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Marchers at this year's Martin Luther King, Jr. Parade in Waikiki hold signs in support of LGBTQ equality. Photo by Eri Oura

LGBTQ community, equal rights activists make final charge for civil unions

HONOLULU—Last week, President Barack Obama issued a directive to require that hospital patients be allowed to designate visitors who have the same privileges given to immediate family members. The topic of visitation rights has been put forward to legislatures across the nation as an example of inequality faced by LGBTQ partners in places that only recognize traditional marriages.

“Uniquely affected are gay and lesbian Americans who are often barred from the bedsides of the partners with whom they may have spent decades of their lives—unable to be there for the person they love, and unable to act as a legal surrogate if their partner is incapacitated,” Obama said in the Presidential Memorandum for the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

The motion, while applauded by members of the LGBTQ community, comes at a time when the White House is struggling to maintain political support for a measure to overturn the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which prevents gays and lesbians from openly serving. In Hawaii, the political climate surrounding legislation that would recognize civil unions for same-sex couples is just as unpredictable. But as the end of Hawaii’s 2010 legislative session nears, public momentum urging law makers to pass House Bill 444 is building in the form of advertisements, social media campaigns, and calls to action by LGBTQ rights groups.

HB 444 extends the same rights, benefits, protections, and responsibilities of spouses in a marriage to partners in a civil union. By establishing the status of civil unions in Hawaii, the bill states, it is not the Legislature’s intent to revise the definition or eligibility requirements of marriage under chapter 572, Hawaii Revised Statutes.

Citizens for Equal Rights (CFER), a group formed to solicit public support for HB 444, is putting together a photo booklet featuring families and individuals in support of civil unions. The booklet will be given to State House members to show mainstream community unity for the bill.

“CFER believes in equal rights for all, including for gay and lesbian couples,” said the group’s vice president Kat Brady in a statement. “In Hawaii, those who came before us took bold steps toward passing on a legacy of equal rights and opportunity for all. Passing HB 444 will build on that legacy. This booklet will help House members feel confident of community support for the bill.”

CFER volunteer Patricia Gozemba said she was encouraged to see the wide range of participants in the photo booklet supporting HB 444; particularly political figures such as Sen. Gary Hooser, Sen. Rosalyn Baker, Sen. Les Ihara, Hawaii Democratic Party chairman Brian Schatz, and former Gov. Ben Cayetano.

“I’ve been thrilled in the past two years at how much activism [for LGBTQ equality] there’s been,” Gozemba said. “There is a different momentum that is going on right now.”

Brian Navarrete, who earned the title of “Mr. Gay Pride” in Hawaii’s 2008 Mr., Miss, and Ms. Gay Pride contest by raising the most money in the community fundraiser, said he agreed that there is a greater openness in Hawaii than there has been in recent years for people to publicly support LGBTQ issues. While he says there has been a greater ammount of public support for the LGBTQ community, he remains cautious in his hopes that HB 444 will ultimately be passed this year.

“I’m more optimistic now than I was a few years ago,” Navarrete said. “But a lot of times in the past, when we were expecting [the civil unions bill] to pass, it didn’t. There’s always something they can do to kill it.”

In January, the State Senate passed HB 444 in a two-thirds majority floor vote. A week later, however, the House voted to postpone the bill indefinitely. The House votes were approved by voice vote, leaving no official record of how each representative voted.

While January’s House vote put a major obstacle in HB 444’s ability to pass this session, there is still a way to get the bill “un-postponed.” House Rule 46 states that a bill postponed indefinitely can be put up to a vote again if two-thirds members of the House consent to it.

Groups like Equality Hawaii are also making a final push to convince House members to vote on HB 444 this session.

“What we want people to do first and foremost is to really recognize that the GLBT community is part of the community here, that we’re a productive and strong community that is just like everyone else trying to live their lives in the best way possible, to strengthen their families, to be supportive in the community,” said Equality Hawaii co-chair Tamby Young on Issues That Matter with Lynette Cruz. “The second thing is to stand together with us and to stand up for the rights of all people ... by calling the Legislature, telling their representatives that this is an important issue, that it should be voted on, that it should have its time to come forward, and that the GLBT community deserves to be a part of the whole community, because they are a part of the whole community.”

In Hawaii, marriage is defined as being “only between a man and a woman.”

The current definition was set after the decade-long legal tug-of-war that occurred when three gay couples sued the Department of Health after it denied them marriage licenses in 1991. The Hawaii Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that the department’s actions were unconstitutional unless the State could provide justification. As a result, in 1996, Circuit Court Judge Kevin Chang’s ruled that the prohibition of same-sex marriage violated the State Constitution’s equal protection clause, which stated marriage licenses could not be denied on the basis of gender.

However, it was when Hawaii voters, in a 285,000 to 127,000 decision, managed to pass a constitutional amendment that allows only opposite-sex couples to marry that active political conversation on the issue was stalled. And in 1999, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled unanimously against same-sex marriage.

Same-sex couples in Hawaii are currently only able to enter into reciprocal beneficiary relationships with the Department of Health, which allow marriage rights granted by the State that do not pertain to family court (such as alimony, divorce, and child custody resolution) or fair access to health insurance. Reciprocal beneficiaries also do not receive any federal benefits in the same way that opposite-sex married couples do.

Earlier this year, HB 444 opponents said that the issue of civil unions was not something the Legislature should debate during a budget crisis. Equality Hawaii responds by saying that Hawaii’s difficult economic situation makes it urgent for equal rights to be protected.

“We do, within the GLBT community, understand the importance of the budget, understand the importance of the keiki here who are on Furlough Fridays, and that’s all connected,” Young said. “If we deny the simple rights that civil unions will provide, then that’s not equal, and everything is in jeopardy at that point.”

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