For Better Or Worse

In Hawaii, a showdown over marriage tests the limits of gay activism

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Last week, as Americans embraced the oldest and easiest part of the gay agenda--the feel-good idea that we can "outlaw" hate toward people just because they are gay--voters in one corner of the country struggled with the most difficult and radical part of that agenda: the idea that same-sex relationships should not be morally, religiously or legally any different from opposite-sex ones. Marriage is lush with symbolism--pastors and vows, rings and rice--it's the civil heart through which the blood of state and religion both flow. "Going for marriage is like shooting for the moon," says Elizabeth Birch, head of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay political group. "It's our hardest issue, but success would bring the greatest rewards."

On Nov. 3, voters in Hawaii get to decide--once and for all, they hope--whether to confer these rewards. The occasion is a constitutional amendment on the ballot, one that, if approved, would empower the state legislature to amend the constitution to ban same-sex marriages. In the most recent public poll in the Honolulu Advertiser, in September, the amendment led 52% to 40%. Still, the side that supports gay marriage has more money in the bank, and everyone expects that the campaign will end in a close vote.

The marriage issue has troubled and divided Hawaii since 1993, when the state supreme court (in its first gay case ever) declared that the state was violating its constitution in denying marriage licenses to gays and lesbians. No sanctioned same-sex weddings have yet occurred because the court's ruling hedged a bit, calling for more debate. But if the amendment is voted down next month, and the court sticks by its original reasoning (as it's expected to do), the debate ends. Hawaii will become the first jurisdiction--certainly in the U.S. and probably anywhere on the planet--to allow gays fully equal marriage privileges.

More than that, some gay couples who wed in Hawaii will return to their states to begin court battles for recognition of their now legal unions. Yes, 29 states and Congress have passed laws restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples. But gays who marry in Hawaii would then have legal standing to test these laws. The federal law would also be vulnerable to challenge. In other words, the nation would begin anew the wrenching debate over marriage under way in Hawaii today. However, if the amendment is approved, gays may have to set aside their biggest issue for years to come. They will have lost the biggest on-the-ground political war they have fought in a generation.

Strangely, it's hard to tell whether Hawaii is the best or worst laboratory in the nation for this unusual political experiment. On one hand, it's a place where the institutions of statehood--constitution, courts, parties--were designed in the 1950s by people who had recently suffered raw discrimination. Asian Americans who remembered the internment camps of World War II, laborers who worked for white plantation owners on the mainland, minority war veterans who fought side by side with white G.I.s who called them names--these folks wrote the constitution in 1950. In it, they enshrined protections for minorities and unions. Discrimination based on sex was also specifically outlawed, years before the rest of the country failed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

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