Joe Melillo, left, and his partner of nearly 30 years, Pat Lagon, were one of three couples who sued the state in 1991 seeking marriage licenses. Melillo, 59, of Pearl City died Tuesday at Kaiser Medical Center.
Gay marriage case plaintiff preached acceptance
Joseph Melillo / Gay Rights Activist
Joseph Melillo fought for benefits as one of three same-sex couples who sued the state in 1991 seeking marriage licenses, sparking a statewide and national debate.
"We weren't looking for the marriage on paper -- that's not what we were fighting for -- but the benefits that came with it," said Pat Lagon, Melillo's partner of nearly 30 years.
Melillo, 59, of Pearl City died Tuesday after a nearly year-long battle with throat cancer, with Lagon at his side.
The two achieved what they had set out for -- reciprocal benefits without the formality of a marriage ceremony -- although voters passed a constitutional amendment in 1999 affirming the Legislature's authority to reserve marriage to opposite-sex couples.
"I miss him. I really miss him holding me," said Lagon.
Lagon fell asleep holding Melillo's hands at about 3:30 a.m. at Kaiser Medical Center, only to be awakened not even 20 minutes later by a nurse and told that Melillo had died.
The secret to their lasting relationship was believing and trusting in each other, he said.
"We trusted each other so much we never did anything wrong in each other's eyes," Lagon said.
After their court case became moot in 1999 with passage of the constitutional amendment, the two resumed their private lives running their T-shirt silk-screening business, which they eventually lost to arson. They fell back on catering. Melillo was a credentialed chef who presided over the kitchen at Washington Place at one point and had cooked for five-star generals, Barbra Streisand and distinguished artist and author Jean Charlot.
But while cleaning up their silk-screening shop after the fire, Melillo developed a staph infection from a cut on his finger. A visit to the doctor uncovered a lump in his throat that was diagnosed as throat cancer.
Melillo withdrew from the public after that, not wanting to talk to anybody, Lagon said. His family and friends did not know and only began learning about Melillo's condition recently.
After two months of radiation and chemotherapy, Melillo was allowed to go home where Lagon was able to care for him. He had to eat through a feeding tube, and it appeared as though he was getting better. But a month ago he started hemorrhaging, which doctors said meant the cancer could not be stopped.
Melillo, who came to the islands at age 17, fell in love with Hawaii and took up hula, played the ukulele and dabbled in everything, said longtime friend Ron Hokland. "The last half of his life, he was on Hawaii time."
Melillo was a minister who conducted marriages, was into real estate, graduated from the University of Hawaii with a degree in chemistry and was also the first male to graduate from the home economics program at UH.
Longtime civil and gay rights activist Bill Woods recalls one Sunday night when he invited over Melillo and a bunch of friends.
Melillo brought an elaborate white chocolate mousse cake with chocolate shavings 6 to 7 inches high.
"It was memorable," Woods said.
Woods would later ask Melillo and Lagon to be one of three same-sex couples named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Recently, the son of friends who had stayed with them for a while called and left a message on Lagon's phone thanking Melillo, saying, "Without him I never would have learned everyone is the same -- gay or straight -- no one is different."
"That's the way Joe was. He loved letting people know they can live together if they try," Lagon said.