Couple helped ignite debate
By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer
Joseph Melillo and Patrick Lagon started the revolution in Hawai'i, urged on by the late Honolulu civil rights activist Bill Woods.
The lawsuit that Melillo and Lagon filed in 1991 after they were denied a marriage license was the spark that ignited the same-sex marriage debate throughout the state and nation.
Early on, the Pearl City couple that had been together since 1977 was optimistic that one day they would be happily and legally married, and they were willing front men in the campaign.
But long before the Hawai'i Senate's passage of a civil-unions bill last week poised the state to grant same-sex couples the identical rights, benefits and responsibilities as married heterosexual couples, the pair had lost faith and withdrawn from the limelight.
Acknowledging that the two had laid a foundation on which others could build, Melillo said in 1999 that he and Lagon had decided to withdraw from the public battle.
"Nine years out of our life is enough for the cause right now," Melillo said.
Not long after that, the two lost their T-shirt silk-screening business to arson. In 2006, Melillo died of cancer at age 59. Lagon, who did not respond to requests for comment for this article, was at his side.
Yesterday, the Hawai'i House of Representatives voted to postpone indefinitely any action on a civil-unions bill during the current legislative session — effectively ending discussion on the subject this year.
Thus, the argument over whether couples of the same gender should have equal entitlements as heterosexual couples continues its roller coaster ride toward an uncertain destination.
The debate might never have gotten this far without Melillo and Lagon, but Woods — founder of Hawai'i's Gay Pride Parade — was instrumental in getting the subject of same-sex marriage and civil unions into the public arena.
For that first parade in 1990, Woods also tried to organize a mass commitment ceremony of 20 gay couples.
Hostility was so strong in those days that Woods couldn't get enough couples to publicly commit to the ceremony. So he tried a different tack to highlight what he considered the inequity of the law.
He asked Melillo and Lagon if they'd like to get married legally.
"Sure, why not," said Melillo, and he and Lagon agreed to apply for a marriage license. On Nov. 25, 1990, their quest for legal marriage in Hawai'i was the subject of a Sunday front page article in The Honolulu Advertiser .
By Dec. 17, Woods had also found two female couples — Ninia Baehr and Genora Dancel, and Antoinette Pregil and Tammy Rodrigues — that were ready to join Melillo and Lagon in their pursuit of a license to marry in the state.
To virtually no one's surprise, the state denied the requests. The couples sued the state in 1991. Later that year, the Circuit Court ruled that gay couples do not have a fundamental right to marry.
But while similarly publicized attempts had been tried elsewhere around the country and soon faded from attention, the Dec. 17, 1990, same-sex marriage license application event led to something that had never happened before:
A 1993 landmark Hawai'i Supreme Court decision said denying same-sex partners the right to marry violates their equal protection rights under the state constitution, unless the state could show "compelling interest" to justify the ban.
With that, same-sex marriage became one of the most talked about and controversial issues of its time. And, for a while, along with the notoriety, the three couples — particularly Melillo and Lagon — became international newsmakers.
Stories with pictures of the smiling pair were published, along with their comments saying that they believed that one day they would be legally married.
Then in 1997, following years of protracted and acrimonious demonstrations on all sides, the Hawai'i Legislature passed the most sweeping rights and benefits package ever given to couples of the same gender in the United States to that point.
But, the following year, the voters of Hawai'i, by a 70 percent margin, passed a constitutional amendment granting the state Legislature the power to reserve marriage for a man and a woman.
The constitutional amendment made the same-sex marriage case moot in Hawai'i's courts.
By then Baehr and Dancel had left the state, Pregil and Rodrigues could not be reached for comment, and Melillo and Lagon had become disheartened by the path Hawai'i had taken.
Since the day Melillo and Lagon applied for a marriage license, five states have legalized same-sex marriage, and five other states grant domestic partnerships and civil unions the same rights as heterosexual marriages.
Meanwhile, the federal government, through the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, defines marriage as a union of a man and a woman and grants states the right to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.