For some in Hawai'i, Jan. 1 was much more than the beginning of a new year. It was the beginning of a new life together for same-sex couples, with the launch of a law that advocates have been working on for several years. On New Year's Day 2012, Hawai'i made history by becoming one of only a handful of states in the country to legally recognize same-sex civil unions.
"I am very proud of Hawai'i," said Kevin Rebelo, gayhawaiiwedding.com's co-owner. "We are the seventh state in the nation to offer this. I am very grateful to [Gov. Neil] Abercrombie for making it a priority."
Rebelo and his partner, Frank Miholer, met in Hawai'i 18 years ago and married in South Africa, where gay marriage is recognized. They saw the need for a same-sex marriage ceremony company in the Aloha State and started gayhawaiiwedding.com in 1994. They also perform straight ceremonies through hawaiiwedding.com.
Lezra Portillo and Jennifer Chen of California wed on a Maui beach earlier this month. On New Year’s Day, 2012, Hawai‘i made history by becoming one of only a handful of states in the country to legally recognize same-sex civil unions. The move has been hailed as a victory for civil rights by activists throughout the state and on the Mainland. The law grants couples the same rights and duties as marriage—on the state level. However, it does not grant any federal rights and is not recognized by some other states.
The history of same-sex civil unions in the state began with the case of Baehr vs. Lewin in 1993, in which the Supreme Court ruled that Hawai'i's refusal to issue the plaintiff a same-sex marriage license was discriminatory. It was the first time in the country that a state Supreme Court ruled that a same-sex couple may have the right to marry. This was later followed by a voter-approved amendment to limit marriages to opposite-sex couples in 1998.
The issue was revisited in 2010, when House Bill 444 passed both the House and Senate. The measure that would have legalized civil unions was vetoed by then-Gov. Linda Lingle. SB 232, which is very similar to HB 444, was signed into law by Gov. Abercrombie on Feb 23, 2011, and went into effect Jan. 1 this year.
The move has been hailed as a victory for civil rights by activists throughout the state and on the Mainland. The law grants couples the same rights and duties as marriage-on the state level. However, it does not grant any federal rights and is not recognized by some other states.
Rebelo and others will now turn to this issue to lobby for full marriage equality.
Since the first of the year, Rebelo said he's performed more than 10 civil unions compared to 15 for the entirety of 2011.
"The first couple had been together for 40 years," Rebelo said. The Wailuku architects are happy about their inheritance being secured, he added. "I felt privileged to be part of that. These first few weddings-all of the couples have been together for at least 25 years."
Rebelo added that he gets at least one phone inquiry a day since the new legislation was passed, adding that people he doesn't know have been congratulating him and his partner in the street.
"A lot of people said that they are happy for us-people that we had never talked to," said Rebelo. "People feel comfortable now. It's great."
The legislation is not without its naysayers, which has caused skepticism from some of Rebelo's clients. Some of them fear that Lingle may return to office or that a situation similar to California's "Prop 8," in which a constitutional amendment was voted in to eliminate the rights of same-sex couples to marry, could occur.
In addition to being a breakthrough for civil rights, the legislation has helped boost state economies. For example, Iowa saw an increase of an estimated $12 to $13 million, according to a report by the Williams Institute released in December 2011.
Here in Hawai'i, the ACLU estimated that same-sex couples would spend between $4.2 and $9.5 million in a four-year period if a law allowing civil unions was to pass. This is in addition to $17.8 to $40.3 million spent by their out-of-state guests, which could create 193 to 333 new jobs.
Although civil unions are recognized in Hawai'i, they may not be in the couples' home states. Twenty states and the District of Columbia currently have some form of legal recognition of same-sex relationships. The laws in each state dictate issues around health insurance, how partner benefits may be taxed and how family and medical leave are made available to spouses or domestic partners.
Rebelo recommends thoroughly researching options before making plans.
Rebelo and his partner spent 18 years lobbying for the legislation to be passed. They employed tactics such as contacting and lobbying legislators, letter-writing campaigns, phone calls and "contributing substantially to" Equality Hawai'i, the state's largest Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) advocacy organization. "We also just sort of became the go-to people when anyone had questions," said Rebelo.
Rebelo and Miholer plan to have a civil ceremony in Hawai'i this year.
The application process is now online, which enables couples to pay fees and receive certificates on the state Department of Health Website.