(1960 - living) U.S.A.
(1960 - living) U.S.A.
Ninia Baehr and Genora Dancel were born in Honolulu in the same year, four days and five miles apart, but they did not meet and fall in love until thirty years later. Both of them, individually, felt like they were the only lesbians on the island.
Genora Dancel, the daughter of a Filipino father and a native Hawaiian mother, had known since she was a young girl that she was a lesbian. After coming to terms with her sexuality, before meeting Ninia, Genora had dated women on and off but had not met a soul mate with whom she wanted to spend the rest of her life. She never went to gay bars or support groups. Genora says her mother caught her kissing a girlfriend in the early '80s, and was upset by it, but they had never really discussed her lesbianism.
Ninia Baehr is the daughter of two schoolteachers. When young, her parents moved constantly, seeking new experiences and adventures, before she reached the age of fifteen, Ninia had lived in hawaii, Tennessee, American Samoa, and Norway. After graduating from Montana State University with a degree in sociology in 1981, Ninia moved to New York, where she pursued a master's degree in women's history at Sarah Pawrence College.
Because of Hawaii's high cost of living, Genora worked two jobs - 80 hours a week - to make ends meet. In fact, she was simultaneously the first female engineer at two television stations, including the one where Ninia Baehr's mother worked. While on the job, Genora strove to keep her private life private and made sure that no one could confirm that she was gay. And it seemed wise to her to avoid meeting her co-worker's out lesbian daughter, even if she was attractive. Whenever Ninia would pay a visit to her mother's office, Genora would conveniently disappear.
Ninia tells the story by recounting the events of June 20, 1990:
"Not knowing all of this, I came to the office and asked the receptionist if I could see Genora Dancel. And the receptionist turned on the intercom to the whole building and said, 'Genora Dancel, C.J. Baehr's daughter is in the lobby, and she wants to see you.' Genora came out and she was so nervous, she kept backing away from me until she backed right into the wall. I was smitten, but I thought it was not mutual."
Until Genora telephoned her that evening and apologized for that wall business. The next thing the women knew, they were in love. Their first date was the following weekend. Ninia remembers that "we didn't kiss, but it lasted nine hours."
Within a few months, the couple realized that their relationship was special and seemed destined to last a long time. Ninia called the local gay and lesbian community center for advice on how they, as a same-sex couple, could ensure their emotional and financial well-being. At the same time, Genora was away on an extended business trip. Finding a shop popular with gay and lesbian customers, she went inside and saw a ruby ring with diamonds that she thought would be perfect for Ninia. Guessing at her lover's ring size, Genora purchased the ring.
Ninia called the gay community center to find out if there was domestic partnership information available that would be of use to her and Genora. Soon after this initial phone call, Genora received a call at the office. The other couples - Tammy Rodrigues and Antoinette Pregil and Pat Lagon and Joseph Melillo - were going to apply for their marriage licenses on December 17, 1990, the very next day. After they were inevitably turned down, a lawsuit would be filed. And if Ninia and Genora wanted to be part of the fight, they had to decide in 30 minutes.
The next day, Ninia and Genora met the other couples for the first time. The loosely-organized group, led by a representative of the gay community center, applied for their marriage licenses and were turned down. From there, they went to the offices of the American Civil Liberties Union and asked for legal representation. They were turned down. Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund also turned down the case, as did almost every other attorney they asked.
Ninia and Genora, with the other couples, continued their search for an attorney until they found Daniel R. Foley. Foley took the case. And for the next two years, as he built the case, the three plaintiff couples, Ninia and Genora included, worked, lived their lives, and became activists for the cause.
On May 5, 1993, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that the state discriminated against Baehr, Dancel, Rodrigues, Pregil, Lagon and Melillo on the basis of their gender. Since Hawaii has an Equal Rights Amendment in its state constitution, gender discrimination is against the law. The court said that before the state could continue to deny legal marriage to gays and lesbians, it would have to prove a compelling interest, or show that something terrible would happen if same gender marriage was allowed. And that compelling interest would have to stand up to the strictest scrutiny.
On December 4, 1993, Judge Chang approved a stay to keep gays and lesbians from marrying until the Hawaii Supreme Court, to which the ruling was appealed, could hand down a final decision in the case.
The pair decided to take leaves of absence from their jobs and moved to Baltimore, where Genora began pre-med studies at Johns Hopkins University and Ninia found a job writing grants for a non-profit housing agency. After a year, money woes forced Genora to put her studies on hold. She found work as a television engineer at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.
The lawsuit led to the December 3, 1996 ruling by Judge Kevin S.C. Chang, in which he found that the state of Hawaii showed no compelling reasons to prohibit same-gender marriage. The decision made for a historic moment in the ongoing fight for gay and lesbian civil rights in America. For Baehr and Dancel, Judge Chang's ruling was something more, an affirmation of their love and their equality.
Ninia said the couples had no national organization helping them in the '90s. "There was not a non-profit that was representing us and giving us talking points and paying our legal bills," Ninia said. "We were doing fundraisers and my mom was helping us cook the food for the fundraisers."
As Ninia 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," Ninia 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."
Ninia and Genora 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 Ninia 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," Ninia said.
Sources : excerpts from an article by Natalie Davis, published in the Baltimore Alternative - www.hawaiinewsnow.com/