Hawaii Filipinos Test Norms as Gay Marriage Gains in Community

September 16, 2013

By Jennifer Oldham

(Bloomberg) -- From the westernmost town in Kauai,  where his parents emigrated from the Philippines and found work on a sugar plantation, Jose Bulatao Jr. e-mailed Filipino state  legislators urging them to approve same-sex marriage. 

“I’ve written to all of them saying it’s time,” said Bulatao, 76, a retired speech teacher. “I hear talk about if you approve same-sex marriage, it will destroy what family is all about, which I don’t agree with.” 

Bulatao, known as “Mr. B” in Kekaha, a desert town perched near one of the world’s wettest mountains, belongs to the West Kauai United Methodist Church, which supports gay nuptials. 

The debate over same-sex marriage in Hawaii hinges in part on persuading Filipinos like those in the majority in Bulatao’s church that it’s an idea worthy of their support. Filipinos and part-Filipinos represent the state’s second-largest ethnic group and a growing part of the voting population. 

They will play a key role when the legislature convenes in a special session on Oct. 28 to discuss a measure that, if approved, would allow gay couples to get wedding licenses starting Nov. 18. 

Hawaii, New Jersey and Illinois are the new battlegrounds for gay-rights advocates emboldened by a landmark Supreme Court ruling in June that struck down a U.S. law that denied federal marriage benefits to same-sex married couples. Congress passed that statute, known as the Defense of Marriage Act, in reaction to a historic 1993 decision by the Hawaii Supreme Court that found that excluding same-sex couples from marriage was discrimination. 

Gay Backlash

The finding launched a worldwide debate about gay nuptials. It also led to a backlash in which Hawaii and 34 other states banned same-sex marriage, while 13 and the District of Columbia allow it. 

“I was relieved,” Genora Dancel, 53, an electronics technician who is part Filipino and was a plaintiff in the Hawaii case, said of the U.S. Supreme Court’s DOMA ruling. “I’m hoping it’s going to come full circle here now.” 

Twenty years after the Hawaii high court made history, Governor Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat, said it’s time for the most diverse state in America to allow gays to wed. 

“With my bill, we’ve taken into account the experience of other states and the legal conclusions that have been reached,” said Abercrombie, 75, who is up for re-election in 2014. “Marriage has economic and social and psychological consequences and equity is something I believe is a constitutional principle.” 

Abercrombie Bill 

Abercrombie caucused with House members recently to discuss a bill he introduced last month, “The Hawaii Marriage Equality Act of 2013.” Democrats dominate Hawaii’s legislature, 24-1 in the Senate and 44-7 in the House. 

A group of Democrats, including several in the Filipino caucus, proposed a measure earlier this year to keep marriages as they are, restricted to a man and a woman. The bill, as well as gay-marriage legislation, wasn’t brought up for a vote before lawmakers adjourned May 7. 

Religious leaders question the state’s interest in legislating marriage, suggesting that lawmakers instead put the issue to voters by placing a same-sex marriage initiative on the ballot. 

“A lawsuit could be filed to say they don’t have the constitutional authority,” said James Hochberg, an attorney and president of Honolulu-based Hawaii Family Advocates. “This is a huge political liability for everyone in the Hawaiian legislature.” 

Church Ceremonies 

Churches are concerned that they would be required to let same-sex couples use their facilities for marriage ceremonies, Hochberg said. The proposed bill would allow religious institutions to opt out in certain circumstances. 

Differing religious beliefs between generations of tight- knit Roman Catholic Filipino families are indicative of why the islands continue to debate same-sex marriage. 

“It’s really generational,” said Amy Agbayani, director of the office of Student Equity, Excellence & Diversity at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Near her office on campus, orange and black parking signs blink “Move with Aloha.” 

“I was the only Filipino on the brochure when we debated the constitutional amendment in 1998,” she said, adding the leaflet had pictures of prominent leaders from various ethnic groups under the logo “Protect our Constitution.” “It was really hard to get any other Filipino leaders to come out in support.” 

Religious Exemption 

Since then, several Filipino lawmakers in this island chain where rainbows adorn license plates changed their minds about same-sex marriage as they watched other states adopt such laws.  They emphasize that a religious exemption is essential. 

“As someone born and raised as a Catholic, that influenced my vote,” said State Senator Will Espero, a Democrat who voted against a civil-unions bill when it was first introduced in 2010. He voted for a similar measure Abercrombie signed into law in 2011. 

“I feel same-sex marriage is about equality and fairness for all,” he said. “Most Filipinos are Roman Catholics and I’m hoping, with the bishop’s letter, more will start to think about it.” 

In an Aug. 22 letter, Bishop of Honolulu Larry Silva urged Catholics to contact their legislators. 

“To discriminate between heterosexual and same-sex couples regarding marriage is not, despite the hype on the streets, unjust discrimination,” wrote Silva. 

Spousal Benefits 

“If same-sex couples are given the legal right to marry under the pretense that discrimination that excludes them from marriage is unjust, why would people who prefer several spouses at the same time not be afforded the same right?” Silva said. “Why would there be discrimination against those who decide to marry their mother or father, brother or sister, so that they can gain spousal benefits for them?” 

Gay Filipino Catholics decried the letter and joined Espero in pointing out recent comments by Pope Francis that he wouldn’t judge someone who is gay if they seek God. 

“We have a bishop saying there’s just discrimination,” said Gene Corpuz, 55, who sits on the board of Dignity Honolulu, an organization for gay Catholics. “Hawaii was the first state to legalize abortion, the first state to pass the equal-rights amendment and we were on the forefront of this issue before it was co-opted by the religious right.” 

Blazing Saddles 

Advocates with Hawaii United for Marriage recently asked Corpuz and members of the gay and lesbian Blazing Saddles Country Western Dance Club to fill out postcards to legislators as they practiced the “Half Past Nothing” line dance in Honolulu.

Since the Supreme Court’s ruling in June, the coalition has amassed the support of faith groups, businesses, the islands’ Congressional delegation and unions, including Unite Here Local 5, whose membership is 60 percent Filipino. 

“Filipinos improved their lot in Hawaii by being part of the multiethnic union movement,” said Agbayani, who is active with Local 5. “That union movement hasn’t always been supportive of gay rights.” 

Religious organizations are also working to build momentum. Hawaii Family Advocates enlisted CitizenLink, a Colorado Springs, Colorado-based affiliate of Focus on the Family, to poll about 49,000 people by telephone. Asked whether they believed marriage should be between a man and a woman, 63 percent of about 21,000 respondents said yes, 23 percent said no and the rest were undecided, Hochberg said. 

Majority Support 

Hawaii United for Marriage released a poll by Honolulu- based QMark Research on Aug. 8 that showed 54 percent of 442 people favored allowing gays to marry, 31 percent were opposed. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.7 percent. 

Ideology aside, not enough attention is paid to the economics of same-sex marriage, said Abercrombie. He cited a July study by Sumner LaCroix, of the University of Hawaii, that showed the state may lose as much as $217 million in visitor spending through 2016 if it doesn’t allow gay nuptials.

More tourism would boost the fortunes of Filipinos who “are the backbone of the service industry, which is the No. 1 industry in Hawaii,” said the University of Hawaii’s Agbayani. 

Some Hawaiians who work with tourists oppose same-sex marriage.

“Although I truly respect gays and lesbians in the community, same-sex marriage just doesn’t conform to family values,” said Evelyn D. Basnillo, a real estate broker in Kapaa, Kauai, who was born in the Philippines. “Therefore, I am strongly against this bill.” 

Retirees that flee the mainland winters, who own homes in Kekaha, where roosters compete with cars for space on the road, are among parishioners at Bulatao’s methodist congregation, said the Reverend Tyler Kaufmann. 

“We want to change bureaucratic laws against marriage equality,” said Kaufmann, 26, who is from Elkhorn, Nebraska and has a green turtle tattooed on his left bicep. “I want us to be in the pono -- I want us to be in the right.” 

To contact the reporter on this story: Jennifer Oldham in Kekaha, Hawaii at 303-318-9512 or joldham1@bloomberg.net 

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at 212-617-3762 or smerelman@bloomberg.net