Will Hawaii lawmakers overcome their fears and vote on HB 444?

Beth-Ann Kozlovich

HONOLULU—The 2010 legislative session will end next week, but until then, proponents of House Bill 444—the civil unions bill—say they will continue to push for a House vote. Carried over from the 2009 session, the bill has been stalled since January when the Senate passed it back to the House and the final vote was postponed indefinitely. The bill would give same-sex or unrelated, opposite sex partners the same rights, benefits, protections, and responsibilities as married couples enjoy. 

Citizens for Equal Rights is assembling a photo booklet of hundreds of community supporters from various professions, faiths, ages, and ethnicities from across the islands. The booklet will be given to legislators early next week to demonstrate what the group says is the general public sentiment—that HB444 is a matter of civil rights and should be voted into law without delay. The group also hopes the booklet will help to ease some lawmakers’ fears that they may threaten their ability to be reelected later this year should they vote now on such a controversial measure.

“If we can send a positive message that the bulk of the community is behind them, then they have nothing to fear,” says Rachel Orange, president of Citizens for Equal Rights. “If lawmakers see how widely this is supported, they can stand up and do the right thing.” 

Orange says she understands what unmarried couples face. She and her husband lived together for six years before marrying and only recently realized through working on the civil unions bill what could have happened had they ended their relationship during that time. There would have been no protections for each of them, their children, or ways to split their property and other assets as defined in divorce law.

“This isn’t about just giving all these benefits to other people. It’s about protections when something bad happens,” Orange says.

Tambry Young, co-chair of Equality Hawaii, says the intent of the measure is to treat all couples the same—and to remember that many unmarried couples of same or opposite sex also have children who need to be protected. Young and her partner of almost 30 years, Suzanne King, have a 10-year-old daughter. Young is the biological mother and King was able to adopt their daughter. 

“We go through the same trials and tribulations as everybody else—what school are we going to put her in, what kind of shots should she have, what are we going to have for dinner,” Young says. “We are good, productive citizens. We want people to see us as people before they see us as an issue.”

Yet there are issues for King and Young unknown to most other parents. King has to carry her birth certificate when she takes her daughter to the doctor. If the family goes on a trip, they have to make sure they carry all their paperwork with them in case an emergency should happen. 

Young says she feels very vulnerable and bristles at the idea that a same sex couple can simply put other legal documents in place to demonstrate the relationship and the wishes of each partner to advocate on behalf of the other and to be able to make emergency decisions. There are still too many cases where such a strategy has failed and is why she and King want the same protections offered to married people. 

“As protected as you try to be with all the legal documents, sometimes that’s just not enough,” Young says. “It really scares us. Before Suzanne went on a business trip, I told her she should make a videotape stating her wishes in case something happens and she did. We thought to ourselves, [these are] the things married people don’t have to think of.”

In the comparison between what protections married and unmarried same gender couples are legally afforded, Young and Orange maintain they are not seeking to challenge the definition of marriage as defined in the referendum of 1998: one man and one woman. 

“Let’s make this clear: This is not about marriage,” Young says.

She and Orange say the purpose of the bill has become obfuscated by those who are looking at it from a religious perspective. The reality Orange sees is a broad-based support for HB 444—especially from those in a younger demographic. 

“It’s a generational thing,” Young says. “We’ve gone half a generation since 1998. Anyone below the age of 30 wasn’t able to vote in 1998. There’s a whole changing demographic that has been moving in the direction towards equality all across the country and it’s time for Hawaii.”

Jo Chang is the opposite of that age demographic. A grandmother, she is the head of the parents’ group, Da Moms, and has a gay son. She says her son and his partner are “pretty nerdy and boring.” Her son works with computers, his partner is a chemist. “They have two cats and a condo,” she says and more importantly both men are accepted by family and friends.

“There are so many [parents] who do support their gay children,” Chang says. “It’s just not the way here to turn out and be an activist and turn out down at the Capitol. But there are many families who support their gay children and support HB 444.”

Chang also admits that because gay families live in a fear the rest of us don’t feel, they don’t volunteer to be counted and consequently their statistics are hidden.

Chang, Orange, and Young agree we may have a better idea of families parented by a gay couple once the results of the current census are released—but that is a long way off. With a week left before the close of the 2010 session, the numbers of HB 444 supporters the groups will turn out will come in booklet form. The real question is whether that will be enough to make the case that it’s not good government to shelve HB 444 without a vote ... now.

The interview with Tambry Young, Rachel Orange and Jo Chang is available on the Town Square archive at hawaiipublicradio.org.