Legislators in Hawaii are debating the pros and cons of a civil union proposal. Their concerns are often voiced as if passage of a bill to legalize such would have profound effects on the state and humankind in general. Should civil unions be legalized, the significance would be there in precedence for the modern Western world, but that would be all. We would all wake up the next day to the same sun, and, for most of us, our same jobs and same concerns about our daily needs.

In traditional Hawaii, prior to the arrival of the missionaries, the Hawaiian people had no institution of marriage whatsoever; neither monogamy nor polygamy. And they did fine enough, indeed. Perhaps better. While betrothals occurred, occasionally arranged by parents of chiefs or by other prominent persons, such formalized relationships were uncommon. Specific words for husband and wife did not even exist; he was simply called kane (man) and she wahine (woman). There was no marriage of any sort as people from the West understand the term.

Individuals stayed together or not by choice rather than by commitment or obligation. One member of a pair could be associated with only a single partner while the other could have many. And there was no value attached to either relationships or which type was better. While public announcements of intentions to stay together among alii were noteworthy and often elaborate affairs, they were uncommon. Among both the alii and the common people, any and all sorts of sexual and social arrangements were accepted and enjoyed. These could be heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual. There was no stigma and often the multiple relationships involved siblings. And certainly, among both the alii and commoners, same-sex relationships were not uncommon or seen as remarkable. Such relationships greatly disturbed the early Christian missionaries and they did their best to impose their beliefs on the Hawaiians. However, the traditional mode of living had served the Hawaiians well and provided perhaps one of the best ways of raising children seen in any society. All adults cared for all children and if couples parted they still remained in touch with their children and helped care for them. And they most often also kept in contact with their old partners.

The Christian missionaries made a concerted effort to destroy the old ways and institute their own beliefs. It is debatable if the present situation is better for native Hawaiians or even the Westerners whose laws were imposed.

Monogamy wasn't the norm

Actually, this way of life was not unique to the Hawaiians. Sexual exclusiveness or aversion to same-sex matings was not usual in Polynesian society in general. Researchers reported monogamy in only 30 of 127 Pacific island cultures studied, the rest of the cultures being polygamous. Worldwide, multiple mate-ships were permitted in 84 percent of the 185 societies studied by the anthropologist C.S. Ford and the psychologist Frank Beach. Many of those multiple partnerships could be with others of the same sex. Marriage was not an exclusive or sacred institution. These societies, nevertheless, were religious and moral in their own ways; they provided a stable environment in which to live, prosper and raise children. For many who first saw these customs and practices in Polynesia, the description was indeed one of paradise on Earth.

The Oceanic practice of hanai also speaks to the concept of family. Here children or adults voluntarily transfer or are given and taken in love, from one family to another. And friends and neighbors join in the celebration. No question arises as to whether the individual is male or female; only that love and care are involved. No social order is disturbed, indeed tranquility is perpetuated thereby.

Marital customs are extremely variable and those with different religions or traditions can coexist comfortably with others of different customs. Muslims in many countries can have four wives and in China, India and elsewhere there can be unions of two or more men and one woman (polyandry) or two or more women and one man (polygamy). And certainly, in many non-Western countries same-sex unions are taken for granted. The modern Western tradition of one man and one woman does not provide the model for the world. And it wasn't the Biblical model for the Old Testament.

Patriarchs of old were known for their polygamous lives. Solomon is an arch example, and the obligation of the levirate made it incumbent on brothers to incorporate sisters-in-law into their household if a brother died and thus protect her. Indeed a brother was obligated to "raise up seed" in another brother's widow with the child to be legally recognized as the dead brother's. This was a way of insuring a widow's security.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons, widely practiced polygamy until the late 1800s and only abandoned multiple marriages when Utah applied for statehood, which required that there not be sanctioned polygamy. The church rulings changed, not following a message from God, but from a practical and political acceptance of the demand for monogamy.

We also can return to the Hawaiian creation story for other religious examples that Hawaii state legislators might want to consider. According to Hawaiian genealogy, as told in the Hawaiian Genesis chant the "Kumulipo," the original couple (comparable to the Bible's Adam and Eve) was Wakea, the Sky-father, and Papa, the Earth-mother. Each had multiple partners and from their matings civilization arose. A similar story is found throughout Polynesia and in this vein is not too different from many of the beliefs of ancient Greece, Rome and the Near and Far East.

Separation of church and state

Regardless of these biblical or other religious precepts, the concept of separation between church and state leaves legislators with an obligation to not favor any one religion, or any religious concept over another.

Believers and nonbelievers of any religion or no religion generally hold one thing in common. They accept that individuals should be blameless for characteristics over which they have no control. Thus the color of one's skin or the height of one's frame would not be matters for sin or blame. Nor would persons be held responsible for behaviors stemming from Alzheimer's or other situations. So too is one's sexual orientation immutable to a large degree.

The evidence is now fairly clear, supported by a great deal of research, that one's sexual orientation as homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual is biologically predisposed. Essentially all people, heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual, are born with a predisposition to be what they are. The majority of individuals who identify themselves as homosexuals were brought up to be "straight" and themselves often fought against their feelings.

In America, only a minority have accepted their same-sex attractions easily. The majority have come to their adult situation after many years of heartfelt anguish and soul searching. Many have tried to change and found maintaining the change impossible. Why would boys or girls, men or women, voluntarily subject themselves to arbitrary scorn and ridicule? Who would choose to be despised? Unfortunately, we don't know all the factors that lead to one's heterosexual or homosexual leanings.

Genetics plays role in behavior

Certainly social situations can mediate any feelings and displays of affection, love and longing. For instance, open display of homosexual eroticism in Iran will result in the death penalty, and many religious zealots in this country would have it the same way here. And such laws do, no doubt, reduce homosexual activities. But they go against natural findings and recent understandings of how sexual preferences develop.

While people are free to act as they will, their urges to act in relation to males or females or both are not something over which they have strong control. Such urges are to a great degree inborn. Current research contradicts older reports showing homosexuality to be the result of some family constellation. These newer studies not only show genetic links to homosexuality and heterosexuality but structural differences in brains that reflect these differences.

Surveys conducted since the 1970s in Japan, China, the Philippines, Thailand, Palau, Hawaii and throughout the United States in general, as well as elsewhere in the world, indicate that some 5-6 percent of males regularly engage in and prefer homosexual relationships and some 2-3 percent of females do so similarly.

Preference for these activities are felt to be compulsive in character, not subject to easy change or modification.

Indeed, in cross-cultural studies it has been shown that the percentage of homosexually acting individuals is not higher in countries with less prejudice against homosexuals than in cultures with more prejudice. Thus a permissive culture does not have a greater likelihood of "producing" more homosexuals.

Changing preferences is rare

Have any individuals inclined to homosexuality changed voluntarily to heterosexuality or been changed by therapy or religious conviction? Certainly. But this begs several issues.

First, there are those who have changed in practice while maintaining homosexual fantasies; they behave as heterosexuals, but fantasize they are involved in homosexual activities.

Second, not all individuals can be painted with the same brush. Most people use the terms heterosexual or homosexual to describe people as if we are all sheep or goats. To be sure, most us exclusively prefer either same-sex or opposite-sex genital play. But it is also true that many people are both, on a sliding scale. Thus, it is better to use the terms homosexual and heterosexual as adjectives rather than nouns.

For example, a person might have heterosexual encounters all week long and a homosexual one while away on a trip. Another might regularly engage in homosexual escapades but take on a heterosexual adventure when the opportunity arises. With this in mind it is easy to see that yes, an individual who only seldom has homosexual interests can change his or her behavior. But for one whose compulsions and history are only of exclusive homosexual activities, the likelihood of permanent change is nil. To force such a change is cruel.

Gays seek stability of marriage

In addition to the other arguments that can be made for legitimizing same-sex unions is the argument that it will enhance the value of the family and the institution of marriage. Here we have an additional population, those of same-sex couples, that otherwise would not be in a family. By marrying they are in essence saying, "We are joining your ranks," "We believe in the goals and sanctity of a committed relationship," "We want the same privileges, rights and status of marriages held by opposite-sex individuals," "We prefer the institution of marriage to that of domestic partners."

Expressions of love and affection between consenting adults are usually part of what is considered an ideal. In societies that separate church and state, such as that of the United States, the state can legitimize the union of individuals of the same sex and let each religion do as it will with the situation.

It is probably also wise to recall that not too many years ago, within our own lifetimes, many states had laws prohibiting marriages between individuals of different races and there were even laws that stipulated people's color. For instance, Chinese were considered "colored" while Japanese were considered "white." We now understand and accept that such laws were prejudicial, discriminatory and without merit. They would not be tolerated today.

Prohibition won't stand up

I foresee the same for laws prohibiting civil unions. They will be seen throughout the United States to be prejudicial, discriminatory and without merit. As with the now gone anti-miscegenation laws, it will be seen that the state has no compelling social interest in perpetuating this discrimination.

Hawaii has often been in the forefront of socially responsible practices, thinking and legislation. Part of this is probably due to the basic tolerance found in the original Hawaiian population; the spirit of aloha, of which we are all so rightly proud. Some is also due to the mixture of immigrants who settled our state.

From a multiplicity of social ideas, religions and belief systems has emerged an openness to and tolerance of the beliefs of others and willingness to address and accept differences. There also is, I believe, a strong, hard-learned understanding of what it means to be an outsider, an underdog, a minority or a stranger. These make the citizens of Hawaii aware that being different does not equate to being strong; being among the majority does not equate to being right. Most of Hawaii's citizens also realize that if it were up to a majority vote, many of them would still be social underdogs.

Hawaii was the first state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Hawaii, in 1970, was the first state to legalize a woman's right to choose a legal abortion. Hawaii was among the first states to lead the United States in labor and other social legislation and we rightly pride ourselves on our general tolerance. All of these can be said to have brought honor to the state and greater freedom and happiness to its citizens. Legalizing civil unions would be in keeping with these precedent-setting articles of legislation, and our legislators will again be seen as men and women in the forefront of social justice.

Back to top