Time might not be ripe to do the right thing on civil unions


POSTED: Sunday, March 08, 2009

I was sitting next to a fellow at a birthday party this month (OK, so I'd fired him from KGMB-TV, but that's another story) and he said, jokingly, that he perceived me as being to the left of the late Abbie Hoffman, the “;Yippies”; founder of the '60s.

And when University of Hawaii-West Oahu professor, PBS-Hawaii host and columnist Dan Boylan joined us, the fellow asked, “;Which of you is more liberal?”; Boylan and I pointed at each other.

This is backing in to what I'm about to say and make somebody angry. There's much more than liberal, libertarian and conservative thinking going on with this pro and con on the civil unions bill in the Legislature. People I meet of many political persuasions are all over the place on this one. Some have religious objections, some haven't been exposed much to the homosexual lifestyle and find it too weird for their liking, some have budgetary qualms about the bill; the folks on my side see this as a civil rights issue right up there with women's right to vote, blacks' right to vote and interracial marriage.

But wait.

Things take time to work their way into the public conscience. The items above took more than four score and seven years.

Should people have to wait for civil rights? Yes, often they do, unless courts force the issue. In the case of civil unions for Hawaii, there will be no court because this is a legislative issue. So was our rejection of same-sex marriage.

So this “;liberal”; suggests that the Legislature back off for now from the tinder box. I've seen those editorial suggestions (not in this newspaper) about taking it to the people for a vote. There's good reason why we don't have state referendum. The results usually hinge on momentary passion or who spends the most money swaying public opinion. The Nukolii development on Kauai 25 years ago was killed in the first (passion) county referendum and passed in the second (big money by developers) vote.

We elect representatives to vote for us. They sometimes go with trends, wanting to be safely re-elected, and they sometimes get out ahead of the mob and vote what they interpret to be right rather than just popular at the moment. Most aren't Lincolns and don't want to chance it.

I'd vote for right (civil unions), but I don't think our world will fall apart if the Legislature tables it this year, and probably next, and the one after that. Same-sex couples can do by contract much of what I do by marriage. And Hawaii already has domestic partnership provisions. I don't think much is lost without civil unions for the moment, except what same-sex partners think is a civil rights matter and the opponents think is same-sex marriage in other clothing. It is (watch somebody use me in ads!), but it's not popular.

I started my journalism 53 years ago in Florida — segregated schools (Clearwater High School, St. Petersburg College, Tampa University), segregated towns, no-blacks police departments and nobody I knew ever admitted being gay or bisexual. I didn't extend myself promoting integration and sexual equity. The climate wasn't right.

It could have been, here, when the Baehr v. Miike decision case came up if substitute state Supreme Court Justice James Burns had written a better-thought-out partial OK (I criticized him at the time as offering one of the most unlearned legal positions I'd ever seen) and if our Legislature had not panicked and gone for a one man/one woman amendment to save their skins.

We do have a way out of this: The state no longer issues marriage licenses.

No civil unions. No domestic partnerships. “;Marriage”; becomes a ceremony. The rest is a contract. You record it like a mortgage. Churches can do or refuse the ceremony, protecting Catholic Bishop Larry Silva's non-civil rights but pro-church position.

My wife and I were “;married”; at Portlock Beach 38 years ago by a sometimes per diem judge. Quick, down and dirty. “;Hey, you're married,”; he said. Certificate filed.

Yes, we needed that “;license”; from the state Health Department. Disease test. Nobody asked if either of us was gay or had a sex change or wanted to have children.

But as one Supreme Court Justice asked in that Baehr v. Miike case, “;Isn't the state Health Department giving a license to some but not others discrimination?”;

Of course it is.

The Legislature has an easy and equitable out here.



Bob Jones has been a journalist for 46 years in Hawaii and is a MidWeek columnist.