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The Honolulu Advertiser

Gay-rights support emerges from closet

By David Shapiro

Gay-rights advocates ended up disappointed again, but there were sharp differences between this year's fight in the Legislature over civil unions and the same-sex marriage battle a decade ago.

The last time around, supporters of gay marriage were on the defensive; the issue was forced by an unpopular state Supreme Court ruling and lawmakers squirmed before throwing it to voters to decide in a constitutional amendment.

Gay-marriage advocates spent hundreds of thousands of dollars campaigning against the constitutional measure that effectively defined marriage as between a man and a woman, but their ads barely mentioned gay people.

Instead, they obscured the issue with general homilies about civil rights and equal protection that left many gay couples feeling invisible in the campaign that was being conducted supposedly on their behalf.

The evasive strategy that seemed intended to confuse voters about what a "yes" or "no" vote would mean failed miserably and gay marriage was defeated by some two-thirds of the electorate.

Things were different this year. Supporters of civil unions in the Legislature openly portrayed it as a gay-rights issue while doubters in the Democratic ranks were the ones obscuring the matter by talking about the "integrity" of the legislative process as the reason for denying an up or down vote.

The civil unions bill giving gay couples the same legal rights as marrieds wasn't part of the Democratic package at the beginning of the session and it seemed to come out of nowhere as a dominant issue.

House leaders made it a priority and passed it early by a 33-17 vote before community opposition could fully organize.

"It's time," said House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro, reflecting confidence that public sentiment had changed since 1998 and that opposition to legalized gay unions was no longer as intense.

A solid majority of Senate Democrats expressed early support for the measure, and gay advocates initially hoped it would also sail through the upper house.

But the community opposition was fully mobilized by then, leading to a long and bitter hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee that ended with the panel in a 3-3 deadlock.

Senate leaders started to think that maybe public disapproval hadn't diminished as much as presumed, lessening any enthusiasm for sticking out their political necks.

While a majority of Senate Democrats still claimed to support the bill, most didn't complain too loudly when Senate leaders used the body's traditional reluctance to forcibly pull bills from committee to stymie a floor vote.

Senators supporting gay unions put their colleagues on the spot by mustering the votes to force the bill to the floor in the final days of the session, but leadership parried by killing the measure for the year with an amendment to extend civil unions to heterosexual couples as well as gays.

Democrats are promising to work it out in the off-session, but reviving the bill in an election year may be tough as lawmakers try to gauge how much public sentiment has really changed from 1998, when several colleagues lost their seats for favoring same-sex marriage.

But in a fundamental change from 1998, many Democratic legislators are now unafraid to openly advocate for gay rights, and opponents are the ones on the defensive this time.

Gay rights activists in the community have helped themselves by being more willing to pursue their goals in steps instead of taking an all-or-nothing position on full same-sex marriage.

And with gay marriage and civil unions being enacted in other states without catastrophic consequences, the tide of history seems on their side.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net. His columns are archived at www.volcanicash.net. Read his daily blog at blogs.honoluluadvertiser.com.