Civil unions near the finish line

During the same-sex marriage fight of the 1990’s, I once suggested settling it by taking a couple of the more reasonable advocates for the two sides — the late Tom Gill for the pro’s and Jack Hoag for the anti’s — and locking them in a room until they found a compromise that most people could agree to.

The idea of civil unions wasn’t fully conceived at the time, but I figured something like that was what they’d ultimately come up with.

Taking the word “marriage” out of the equation and making it purely a matter of equal protection under the law, I thought, might strip away some of the strong emotions that were dividing us.

It took a decade and far better minds than mine to pull the concept together, and emotions have by no means been absent from the civil unions debate of the last three years.

But after the November election decisively settled the question of whether voters were OK with extending the legal rights of marriage to gays, I’ve been impressed by the orderly manner in which the issue has moved through the 2011 Legislature.

Both sides have appeared at House and Senate hearings to have their say, but there’s been nowhere near the crowds or rancor of previous years.

With the Senate already passing a civil unions bill and House approval a virtual certainty after the measure won broad support in the Judiciary Committee yesterday, the bill appears on track to clear the Legislature and be signed into law by Gov. Neil Abercrombie within a month.

The reasonably respectful tone of the discussion this year offers hope that we’ll be able to implement the new law in a way that strengthens our community rather than divides us further.

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8 Comments on “Civil unions near the finish line”

  1. zzzzzz Says:

    “…the bill appears on track to clear the Legislature and be signed into law by Gov. Neil Abercrombie within a month.”

    Which bill? I thought the House and Senate each had its own civil unions bill.

  2. Rachel Says:

    While there were a few bills relating to civil unions introduced, SB 232 is the bill that is moving. Currently in the form of SB 232 SD1 HD1.

  3. Michael Says:

    “Senate Bill 232 substantively mirrors the much-debated House Bill 444” B.J. Reyes

  4. Kolea Says:

    Dave,

    Most conservatives were content with your solution: give same sex couples the same rights, but WHY do they INSIST on calling it “marriage.”

    Recognizing the strong resistance to full marriage equality at this time, the LGBT community leaders agreed to scale back their demand, yield over the word “marriage” and settle for “civil unions.”

    This created a problem for the leaders of the anti-equality forces. They shifted their ground, dug in their heels. Once the gays dropped the insistence on the word “marriage,” rather than recognize that as a concession to conservative sensibilities, the anti-gay leaders decided to portray it as “sneaky.” The public was told the gays were playing “semantic games,” and trying to get marriage, but “under a different name”!

    Heck, from my discussions with conservatives, I thought use of the word was one of their main objections.

    The conservatives had a marketing problem . Polls for both camps showed about two thirds opposition to “same sex marriage” but about two thirds support for “civil unions.” The antis needed to convince the two thirds who opposed “marriage” that they also opposed “civil unions.” and to convince legislators of the same thing.

    So they released a misleading poll showing opposition to same sex “marriage” and suppressed their polling data on Civil Unions, hoping nobody would notice the difference.

    In case their selective quotes from Leviticus were unconvincing, they launched their iVote campaign, bussing in church congregations on for Sunday afternoon rallies, threatening to sweep into the polling places and defeat any legislator who supported CUs.

    From talking with legislators, I know the threats were effective at creating fear and waffling in many of them. But eventually, a majority of legislators voted according to their consciences and what they thought was the best policy and CUs passed.

    They then waited for the promised backlash.

    It was much like a Tsunami Warning. Most of us are skeptical but also entertain scenarios of towering waves washing ashore like what happened in Indonesia. Or Hilo. So we proceed to higher ground and wait.

    This time, the “tidal wave” was about a 4″ rise in sea level. For all the “bad-ass” posturing of the Red Shirts, when the time came for them to “put up,” they had no game. Not one candidate was defeated in the 2010 election because of their support for civil unions. The Red Shirts are a paper tiger, “all show, no go.”

    So when the session started this year, their key leaders had moved on and their troops were demoralized. Any lobbying they might have done was virtually invisible. Wheer in the past years their arguments received no respect, their perceived power DID receive respect. With the illusion of their power gone, nobody takes them seriously.

    The CU advocates are down therre, touching base with the legislators, trying to make sure everything is ontrack and that no one will “betray them.” But they (almost) don’t need to be there, except for their own security. There have been snags, but there is an overwhelming consensus in both chambers that the best way of handling this issue is to pass the bill and get it out of the way.

    The conservatives are right. Civil unions will undoubtedly “lead to same sex marriage.” But they are fixated on a conspiracy interpretation of why this is so. They believe the “sneaky” gays have a hidden agenda to pass civil unions and then sue to force the state to adopt full marriage.

    This is half-baked. The state’s current policy of refusing to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples IS unconstitutional. Gays do not need a Civil Unions bill passed to strengthen that legal argument. Because of the 1998 constitutional amendment, denying same sex couples “marriage” is not “unconstitutional,” PROVIDED the state devises another legal arrangement which grants same sex couples the same rights. So the passage of civil unions, instead of STRENGTHENING a constitutional challenge actually reduces the chances of successful constitutional challenge.

    So why do I agree civil unions will lead to same sex marriage and why is that not a good reason to oppose passage of a CU law?

    I am confident that pass age of civil unions will help “normalize” gay couples in the eyes of more of their neighbors. Gays have “come out of the closet” more and more over the past couple of decades. And in doing so, their “straight” family members, neighbors, co-workers, have (in most cases) been challenged to better understand their needs, to recognize their common humanity, to sympathize with their suffering, to feel ashamed of our past prejudice and insensitivities.

    It has been a step by step process. Public opinion shifts, then a law changes, a gay TV character gets introduced into a sitcom, attitudes continue to change, creating public support for more legal changes.

    I think civil unions will help wash away more fear and prejudice, leading to broader public support for full marriage equality.

    And if you calmly dissect the objections of those opposed to civil unions, you can see that they believe the same thing. They FEAR that public support for gay and lesbian rights will grow. They loudly OBJECT to anything which will “normalize” gay people. They think that is a “sneaky plot” rather than a patient exercise of democratic persuasion.

    Sometimes the word “homophobic” gets thrown around so easily that it sounds like a cheap insult. But I think at the root of most of the hostility to gay equality is an irrational fear, a “phobia.” These folks should learn to relax. In a generation from now, most of them probably WILL have learned to relax. If they don’t, at least their kids will. And hostility to gay equality from that future vantage point will look as ridiculous and irrational as the hostility of whites to the earlier, African-American struggle for civil rights.

    The opponents fear their neighbors, their kids, will learn to relax. Those of us pushing for civil unions as a step towards full marriage equality expect people WILL relax and the fears will dissolve.

    The tone IS much calmer this year. But not necessarily because people have become nicer. The big battles were in 2009 and 2010.

  5. Michael Says:

    “A carefree quality is a whole aspect of life that I will never understand. I don’t think I have ever been carefree and can’t see the pleasure of it.”
    Carter Burwell

  6. Alan R. Spector Says:

    @Kolea – your analysis is spot on! I couldn’t have done a better job myself.

    The difference in tenor at the Capitol this year is quite obvious. Our opponents appear to be resigned to the fact that civil unions will happen. Over time, and not much time, the controversy will quickly dissipate, as has happened in every state, and public acceptance will grow.

    Even some of our opponents are finally acknowledging the truth. Passing CU does not enable us to then sue in the Hawaii Supreme Court for marriage. The 98 amendment prevents that. What they realistically fear is what you alluded to. Passage of civil unions provides state validation for gay relationships and “normalizes” us. Over time, this may lead to even greater public support and possibly full marriage equality in the future. But that is entirely speculative. What we do know now is that about 2/3 of the public supports civil unions. This was an achievable political goal which is why we focused all our efforts on passing civil unions. There is no secret plot or hidden agenda as some of our opponents claim. Everyone knows that the long term goal of the gay movement is true marriage equality.

    Interestingly, the last time Equality Hawaii did a statewide poll was 2 years ago. Just last week, a national poll commissioned by HRC shows Hawaii now included among the 17 states that now have majority public support for full same-sex marriage. Hawaii ranked at 54%.

  7. David Shapiro Says:

    Good analysis, guys.

    Politics aside, the point about the role of the popular media, especially TV, in changing public perceptions resonates with me.

    In 1998, gay coupling was associated in the public mind more with bath houses than loving relationships. Then started the current era of mainstreaming gay life in the media, in which you can barely turn on a TV show without seeing a sympathetic gay character involved in otherwise normal pursuits of every kind.

    This had enormous impact in shifting the public’s comfort zone, as reflected in the polls. “Will and Grace” was just starting its run when Hawai‘i voted in 1998 on the marriage amendment.

  8. Michael Says:

    DOGMA-G=DOMA!


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