Looking Back With Ninia Baehr On The Early Struggle For Same-Sex Marriage

Looking Back: The Hawaii Couple Who Started It All

I was there the day the battle for same-sex marriages began in Hawaii. It was December 17, 1990.

A KITV cameraman and I followed three homosexual couples as they marched ceremoniously down Beretania Street to the State Health Department to file for marriage licenses. They had called the TV station to let us know about their plan. The cameraman was walking dangerously backwards to get a good angle on the couples’ faces. I was worried he might fall down.

The story perplexed me. I had nothing against homosexual couples, but I was thinking this is crazy. Why do they want to get married?

One of the lesbian applicants was Ninia Baehr, the daughter of Clara Jane “C.J.” Baehr, who was one of my favorite teachers at Punahou School. Ninia was named after a friend of mine. When we got to the Health Department, I asked Ninia, “Does C.J. know about this?” –– thinking her mother would be mad.

Ninia said, “Yes, of course, C.J. knows. She introduced me to Genora." Genora Dancel was a 30 year-old television engineer who worked with Ninia’s mother at Hawaii Public Television. Ninia was wearing a ruby and diamond engagement ring Genora had given her three months after they became a couple.

“I had fallen in love. Genora had proposed but there was no legal place for us to marry,” she said. Genora said there were also practical issues. When Ninia had been sick and gone to the hospital, they found she could not be covered by Genora’s health insurance. Ninia was uninsured.

The other gay couples applying for marriage licenses that day were Tammy Rodrigues and Antoinette Pregil, and Pat Lagon and Joseph Melillo.

Ninia was sitting on her back porch in Amsterdam, Montana, when I called her this week to talk about her role in Baehr v. Lewin, the landmark lawsuit bearing her name –– Hawaii’s legal case that kicked off the first court arguments in the country about allowing gays to marry. And also prompted Congress to approve the Defense of Marriage law to prohibit gays from applying for federal benefits and allow states to deny recognition to legally married gays — a law reversed earlier this year.

When the quest for marriage equality began, Ninia was 30 years old. Now she is 53. She has watched as thousands of people like me have slowly come to understand the reasonableness of same-gender marriages.

Ninia told me I wasn’t the only one who was perplexed when they unsuccessfully applied for Hawaii marriage licenses. She said at the time many gays questioned the need to push for marriage.

When the Health Department told Ninia and Genora and the other couples they would have to wait until the health director received legal advice about their marriage applications, they went to American Civil Liberties Union. Ninia said the Hawaii ACLU was sympathetic but refused to represent them. Lambda Legal Defense Fund, a gay legal rights organization, also turned them down. “No national group wanted to take the case, “ said Baehr. “They didn’t think we would win. They were afraid of the backlash.”

Honolulu attorney Daniel R. Foley finally accepted them as clients. He filed a lawsuit in Circuit Court May 1, 1991. The suit contended that denying marriage to same sex couples was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Hawaii Constitution.

In October 1991, the trial court dismissed the suit. The plaintiffs appealed to the Hawaii Supreme Court. In May 1993, the high court ruled there was a presumed violation of the couples’ equal protection rights unless the state could show a “compelling state interest” in denying the marriages. On December 3, 1996, Circuit Judge Kevin S.C. Chang ruled the state’s lawyers failed to established a compelling reason to block same gender marriages.

“We thought we had won,” said Ninia. But while state’s lawyers were appealing the decision, the Legislature crafted a constitutional amendment to limit marriage to a man and a woman. Hawaii voters adopted the amendment November 3, 1998. That reversed the plaintiffs’ earlier victory.

By the time the amendment was adopted, Ninia and Genora were separated. They had been together for seven years but Ninia said the lack of privacy resulting from the case was tearing them apart. They moved to Maryland to get out of the limelight, but when same-gender marriage became a national issue, public attention followed them.

“We were a new couple when we became the poster children for same-sex marriage. It was stressful. We had no institutions to support us. We were paying for our own legal bills check by check,” said Ninia.

Genora met another woman, Kathryn Dennis, an editor with whom she has lived for more than 15 years. In 2006, Genora and Kathryn moved back to Honolulu where Genora works as the City’s wastewater systems lead electronic technologist.

Genora says she and Kathryn expect to marry soon after lawmakers approve the bill to allow gay marriages. “I was always the one who said it was going to happen in my lifetime. I just want to get married and stay married,” she said.

Ninia has lived with another partner for more than a decade, Lori Hiris, an artist and filmmaker She hopes to marry Lori but says they are waiting because Montana still does not recognize same-gender marriages. Ninia is working as the deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana while she pursues a Ph.D. in American Studies at Montana State University in Bozeman.

She is disappointed it has taken Hawaii so long to legalize gay marriages when the Hawaii courts were the first in the country to issue rulings to open the way for marriage equality. “It is so sad. Hawaii had to give up its chance to be a leader, to be the first to make it law. Now Hawaii will be the 15th state to OK gay marriages. Better late than never.”

She said although she and Genora parted company years ago, they are still close. “Genora and I will always be very connected through this. We always call each other whenever something important happens.”

“We were ordinary people involved in something extraordinary. I am very proud of what we did.”

Denby Fawcett is a veteran newspaper and television journalist. She co-authored "War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam" (Random House, 2002)

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