet--to allow gays fully equal marriage privileges.

More than that, some gay couples who wed in Hawaii will return to their states to begin court battles for recognition of their now legal unions. Yes, 29 states and Congress have passed laws restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples. But gays who marry in Hawaii would then have legal standing to test these laws. The federal law would also be vulnerable to challenge. In other words, the nation would begin anew the wrenching debate over marriage under way in Hawaii today. However, if the amendment is approved, gays may have to set aside their biggest issue for years to come. They will have lost the biggest on-the-ground political war they have fought in a generation.

Strangely, it's hard to tell whether Hawaii is the best or worst laboratory in the nation for this unusual political experiment. On one hand, it's a place where the institutions of statehood--constitution, courts, parties--were designed in the 1950s by people who had recently suffered raw discrimination. Asian Americans who remembered the internment camps of World War II, laborers who worked for white plantation owners on the mainland, minority war veterans who fought side by side with white G.I.s who called them names--these folks wrote the constitution in 1950. In it, they enshrined protections for minorities and unions. Discrimination based on sex was also specifically outlawed, years before the rest of the country failed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

But Hawaii has another tradition besides political liberalism: Christianity. Nineteenth century missionaries did a fantastic job here. Even today fully one-quarter of the residents belong to just two denominations, the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Latter-day Saints are major landowners, and Brigham Young University has a Hawaii campus.

More important, Hawaii's openly gay community remains fledgling and poorly organized. The islands aren't a paradise for openly gay people. Though the state's multiethnic complexion requires racial tolerance, it's a mistake to think that "the aloha spirit" automatically extends to openly gay people. "The bigotry is there," says Kenneth Miller, 43, a gay man who was born and reared in Hawaii and now works for a gay group. "A lot of us leave for a while, go to the mainland. Many people stay there."

In most mainland jurisdictions that have begun to recognize gay equality (usually through laws that prevent employers from firing people for being gay), the local gay community is open, savvy, well-organized. Moms and dads are told, employers are educated--gay becomes not such a foreign word. Not in Hawaii. Even Ben Cayetano, the state's Democratic Governor and a man who proudly calls himself liberal, told TIME that same-sex marriage shouldn't be legal for the same reason that "marrying your sister" isn't legal.

Most of those who run the state's powerful Democratic machine have endorsed the anti-gay marriage amendment. So how can the opposition hope to win? In a conflicted society, it must appeal to the people's sense of political liberalism over their sense of religious tradition. But their rivals, of course, are doing just the opposite. Both campaigns are reaching for the gut.

The ads for Save Traditional Marriage are unvarnished in their appeals. In the most inflammatory and demagogic one, an eight-year-old boy, the son of the group's leader, Linda Rosehill, reads aloud from Daddy's Wedding, a children's book meant to educate kids about gay relationships. In the ad, the boy (who isn't identified) looks very confused, and a voice-over says ominously, "If you don't think homosexual marriage will affect you, how do you think it will affect your children?"

The Daddy's Wedding ad enraged campaign workers on the opposing side. "Look," one said, "they're dealing with gut-level emotions--I mean, my God, insinuating that this kid is going to be harmed by us being able to marry? We've got to fight fire with fire: whack 'em back with a f______ abortion ad." They have that ad. It features a female physician looking as concerned as Rosehill's son did. "We need to stop them before they get to a woman's right to choose," the doctor says. The rather strained argument seems to be that if voters allow the legislature control over court decisions regarding marriage, foes of abortion rights could seek similar power on that issue. Polling has shown that if voters can be convinced that the amendment may lead to the end of abortion rights, they will be much less likely to support it. (Hawaii takes pride of place as the first state to legalize abortion, in 1970.)

The campaign has got bitter in recent days. The same-sex marriage advocates occasionally demonize their opponents as Christian conservatives in thrall to Pat Robertson. But Rosehill is a lapsed Protestant whose daughter is a lesbian. ("I want her to have every civil right," says Rosehill. "But same-sex marriage is not a civil right.") Rosehill says her side can win without resorting to explicitly anti-gay rhetoric, and she says she told the national Christian Coalition she wouldn't work with a local affiliate group she found "homophobic." Still, the campaign's most quoted and colorful character is strategist Michael Gabbard, who practices bhakti yoga and runs something called Stop Promoting Homosexuality International. He constantly reduces homosexuality to its bedroom component, calling it a "behavior" that society shouldn't "accept." He blames gays for the failure of his health-food store, which they picketed.

It would shock gays here to know they had such power. Ken Miller left the state several times--"trying to get away from my own sexuality"--but eventually returned to his four siblings and 12 aunts and uncles. These extended families make coming out difficult: tell one person, and a cousin in the next town will find out. Many locals stay closeted. "And that's the way a lot of the society likes it," Miller says.

Thus the upcoming vote has divided the gay community, which has been forced into a wrenching choice--not so much over whether to vote no but over what to tell family and friends about the vote, about themselves, about their lovers. Local gays sometimes resent white transplants who are so open and easy with their homosexuality. For years, the small Hawaii group paying for the lawsuit that preceded this vote was almost entirely white, many of them men and women who moved to Hawaii to escape their own closets on the mainland.

The emotionalism of the campaign is clear even in quieter settings. Before a group of Japanese-American seniors, Jackie Young of Protect Our Constitution, the group fighting the amendment, offers a reason to vote against it: "Never before have we amended our constitution here in Hawaii, a land of aloha, to specifically discriminate against one group of people. What if that group were you?" These are people who remember the internment camps, and Young--a former vice speaker of the state house of representatives and longtime activist--expects her argument to resonate. But during Q and A, a man asks her about "all those weirdos from the mainland coming here." Young sighs, objects to his choice of words and pushes on. Later, she laments, "I have never seen any discrimination in my state like this. It is so open."

--With reporting by David Jackson, Honolulu

MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: October 26, 1998

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