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  • Sasha Issenberg

December 17, 1990: Hawaii same-sex couples demand marriage licenses

Updated: Dec 17, 2021

ON THIS DAY IN 1990...

Honolulu gay-rights activist Bill Woods led three same-sex couples to demand marriage licenses from the Hawaii Department of Public Health, a public-relations stunt that ended up triggering the country’s first successful lawsuit for equal-marriage rights.

Woods had issued a press release announcing his plans the night before, and the local media obliged, with cameras and notebooks trailing him as he chaperoned the six citizens — four women and two men — into the office across the street from the state capitol. They filled out one-page application forms for a marriage license and handed them to a clerk, who said that given the unusual pairings she could not immediately accept them. Woods and the couples, along with some media, were invited into a conference room where they met with the most senior state officer on-site at the time. “We will hold your applications until such time as the attorney general gives us a ruling about these specific applications,” he told them.

Ten days later, the attorney general’s opinion came back, formally denying the request for licenses, on the basis that state law was understood to authorize marriages only among opposite-sex couples. With the Hawaii ACLU unwilling to represent them, the couples sought out a local civil-rights attorney to challenge the discrimination. The next May, Dan Foley filed the lawsuit that would become known as Baehr v. Lewin. (The lead plaintiff, Ninia Baehr, hoped to marry her girlfriend, Genora Dancel; the defendant, John Lewin, was the state public-health director.) Without that case, it is nearly impossible to imagine same-sex marriage rights being the law of the land nationwide three decades later.


The Engagement:
America's Quarter-Century
Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage

​By Sasha Issenberg

The riveting story of the battles over gay marriage
in the United States – the most important
civil-rights breakthrough of the new millennium.
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