Hawaii gay marriage pioneers remember battle's start in 1990

Hawaii gay marriage pioneers remember battle's start in 1990
Published: Nov. 1, 2013 at 9:42 PM HST|Updated: Nov. 1, 2013 at 10:01 PM HST
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Ninia Baehr
Ninia Baehr
Ninia Baehr and Genora Dancel
Ninia Baehr and Genora Dancel
Genora Dancel
Genora Dancel

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Two women who started the legal battle for same-sex marriage in Hawaii by trying to marry each other here 23 years ago said Friday they feel "wonderful" that state lawmakers are close to legalizing gay marriage.

In December 1990, three same-sex couples walked into the State Health Department in Honolulu and applied for marriage licenses.

Ninia Baehr, then 30 years old, was one of them.

"I was so excited 20-some years ago when I thought that Hawaii really was going to be the first to give same-sex couples really what we deserve, equality," said Baehr, who now lives in Montana.

She had been with her partner Genora Dancel, 30, for six months and "we were deeply in love," Baehr said.  When they applied to get married in 1990, Baehr had recently moved back home to Hawaii from New York City, where she had worked at a rape crisis center.  She was taking chemistry classes and planned to go to medical school.

Baehr's mother, who worked at Hawaii Public Television at the time, had introduced her daughter to Dancel, who was a broadcast engineer at the station.

When the state Health Department rejected their marriage application, it made national headlines.

"We were in the news a lot and I think that that brought us closer and we were happy to do it.  But it was a lot of stress on a new couple," Baehr said.

"We became, sort of poster children for marriage equality."

Dancel said, "It feels like it's been a long, hard fight but it also feels like it was just yesterday that we were just trying to get our marriage licenses."

The two lesbian couples and one gay couple sued the state.  Their lawsuit was dismissed and later appealed to the State Supreme Court, which ruled in 1993 that there was a presumed violation of their rights in denying them marriage.

"People will disagree strongly, but it's a landmark decision, because no other court has gone as far as our court in recognizing equal treatment in this area," said their then-attorney Dan Foley in 1993.  Foley is now a judge on the Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals.

Baehr said the couples had no national organization helping them twenty years ago.

"There was not a non-profit that was representing us and giving us talking points and paying our legal bills," Baehr said.  "We were doing fundraisers and my mom was helping us cook the food for the fundraisers."

As Baehr, who's now 53, watched the thousands of people testifying this week on same-sex marriage at the State Capitol, she reflected on the long battle she and others had been through.

"I wish that Hawaii had been ready 23 years ago.  It wasn't.  But I know that it is now. And I know that we're going to win," Baehr said. "It's been a long time in my life.  But I think that in the history of civil rights movements, two decades is not that long."

Baehr and Dancel moved to Baltimore in 1993. They broke up in 1997 and they both have new partners with whom they've lived for more than a decade.

But the two are still in touch and they see each other at least once a year when Baehr comes home to Hawaii.

"We also call each other when important things happen in our lives and we will always be connected, especially strongly, through this case, because of what we have experienced together," Baehr said.

Dancel, who is also now 53 years old, worked as a broadcast television engineer in Washington, D.C. and at NBC in New York City before moving back to Hawaii in 2006 to care for her mother who was stricken with leukemia.  She and her partner now live in a home in Royal Kunia.  Dancel is a lead electronic technician for the city's Wastewater Division and works at Honouliuli Treatment Plant in Ewa.

Baehr lives in the small town of Amsterdam, Montana, about 20 miles away from Bozeman.

She is the deputy director of the ACLU of Montana, where she's been working to get domestic partnership laws passed.

"Montana is not a leader in equality for LGBT people.  People think that equality has been won in some places, maybe particularly on the coasts and soon in Hawaii.  That is not the case in middle America," Baehr said.

"That is not the case in Montana.  Here, people can still be fired from their jobs for being gay.  There is no relationship recognition. So this is an ongoing struggle and I'm going to stick with it," Baehr added.

As she watched the testimony from the State Capitol and read news coverage of this week's special session, Dancel said "It's a walk down memory lane."

"I can't wait until it's all over. I'm saddened that Hawaii gave up the opportunity to be the first," Dancel said. "I just want to get this behind me and get married in my home state."

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