November 14, 2013 | by Michael K. Lavers
Hawaii governor reflects on state’s long marriage struggle
Neil Abercrombie, Hawaii, Washington Blade, gay

Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie on Nov. 13, 2013, signs his state’s same-sex marriage bill into law. (Photo courtesy of State of Hawaii/Office of the Governor)

Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie on Thursday said yesterday’s ceremony during which he signed a bill that extends marriage rights to same-sex couples in his state was more than a celebration.

“It was more like an acknowledgement of the culmination of many years of what we call in Hawaii as part of our Aloha spirit: patient perseverance,” he told the Washington Blade during a telephone interview from Honolulu.

Abercrombie signed the measure into law at the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu one day after the state Senate approved it by a 19-4 margin.

Senate Bill 1 passed in the Hawaii House of Representatives on Nov. 8 after lawmakers debated it for more than 12 hours. The chamber two days earlier approved the measure on its second reading following five days of testimony from SB1 supporters and opponents.

Abercrombie told the Blade he initially thought the special legislative session to debate SB1 that began on Oct. 28 would have ended within a week — and not 15 days.

“It is still a reflection of the legislative process that’s undertaken so that everybody clearly has an opportunity to speak,” he said. “Much of it, of course, was repetitive and I’m sorry to say that some of it could only be called as rate, but that was more a sign of less of conspiracy than it was the intensity with which the opponents were operating.”

Lesbian state Rep. Jo Jordan, who Abercrombie appointed in 2011, sparked outrage among LGBT rights advocates when she voted against SB1.

“I wish we had had perhaps a little more opportunity to discuss the issue,” Abercrombie said. “I expect that she has her set of reasons. Whether or not I agree with all those reasons I don’t know.”

Abercrombie added that same-sex marriage supporters criticized him because he did not call a special legislative session “when they wanted me to do it.”

“My position always was and always has been I need 13 votes in the Senate and 26 votes in the House,” he said. “I don’t need rhetorical victories. I don’t need tactical advice that has nothing to do with keeping your eye on the prize, which is to get the bill passed and get a bill passed that will stand up to constitutional investigation and vetting and be able to say secure the necessary votes to get it on my desk.”

Then-Hawaii Supreme Court Justice Steven Levinson in 1993 ruled the denial of marriage rights to same-sex couples is unconstitutional. This landmark decision prompted Congress three years later to pass the Defense of Marriage Act that prohibited the federal government from legally recognizing gay nuptials.

The U.S. Supreme Court in June found a portion of DOMA unconstitutional.

Abercrombie said Levinson’s ruling “formalized a discussion” that he said had already been taking place in Hawaii about how to extend relationship recognition to same-sex couples in the state. He noted he backed civil unions for gays and lesbians before 1993.

“I was the object of a lot of criticism,” Abercrombie told the Blade. “I felt that we had to move this along in a process that would enable us to succeed politically as opposed to making what I felt would be a moral point, if you will, that was doomed to failure at that time and I felt would hold us back from achieving marriage equality.”

Hawaii voters in 1998 approved a state constitutional amendment that allowed the legislature to ban same-sex marriage.

The state’s civil unions law took effect in 2012, but a federal judge in August of that year dismissed a lawsuit filed on behalf of two gay couples who sought marriage rights in Hawaii. The plaintiffs subsequently petitioned the U.S. Ninth Circuit to hear their case alongside a second lawsuit that seeks to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in Nevada.

Abercrombie cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling against DOMA and California’s Proposition 8 in his decision not to defend Hawaii’s same-sex marriage ban in the aforementioned lawsuit.

“It was clear to me in the wake of the Supreme Court rulings that the civil unions law which I signed right after I was sworn in obviated the prohibition,” he said. “I said ‘look, I can’t defend something that I don’t think has legal validity.’”

Abercrombie gives pen used to sign SB1 to Levinson

Hawaii is among the 15 states and D.C. in which same-sex couples can now legally marry.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn on Nov. 20 is scheduled to sign a measure that will allow nuptials for gays and lesbians in his state.

A judge on Thursday refused to consider state Rep. Bob McDermott’s motion that would have blocked SB1 from taking effect on Dec. 2.

Abercrombie told the Blade one of the things about which he thought before he signed SB1 into law was seeking the Human Rights Campaign’s support during his 1986 congressional campaign. He recalled meeting two HRC staffers inside their small office near the U.S. Capitol.

“We’ve come a long, long way from an upstairs office somewhere on D Street,” Abercrombie said. “As I said yesterday, people who have been forced to be invisible all their lives are now visible to themselves and the whole world.”

Abercrombie also gave the pen he used to sign SB1 into law to Levinson.

“It was never a question in my mind of what Hawaii precipitated in 1993 would succeed,” Abercrombie told the Blade. “It was always a question in my mind [as to whether] we put together events [and] timing in such a way as to succeed. And at least as Hawaii is concerned we succeeded yesterday.”

Michael K. Lavers has been a staff writer for the Washington Blade since May 2012. The passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in Latin America and the consecration of gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson are among the many stories he has covered since his career began in 2002. Follow Michael

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