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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 30, 2010

Cheers, tears greet House vote

 •  Historic civil-unions bill gets House OK

By Rob Perez
Advertiser Staff Writer

Fifteen years ago, Carolyn Golojuch and other O'ahu residents with gay or lesbian relatives formed an advocacy group to push for equal rights for their family members.

Over the ensuring years, they regularly lobbied the Legislature in the name of equal rights.

Yesterday, minutes after the House passed a controversial civil-unions bill, Golojuch was all smiles.

"I'm ecstatic," said Golojuch, with Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays. "Perseverance does work. When you're right, you cannot quit."

Amid cheers and tears, supporters of the bill, which now goes to Gov. Linda Lingle, hailed the 11th-hour passage as a historic step by the Legislature.

"I think it's a wonderful surprise that (legislators) moved to stand up for principles and family values," said Kuli'ou'ou resident Jo Chang of The Moms, a support group for parents of gay children. Chang was in the gallery as the House approved the bill.

Hawai'i has been wrestling with the divisive issue of same-sex marriage since the early '90s, longer than any other state. In 1993, the Hawai'i Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling that said denying same-sex partners the right to marry violated their equal protection under the state Constitution.

It was the first time any state high court had taken such action.

Since then, attempts have been made regularly at the Legislature to expand the rights of gay couples, and many of those attempts faltered for lack of support. Yesterday's action was the first time a civil-unions bill giving same-sex couples the same rights and protections as married opposite-sex couples overcame bitter opposition.

"We've been waiting for this to happen for so long," said Ryan Prestoza, 25, a University of Hawai'i student who watched yesterday's vote. "It's overwhelming. It's going to take some time to sink in."

The state began grappling over same-sex marriages in 1991 after three same-sex couples filed a lawsuit because they were denied marriage licenses. That lawsuit resulted in the high court's decision two years later.

The issue made headlines again in 1997 when Hawai'i became the first state in the country to provide some spousal rights to gay partners.

Legislators passed a reciprocal beneficiary relationships bill, giving adults who were legally banned from marrying the right to register their reciprocal relationship with the state. Reciprocal benefits include inheritance rights, property rights, hospital visitation rights and other protections.

That same year, however, lawmakers approved a measure allowing the public to vote on a constitutional amendment on whether to grant the Legislature the power to reserve marriage for a man and a woman.

Hawai'i voters approved the amendment in 1998 by a 70-percent majority.

Even after the reciprocal benefits legislation was enacted, proponents of civil unions said that legislation didn't go far enough and continued to push for the expanded rights enjoyed by all other married couples.

Their efforts culminated in yesterday's House vote.

"I'm stunned, shocked, thrilled," said Kapolei resident Aaron Escobido-Ortiz, a business owner who was in the gallery watching the vote. "It could've gone either way, but they did the right thing. ... This bill isn't just for gays and lesbians. It's for Hawai'i's straight people as well."

UH student Chesley Burruss, 25, who also watched the vote, called the outcome amazing.

"I think it sends a really strong message that LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people matter in Hawai'i," he said. "I think that's a really strong message."

Kat Brady of Citizens for Equal Rights likewise applauded the House action.

"This is a great day for justice," she said. "The Constitution is clear. All people are equal. And I'm overjoyed that couples who have been together for a long time will get the rights they deserve."