It’ll provide cold comfort at best to the thousands of couples still mourning Gov. Linda Lingle’s eleventh-hour veto of civil union bill HB444, but it’s a fact nonetheless: eventually, gay people will be able to get married. In Hawaii. In California. In Oklahoma. Everywhere. The suppression of civil rights is always a temporary condition; the climb may be precipitous, the battle protracted, but eventually freedom will out.
That’s the long view. The more immediate reality is that, once again, gays—easily the most persecuted and marginalized minority group in the state, the nation and probably the world—have been denied, turned back, ignored. This latest battle began in 2009, when HB444 was introduced and passed by the state House of Representatives before the Senate quashed it in committee. At the time, we called the Senators who voted to let the bill die cowards when few other local publications would. We also held out hope that next time the result would be different.
This year, the Senate passed a new version of HB444 and the House took its turn playing coward, shelving the bill. Then, at the last minute, it was brought back for a vote and passed the House by a healthy (though not veto-proof) margin.
And so the stage was set. All that was left was a signature from Gov. Lingle. Victory was at hand, but the deck still seemed stacked against HB444. First, Lingle is a Republican, and while her party has boasted its share of closeted homosexuals, it isn’t known for championing gay rights. Meanwhile, Lingle’s right-hand man, Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona, is a hard-line religious conservative and vocal opponent of same-sex unions. He’s also running for governor, meaning the decisions Lingle makes will stick to him.
And yet, in the interim between HB444′s passage and the July 6 veto deadline, something strange happened: Lingle lost her tongue. Usually more than willing to debate issues in the media—see two of her most egregious missteps, the Superferry boondoggle and the Furlough Friday mess—she suddenly fell silent, issuing little more than cryptic, wait-and-see statements and jetting off on an eleven-day tour of Asia just as the story was reaching critical mass. When she returned, she put HB444 on her veto list but still wouldn’t tip her hand.
Finally, the day arrived. The wait was over. Lingle stepped to the podium. And this is what she said: “After months of listening to Hawaii’s citizens express to me in writing and in person their deeply held beliefs and heartfelt reasons for supporting or opposing the civil unions bill, I have made the decision to veto HB444. I have been open and consistent in my opposition to same-gender marriage and find that HB444 is essentially marriage by another name. However, I want to be clear that my personal opinion is not the basis for my decision against allowing this legislation to become law. Neither is my veto based on my religious beliefs or on the political impact it might have on me or anyone else of either political party in some future election. I am vetoing this bill because I have become convinced that this issue is of such significant societal importance that it deserves to be decided directly by all the people of Hawaii.”
So that’s part one of her reasoning: the people should decide. Sounds good on it’s face; we live in a democracy, after all—what principle is more fundamental than the will of the majority? Answer: the rights of the minority. History has taught us time and again that what the majority supports in the moment is often reprehensible in hindsight. Slavery, internment camps and Jim Crow are merely a few, dramatic examples. The duty of a free society—and its leaders—is to protect the minority from the repressive whims of mob rule, to suppress the prevailing will, when necessary, to safeguard bedrock liberties.
More from Lingle’s veto announcement: “In the end, it wasn’t the persuasiveness of public debates, the soundness of legal arguments or the volume of letters and e-mails that convinced me to reach this decision. It was the depth of emotion felt by those on both sides of the issue that revealed to me how fundamental the institution of marriage is to our community. It is as fundamental to those who support marriage between two people of the same gender as it is to those who support marriage only between one man and one woman.”
There’s part two of the Governor’s reasoning: moral equivalency, the notion that people on both sides have valid, competing claims. We’ve addressed this before but it bears repeating: rights are not a zero-sum game. When one group gains, another doesn’t necessarily lose. The right of gay couples to enjoy the basic privileges associated with legal marriage—filing taxes, receiving benefits, making life and death decisions—has nothing to do with heterosexuals. It has nothing to do with religious people. The threat to “traditional marriage” is an imaginary one, born of ignorance, prejudice and fear. To claim that fear deserves the same consideration as the emancipation of an oppressed minority is more than an insult—it’s an affront to our shared humanity, the antithesis of integrity and fundamental decency.
Finally, here’s Lingle’s closing paragraph: “While some will disagree with my decision to veto this bill, I hope most will agree that the flawed process legislators used does not reflect the dignity this issue deserves.” Even given the audacity of what came before, this is staggering. At the end of a speech announcing her repudiation of civil rights, in which she justified her decision with flimsy reasoning and veiled bigotry, she had gall to suggest HB444 was somehow “undignified.”
Soon, Lingle will be out of office, hopefully replaced by a chief executive with a measure of fortitude and foresight. Like so many other cowardly, inept politicians, her legacy is sealed. Thankfully, the legacy of gay rights in Hawaii—and the rest of the world—is evolving, moving slowly but perceptibly forward. Eventually, gay people will be able to get married. We hope that day is near.
What the three most prominant gubernatorial candidates had to say about Lingle’s decision.
“I commend Governor Lingle for making this difficult and courageous decision. Leadership matters, and the election of our next governor will help determine how the issue of same-sex marriage is handled in the future. As I have always said, this issue will persist as long as lawmakers continue to keep the public from deciding whether marriage should be between a man and a woman. If elected governor, I will propose a constitutional amendment on this issue so the people can define marriage once and for all.”
“Now that the governor has decided the fate of House Bill 444, I firmly support steps to let the people of Hawaii have the final say on an issue that has generated passionate perspectives. I continue to believe that marriage between a man and a woman is sacrosanct. That said, as someone who has fought to overcome prejudice, I would also continue to champion the civil rights of all citizens and seek to end discrimination—in employment, housing, health care and areas where it still exists—irrespective of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or religious preference. If given the opportunity, I know the people of Hawaii will have the wisdom and compassion to make a decision that reflects our values and goals for a fair and open society.”
“Governor Lingle has made her choice and the legislature has said it will not go back into a special session for any veto overrides. HB444 was not a same-sex marriage bill. The state legislature has already defined marriage as between a man and a woman. Civil unions respect our diversity, protect people’s privacy and reinforce our core values of equality and aloha. Now, it will be up to the next governor and legislature to ensure that all people of Hawaii receive equal treatment. Protecting people’s civil rights cannot be compromised. I am committed to that most essential of constitutional imperatives.”