Awaiting Equal Rights In Hawaii

Renea Stewart and Lisa Veneri | Photo from Renea Stewart

Renea Stewart and Lisa Veneri | Photo from Renea Stewart

Take a look at the picture. Renea Stewart is a photographer. Lisa Veneri owns Intraprise TechKnowledgies. Over the course of two decades, they’ve built a solid life – sharing good times and bad, laughing together and crying together. They’ve done everything they possibly could as a couple and only one thing has eluded them: marriage.

But then the Supreme Court of the United States did something amazing and good – and everything has changed. SCOTUS last week struck down as unconstitutional a major barrier to marriage equality, the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA. And it kicked back California’s Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage in that state.

Suddenly, the winds of change have blown up into a full-force hurricane.

Veneri: “I cried. I cried, I was so overjoyed. I couldn’t … I was just so excited.”

Stewart: “We’ve been fighting this fight for years and years, and so many people have come to join in. Obviously, the majority of Americans believe that everyone should be treated with equal rights, and we’re very ecstatic to know that. I was very emotional, but then the reality set in.”

The reality is that although 13 states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriages, 38 states do not, including Hawaii.

Veneri and Stewart want to get married, but they do not want to go to California or New York or D.C. They want to be recognized as full equals here at home. And now they have reason to believe it will happen sooner rather than in some mythical time in the far-off future.

When they made their personal commitment to each other 19 years ago, it was important for them to treat the occasion as something real.

Stewart: “Like so many other couples, whether they be Jewish or Christian or whatever, for our own spiritual reasons – not for religious reasons – we wanted to be united as one.

“A big reason we wanted to be in front of people, our friends and family and what we believe to be the higher power, was because we were tired of everyone introducing us as, ‘Oh, this is Renea’s friend, or this is Lisa’s friend.’ We just wanted to have the same recognition even if it was just among our friends and family.

“We do have traditional wedding rings and bands that we wear. I’m very old-fashioned, actually.”

Stewart hit upon something so real and so basically human. We crave tradition. We want to honor our relationships.

And we, as Americans, have another tradition: equality. Doesn’t that mean we should want every citizen to share equally in the benefits of government-sanctioned marriage?

Veneri: “It’s definitely changed through the years for the better, and more and more people are seeing that we deserve the same rights. Love is love.”

They will continue to be outspoken advocates for marriage equality in Hawaii, even though being an out lesbian couple hasn’t been easy. Veneri, a local girl who grew up Catholic, lived for a while in California where she says it was easier to be out. When she came back home to a more conservative Hawaii with Stewart, she found it difficult to be completely open. Her sister set her, well, straight.

Veneri: “She told me, you’re out of the closet. Don’t step back in. You need to be who you are, and be an example, and help be part of changing what people think about gay people.”

Stewart: “There are people out there who are going to discriminate, there are people out there who do have bigotry and even hate toward us. We’ve experienced that here and in California.”

Veneri: “I think that we just feel we need to live our lives by example and continue to contribute to changing the way people think about gay couples. If we want this so badly, then we just feel it’s important for us to be out there and do that.”

Stewart cited the example of interracial marriage, banned in the U.S. for so many years, until finally the Supreme Court stepped in.

Stewart: “Americans should celebrate today that we are learning from history and growing and doing the right thing and not perpetuating the intolerance.”

Lisa: “We had a ceremony in 1999, and we’re looking forward to having another in this state when our marriage, our love, can be looked at the same as any other marriage and we can be protected under the law.”

It is going to happen. I just hope we’re not the 50th state to make it so.