By Anthony Pignataro
The promise made back on Feb. 23, 2011 was nothing less than the fulfillment of a fundamental civil right. “This signing today of this measure says to all of the world that they are welcome,” said Governor Neil Abercrombie, finally making it legal for the State of Hawaii to legalize same-sex civil unions. “That everyone is a brother or sister here in paradise.”
It’s easy to forget now, but this was a huge deal at the time. A bill legalizing civil unions had crossed Governor Linda Lingle’s desk near the end of her term of office, and her decision to veto it after weeks of indecision had made national headlines. Abercrombie had campaigned on making civil unions legal, and it was one of the first things he did in office.
The law, known as Act 1, went into effect on Jan. 1 of this year. Considering the big headlines and national hype that went along with the signing, it was somewhat surprising to find that legions of same-sex couples haven’t exactly been rushing to fill out civil union applications.
According to Janice Okuba, the public information officer for the state Department of Health, as of May 31, Hawaii has seen just 347 civil unions registered. In the same five month period, Okuba said Hawaii has registered 8,722 “traditional marriages.”
“Typically we have 20,000 marriages a year,” Okuba said. “The majority of them aren’t residents.”
When asked for a resident/tourist breakdown on the civil union figure, Okuba said the department is still working on that because they’re “short on staff.” Neither Okuba or anyone else contacted for this story could explain why so few couples have registered for civil unions, though it’s possible they–like most couples–are merely waiting for June.
Travel agencies advertising civil union packages for couples wanting to tie the knot in Hawaii seem to be having mixed experiences. Jana Rothenberg of Hawaiianstyleweddings.com said in the first six months of this year same-sex couples booking ceremonies account for 38 percent of her total business but brought in about 44 percent of her income.
Rothenberg said civil unions made up about a third of her business on Maui, half of her bookings on Oahu, 44 percent of ceremonies on Kauai and just a quarter of bookings on Hawaii Island. She’s also noticed that civil union ceremonies can be somewhat different from traditional marriages.
“The couples are so joyful,” she said. “They’re over-the-top, expressive and so happy. Not tenuous at all. It almost brings me to my knees, thinking of how appreciative these couples are. It’s sweet.”
But not every travel agency advertising civil union packages is raking in money. “We thought there was going to be a big flood,” said Tim Clark of Hawaiian Island Weddings, Inc. (Hawaiicivilunions.net). “I’m not going to say it’s been disappointing, but they’ve been few and far between.”
But Clark did share an interesting story of a couple who got married twice. Clark said his company recently booked a ceremony for two gentlemen from Texas. The men told Clark that they were already legally married in the State of California, having secured a marriage certificate during that brief period of time between the June 16, 2008 legalization of same-sex marriage and the Nov. 5, 2008 passage of Proposition 8, which overturned the law (Prop 8 itself is in the process of getting struck down as unconstitutional).
“Are you doing a civil union in every state where it’s possible?” Clark says he asked the couple.
No, they said. They were thinking of retiring someday to Hawaii, and wanted to make sure their union was legally binding. After all, Clark said, “the odds of a civil union being recognized in Texas are slim.”
Applying for a civil union in Hawaii is as easy as getting a traditional marriage certificate (they also cost the same: $60 plus $5 application processing fee). Go to https://civilunion. ehawaii.gov for more information.
Photo by Sean M. Hower