In 1993, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled it was sex discrimination to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples, launching a divisive community debate. Polls show 70 percent of residents oppose such unions. Lawmakers say its their right to set marriage policy, but have failed to act. As we wait for laws and legal decisions, can we look elsewhere for guidance?
Star-Bulletin reporter Linda Hosek spent five days in Denmark, the first country to legalize same-sex unions as registered partnerships. She also spent two days in the Netherlands, where Parliament has laid groundwork for same-sex marriage. Her three-day report begins with the impact of gay partnerships on the Danish community and its implications in Hawaii.
But for hundreds of Danish heterosexual and homosexual citizens who crowded around Copenhagen's Town Hall plaza, Oct. 1, 1989, was a day of celebration.
It marked the civil ceremony in which 11 same-sex couples registered under Denmark's partnership law, making them the first homosexuals in the world to gain legal status for their unions.
Ivan Larsen, a priest with the state Church of Denmark, and his husband, Ove Carlsen, a public school psychologist, were second in line to exchange vows.
Lars and Aziz Warming ponder the rights and responsibilities
of their legal partnership as a Danish official performs the civil
ceremony and friends witness their promises in Copenhagen's
Town Hall. More than 3,000 gays and lesbians have
registered since the law took effect Oct. 1, 1989.
More than 2,000 gays and 1,000 lesbians have exchanged vows since then in the socially tolerant Denmark, gaining almost all the rights and responsibilities of heterosexual couples who marry.
Danish partnerships offer the same economic benefits as marriage, including those for taxes, inheritance, insurance, pension, unemployment and social benefits. Similarly, the law spells out legal consequences if partners divorce, such as alimony payments.
But the law also excludes gays and lesbians from important heterosexual rights. Partners can't adopt children, have their ceremony or blessing in the state church or receive free government health services for artificial insemination.
The law, likely to be amended this year to offer partial rights in the areas of adoption and church blessing, also requires one partner to be a Danish citizen living in Denmark.
Neighboring Norway, Sweden, Greenland and Iceland have approved similar partnership laws. Finland and Holland have partnership proposals in the works.
Holland also has formed a commission to study the legal implications of opening marriage to homosexuals to achieve full equality.
Initially supported by an estimated 60 percent of the population, Denmark's partnership law passed Parliament by a vote of 71 to 47.
Partnership opponents had warned that the law would crowd gays and lesbians from around the world into their small country with generous government benefits. They also argued it would undermine and diminish an institution historically intended for heterosexuals.
Even gays and lesbians opposed the law for philosophical reasons, saying partnerships shouldn't be modeled after marriage. They called for equality through individualized contracts not tied to love, religion or tradition.
"Especially women objected because of the negative influence from marriage, of being oppressed and dependent on men," said Bent Hansen, a gay activist and AIDS hotline manager who worked on the partnership law.
They also debated its progressiveness. "Is this selling out to middle-class values or is this radical?" said Inge-Lise Paulsen, a travel books editor and lesbian activist who supported the partnership law as an avenue to equal rights. "It was both."
But now politicians and government officials declare the law a success, saying it enhances the country's reputation and gives committed same-sex couples an official status.
"It's had only a positive effect," said Kim Engelbrechtsen, information manager for Denmark's Tourism Department. "It's showing we're an open-minded society."
The newly registered Warmings walk hand in hand
to their reception at Cafe Sebastian, where they
met almost two years ago.
"It is completely accepted in the Danish population," said Dorte Bennedsen, a Social Democratic Party member who steered the bill through Parliament.
Per Stig Moller, a Christian Democrat who abstained from voting, now sees that foreign homosexuals have not transformed the solemn Danish marriage ceremony into a "circus" in a rush for registration.
Instead, the law has helped stabilize Danish homosexuals in committed relationships by offering status and extending rights. "Now they live officially," he said. "It works."
Gays and lesbians who register have lower rates of divorce than men and women who marry. In statistics ending Jan. 1, 1996, 10 percent of gay men had divorced compared to 14 percent of married men, and 15 percent of lesbians had divorced compared to 19 percent of married women.
But not all opponents have come to view the law as beneficial.
Knud Andersen, Danish missionary president for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Denmark, continues to call legal homosexual partnerships "awful."
Of Larsen and Carlsen, he said: "Everybody here thinks it's awful that a priest and a school psychologist live together openly."
Andersen said he opposed partnerships because two gays or two lesbians can't conceive with each other. "The most important point of marriage is children," he said. "A child needs a mother and a father."
The missionary has about 4,400 Danish members out of a Danish population of 5.2 million. More than 90 percent of Danes belong to the state Church of Denmark and Parliament is the church's supreme authority, Larsen said.
A committee rejected same-sex partnerships in 1973, saying they would breach tradition and could affect the way other countries viewed Danish marriages. But the door was left open for discussion.
In 1984, the Parliament passed a bill to form a commission to characterize the position of homosexuals in Danish society and propose ways to remove discrimination against them.
Based on a commission report, Parliament in 1986 amended inheritance and taxation laws to put same-sex couples on equal footing with married couples.
In late 1988, the Social Democratic Party and the Socialist People's Party sponsored a bill to create registered partnerships. On June 7, 1989, Parliament passed the law, surprising activists with its margin of support.
The vote reflected an important Danish principle: In matters of morality, members vote according to their conscience rather than their party.
Politicians and advocates say Denmark's culture of tolerance and consensus made the country receptive to a partnership law.
The country officially upholds human rights and respects the rights of citizens to pursue their ideologies, Hansen said. And with a foreign population of less than 5 percent, the values become reinforced.
"If Danes were to deny gays and lesbians a life on their own conditions, it would require a cutting of the ideological lifeline," he wrote. "This is not the image which Danes wish to have of themselves."
But he also said events in recent decades influenced the vote, including changes in sex roles and changes in public attitudes over homosexuality.
"Homophobia has been constant, but it's getting weaker," Larsen said. "The more open we are, the less discrimination there is."
He said some young people engage in "gay bashing," but that his older parishioners prefer him to heterosexual priests. And he said his once cold father-in-law has thawed over the last 10 years.
"Now we are the best of friends," he said. "Sometimes he even gives me a hug."
Bennedsen, a nonpracticing ordained minister who also was health spokesman for the Social Democratic Party during the partnership debate, said the AIDS crisis influenced the vote.
She said the public, which had not acknowledged homosexuality until the mid-1980s, was impressed with how gay men responded with AIDS prevention programs.
"Society respected how they took up the problem," she said. "It made a change in the ordinary population."
Fighting for the children: Partners seek equal treatment in the areas of adoption and artificial insemination.
Blessing of the church: Partners want the right to a church ceremony and blessing.
Groundwork: The Netherlands prepares for partnerships and debates opening marriages.
At home: Hawaii's ongoing legislative and judicial struggle.
On the mainland: The status of same-sex benefits nationwide.